The Braves have had a single glaring deficiency for the majority of the season, a bullpen that has been a wild ride of inconsistency costing them numerous winnable ball games. And in last weekend’s series against the Rockies, that familiar bug bit again.
It began on Thursday when Atlanta took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning. Brian Snitker turned to Brad Brach to close the game, which would not normally be the case, but with Arodys Vizcaino on the DL and A.J. Minter resting, Brach was forced to shut the door in the series opener. An error by Dansby Swanson to begin the inning did not make things any easier and it eventually led to three ninth-inning Rockies runs.
After a blowout loss on Friday night, the bullpen made perhaps its most egregious fumble of the 2018 season on Saturday. Mike Foltynewicz exited the game with a three-run lead, tossing seven scoreless innings in a prototypical “stopper” performance by the man who has become the ace of the Braves staff. Unfortunately, the bullpen had no plans of cooperating. This time it was A.J Minter in the ninth. He was able to get the first two-outs with no baserunners, but the Rockies would not go away quietly. They strung together a few hits eventually tying the game at three and sending it to extra innings. Colorado would add two more runs off Luke Jackson in the tenth, sealing their third straight win over Atlanta.
A 4-2 loss on Sunday ended the Braves homestead with a disappointing four-game sweep, a peculiar series which saw the Braves score first in each game. It put the Braves record at 28-36 against teams outside of the NL East, and once again opens up questions on whether this bullpen can withstand what will be a grueling playoff stretch for Atlanta.
Alex Anthopolous stood firm on his statements that he did not want to give up prospects for rental players at the trade deadline. They opted not to go after an elite bullpen arm, and instead, added Brach and Venters to the pen using international pool money, a loophole when considering their current restrictions on signing international prospects.
Despite a rough series versus the Rockies, both of these guys have proven to be reliable. Brach did not allow a single run in his first seven outings with Atlanta. His three runs allowed in Thursday’s blown save were all unearned. It was not until Sunday that Brach gave up his first earned run in a Braves uniform. The same can be said for Venters who is having a resurgent year after multiple Tommy John surgeries. The left-handed sinkerballer has not let anybody cross the plate and only given up four hits in his first nine appearances with Atlanta.
Those additions would look much more promising had Arodys Vizcaino stayed healthy. At this point, it is anyone’s best guess whether he returns to the mound this season. He has still yet to begin throwing, which leaves an already shaky bullpen with even more instability as the team heads into the toughest stretch of the season.
Outside of a four-game set with the Marlins, the Braves will play eight of their next nine series against teams with playoff aspirations. They own a half-game lead in the NL East over the Phillies who have a much more manageable schedule. This is going to be a race that goes down to the wire, and if the Braves are going to come out on top, they are going to need everybody in the bullpen to do a little more than they have been.
Currently, Atlanta ranks 19th in the MLB in bullpen ERA. That does not exactly correlate with team success. The top six teams in bullpen ERA are all in the playoff picture as of now, while only two teams outside of the top 15 (Braves and Indians) are in the playoffs as of now. And the scary part is: bullpens only become even more important when the calendar turns to October. The Braves pen needs a shot in the arm to win the NL East let alone win a playoff series, and right now, it is not easy to see where that may come from.