The wheels are falling off the Braves Express

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Actually, I think the wheels fell off about ten days ago.  They’ve been carving up pavement with the rotors since then, but now the rotors are about to go too.  At this rate, this time next week they’ll be up on the back of a flatbed, off to the junkyard, wondering what the hell happened.

And what has happened?  What has caused them to lose 12 of 18 and fritter away a once seemingly insurmountable lead in the wild card race?  It’s hard to find one damning culprit. When you lose a game because your third basemen loses a GROUND BALL IN THE LIGHTS, you know that something greater than mere bad luck.  But let’s ignore the supernatural angles to all of this for a second and try to think in baseball terms.

The starting pitching has obviously taken a hit since Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson went down, but it hasn’t been disastrous. At least in games that Derek Lowe hasn’t started.  The offense has never been a source of strength this year, but it’s not in anything approaching its worst swoon of the season.  Each are mediocre at the moment, and given how much the Braves have relied on pitching this year that would make for some sub-par baseball.  But what’s been going on lately has been worse than merely sub-par.

No, what happened is that the safety net — the thing that has covered for periods of mediocrity throughout the year — has finally given out. I’m talking about the back end of the bullpen, of course. It has simply tuckered out.  Johnny Venters was touched on Sunday. Craig Kimbrel last night.  These guys have pitched a combined 159 games this year and have less than three years combined service time.  They’re gassed. It’s something that anyone who watches the Braves has seen coming since May, when Fredi Gonzalez acted as if those two were invincible. Well, sorry Fredi.

The Braves are a good team with an imbalance of talents.  When the greatest strength of an imbalanced team becomes a liability, it turns them into a bad team.  That’s what’s going on right now. That and a spectacular surge by the Cardinals.  We can call it a choke because that’s what we’ve come to call late collapses like this one, but a choke is an effect, not a cause of this kind of breakdown. Chokes are comprised of identifiable failures, and here we have a fairly identifiable one: the one thing that gives a team the best chance to win close games — it’s bullpen — is not at its best right now.  And given the rest of the team’s flaws, they’re almost always going to play close games.

And of course the poor planning of Theo Epstein certainly isn’t helping.

Red Sox, Astros announce lineups for ALCS Game 4

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Red Sox

RF Mookie Betts
LF Andrew Benintendi
DH J.D. Martinez
SS Xander Bogaerts
3B Rafael Devers
1B Steve Pearce
2B Brock Holt
C Christian Vázquez
CF Jackie Bradley, Jr.

SP Rick Porcello

With Eduardo Núñez banged up, Devers gets another start. Devers has hit well when he’s had an opportunity to play this postseason, registering five hits (all singles) with a pair of walks and a pair of RBI. Pearce gets a start against a right-handed starter. He normally kills lefties but ripped a solo homer off of righty Joe Smith in Game 3. Holt gets the start at second base, looking for his first hit of the ALCS.

Astros

3B Alex Bregman
CF George Springer
DH José Altuve
2B Marwin González
1B Yuli Gurriel
RF Josh Reddick
SS Carlos Correa
C Martín Maldonado
LF Tony Kemp

SP Charlie Morton

Bregman, not Springer, is now hitting leadoff for the Astros. It’s not that Springer has been bad; it’s just that Bregman has been an on-base machine. He has drawn a walk in every postseason game this year, including three in Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS. Morton will be making his first appearance of the 2018 postseason. He was money down the stretch for the Astros last year en route to a championship.