Braves need to clean up play
Atlanta's infield defense, strike-zone judgment must improve
SAN FRANCISCO -- Maybe the amazing thing is not the mistakes the Braves paid for on Thursday night, but how many they got away with.
In a gut-wrenching 1-0 loss to the Giants in Game 1 of its National League Division Series, Atlanta gave away too many outs in the field, too many at-bats and too many free baserunners. Braves fans will understandably point to a mistake made by someone wearing blue, instead of gray, as the biggest culprit in their team's defeat, but Bobby Cox's club didn't play anything close to its best game on Wednesday.
The Braves committed two errors, and by Cox's own estimation, it ought to have been three. They chased fastballs up and out of the zone and breaking balls in the dirt. Starter Derek Lowe issued four walks (one intentional) and needed 96 pitches to get 16 outs.
It's not as though the Braves were hopeless. After all, they lost by a single run to a pitcher turning in one of the great games in October history. But they didn't display the kind of execution they will need to beat a Giants team that played the game much more cleanly and efficiently on Wednesday.
It started with the defense. Brooks Conrad's error in the third inning put Lowe in deep trouble, with runners on second and third and one out. Lowe escaped, but it took a lot of extra effort. An inning later, the Braves were punished for a defensive mishap, not to mention a questionable umpiring call.
Buster Posey led off with a single, and he took off on a hit-and-run play on a 3-2 pitch to Pat Burrell. Brian McCann's throw was on time as Burrell struck out, and it appeared that Conrad tagged Posey out before the rookie catcher made it to second. Umpire Paul Emmel called Posey safe, however, and the inning rolled on. A strikeout and an intentional walk brought up Cody Ross with the bases loaded.
Lowe got the ground ball that should have ended the inning. Third baseman Omar Infante moved to his left on what looked like a routine play, but he simply didn't field the ball. It skipped past him into left field and the game's only run scored.
"He made the pitch," Cox said. "He got the ground ball. We kicked it."
It's true that if Emmel makes the right call on Posey, then Ross never has the chance to single through the hole. But it's also true that when you're playing behind a pitcher like Lowe, it's simply imperative to make plays. Lowe doesn't rack up strikeouts like Lincecum. Neither does Atlanta's ace and Game 3 starter, Tim Hudson.
The Braves must play better infield defense in order to advance, and it's not clear how they're going to do that. They're down two key infielders, Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, for the remainder of the year. And this is from a team that committed 126 errors in the regular season, third most in the National League. Defense always matters, and it's magnified in October.
Atlanta also must take better at-bats. Lincecum had hitters absolutely bamboozled. When the two-time NL Cy Young Award winner threw his fastball at the top of the strike zone or even up above the zone, Atlanta's hitters couldn't lay off of it. When he threw his slider and changeup down, often bouncing in the dirt, they couldn't lay off of it.
Lincecum was magnificent, but the Braves didn't help themselves against him either. Maybe they'd have hit him if they'd forced him into the strike zone more. Maybe they wouldn't have. But they'd have had more of a chance than against the pitches they did swing at.
"I believe some of those pitches were balls, as far as the ones up," said Jason Heyward, who had some of the better at-bats against Lincecum. "He was up. We were ready to hit the ball. We had a game plan going in, and he didn't throw as many strikes as we would like to make him throw tonight."
Even when they did get runners on, the Braves couldn't advance them, never mind getting them home. Infante led off the game with a double and didn't even get to third. Heyward didn't move up a base after a leadoff walk in the fourth, and Brian McCann was stranded at second after a one-out double in the seventh.
The sequence was often simple. Lincecum would start an at-bat with fastballs at the top of the zone. The Braves wouldn't or couldn't lay off of the 91- or 92-mph heaters, and they'd miss. Having gotten ahead in the count, Lincecum would throw one of those ridiculous bottomless sliders or changeups, and Atlanta's hitters would have no choice but to swing.
"His fastball had a lot of late movement on it tonight," said catcher Buster Posey, "and we kept using [it]. ... The high fastball ended up playing into our hands a little better than you saw late in the game. We got a lot of swing-throughs on high heaters."
The Braves' hitters put Lincecum in position to overwhelm them, and he happily did so. Infante gave Ross an opening, and it meant a run. It's to the Giants credit that they consistently took advantage, but the Braves must get better for Game 2.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.