Friday, October 4, 2013
Braves' defense costly in Game 1 loss
By David Schoenfield
ATLANTA -- Evan Gattis slipped on a pair of jeans and buttoned his plaid shirt, turned around and faced the questions.
Gattis is the Braves rookie with the inspiring backstory, the guy who quit baseball in college and was out of the sport for several years, working odd jobs across the country before getting back into the game. He's the kind of player who fans love, an everyman who hits without batting gloves, seemingly a testament to his unconventional path to the big leagues.
The Braves won 96 games and coasted to the National League East title, but in the biggest game of their season, there was Gattis, a catcher by trade with limited experience in the outfield, playing left field and batting cleanup against the best pitcher on the planet.
Clayton Kershaw struck out 12 in seven innings in the Dodgers' Game 1 win.
As fun as is story is, and even with all the late-inning heroics he's provided this year, it's also a sign of the Braves' weaknesses that Gattis is now playing such a vital role on this team. He was involved in two crucial plays in the Braves' 6-1 opening game loss to the Dodgers.
In the second inning, he butchered a soft liner from A.J. Ellis into a run-scoring double, running hard but missing the catch as he dove after the ball. "Just a play I didn’t make," he said. In the bottom of the inning, Gattis reached against Clayton Kershaw on a bloop single but then got caught off first when Yasiel Puig easily ran down a shallow fly in right-center. "I got deked," he said. "I didn’t think he was going to get there. Took a hard step towards second base. Just a mistake."
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has Gattis in the lineup for power, but even the bat has cooled off after a hot start. Gattis hit just .242/.272/.406 in the second half, and that included his six-homer September; his .291 OBP is decidedly a non-cleanup kind of number. In fact, Dan Uggla -- left off the playoff roster -- had a higher OBP on the season than Gattis.
Gonzalez's other gamble of sorts is Uggla’s replacement at second, Elliot Johnson, claimed on waivers from the Royals in late August after hitting .179 with Kansas City. Johnson hit a quiet .261 for the Braves in 32 games, enough to take the job away from the slumping Uggla. But he's in there for his glove not his bat and he booted Carl Crawford's grounder leading off the third -- generously ruled a hit -- setting the stage for a two-run Dodgers rally that made it 4-0.
That was the most discouraging part of this game for the Braves. There's no shame in losing to Kershaw, but the defense let starter Kris Medlen down. Jason Heyward had two good opportunities to throw out a runner at home plate but overthrew the cutoff man both times, allowing baserunners to advance. Medlen's final line looked ugly -- four innings, nine hits, five runs -- but with better defense he keeps his club in the game (although he did make one huge mistake, a changeup left out over the plate that Adrian Gonzalez crushed to center for a two-run homer following Johnson's hit/error.
As for Kershaw, the Braves hadn't faced him this year, and he's tough enough to figure out even if you have seen him before. Justin Upton, who was 3-for-29 in his career against Kershaw from his Diamondbacks days, said, "He's the best I’ve ever seen. He got into a rhythm. He got any fire we had going early on and that was it."
Kershaw appeared to struggle early on with his fastball command but even a not-his-best Kershaw can make any team look helpless, and he battled through seven innings and 124 pitches, striking out 12 of the whiff-prone Braves while walking three and allowing just three hits. As he struggled with his command, he started to throw more offspeed pitches in the middle innings, including one unfair curveball to pinch-hitter B.J. Upton that Upton simply looked and headed to the duguout.
Don't worry, B.J., you're not the only one: Batters his .097 off Kershaw's curveball this year with 80 strikeouts, no extra-base hits and no walks. That's as unhittable a weapon as pitcher can possess.
"We went out and worked him," Freddie Freeman said "I think he had 130 pitches in seven innings. We just couldn't get the runs across and in the end that's all that matters."
Elliot Johnson and the rest of the Braves' hitters had no answer for what Kershaw had to offer.
The Braves, of course, have a fairly tortured playoff history, and not just those great teams of the '90s that won just one World Series (tell Cubs and Indians fans that one title wasn't enough). Including last year’s wild-card game they've lost seven series in a row since beating the Astros in the 2001 Division Series. Including Thursday's loss, the Braves are 9-21 in the playoffs since beating Houston.
The Braves are still confident heading into tomorrow. You don't win 96 games without a lot of that. Facing right-hander Zack Greinke will give Freeman, Heyward and Brian McCann -- arguably their three best hitters -- the platoon advantage. Don't be surprised if lefty-swinging Jordan Schafer is out in left field.
"That's the beauty of it," Freeman said. "Come back and go at it tomorrow. Give these fans something to cheer about."
When asked if it's a must-win game, Justin Upton smiled. "That's why they give us five games."
Unfortunately, if it does go the distance, the large shadow of Mr. Kershaw looms in the distance.