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Pitching decisions loom large for Braves in Game 5 loss

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An early four-run lead went up in smoke.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

For the majority of the postseason, Brian Snitker and the Atlanta Braves have been nearly perfect as they navigated the postseason. Whether it was managing a bullpen game or making the decision to pull a starter early, they have pretty much nailed it. Dylan Lee struggled as an opener in Game 4 retiring just one batter before Kyle Wright bailed them out. The decision making wasn’t at fault, the execution was. However, in Game 5 they went away from what had worked previously and the result was a loss.

No one ever said it was going to be easy and having two straight bullpen games isn’t something many teams would choose to do. The Braves were thrust into that position after Charlie Morton was lost to a fractured fibula in Game 1.

“When we won yesterday, it made it easier, I guess, coming into this one, but we knew it was going to be tough,” Snitker said of the challenge of navigating two straight bullpen games. “That’s just a lot of innings to cover against a club like this that swings a bat so well.”

The Braves tabbed rookie Tucker Davidson to start. When Snitker was asked about Davidson before the game, he indicated that the team was shifting strategy and that Davidson wouldn’t be an opener but would instead go as far as he could take the team. He put up a zero in the first and faced just three batters. Adam Duvall put Atlanta ahead with a grand slam off of Framber Valdez.

Davidson went back out for the second and retired Yordan Alvarez but then found himself in a jam quickly. Yuli Gurriel singled and Kyle Tucker walked before Alex Bregman plated the first run with a double to right center. The bullpen remained quiet and Martin Maldonado lifted a sacrifice fly that cut the lead in half at 4-2.

Despite his struggles in the second, Davidson hit for himself in the third. The inning got off to a tough start when Jose Altuve reached on an error by Dansby Swanson. Davidson then walked Michael Brantley and was replaced by Jesse Chavez. Three batters later, Atlanta’s four-run lead was gone.

“Probably 75 pitches,” Snitker said when asked about how long they were hoping Davidson could go. “Even after two, that’s just a lot of game to cover with some guys down. We were going to try to stretch him as far as we could, and I think we did.”

Davidson made it 53 pitches but labored through the second and then hit for himself. Coming out of Game 4, the thinking was that Wright would be the only pitcher down for Game 5. If that wasn’t the case then maybe that explains the decision to stick with Davidson. Chavez entered with traffic and the Braves were kind of chasing things from that point on from a pitching perspective. I won’t say the decision cost them the game since Freddie Freeman gave them back the lead with a homer in the home half of the third but there is a big difference between a four-run cushion and a one-run lead.

Chavez retired two batters in the fourth but gave way to A.J. Minter who struck out Brantley to end the inning. However, he was due up third the next inning and was forced to hit for himself. That wasn’t really a self inflicted wound but was more of a byproduct of how the first three innings had gone.

Minter struggled in the fifth, sandwiching a strikeout in between singles by Correa and Gurriel. Tucker grounded out to put runners at second and third and the Braves elected to walk Bregman and face Maldonado. This decision ruffled some people on line but looked like the right call considering he had a .527 OPS this season. However, Minter walked him and forced in the tying run. Marwin Gonzalez followed with a two run single and suddenly Atlanta trailed 7-5.

“I wouldn’t even call it a bad outing. I felt my stuff was just as sharp tonight as it was in other outings, Minter said of the fifth. “I felt like I was 1-2, 0-2 on every hitter. Those guys made quality swings on two strikes.”

“I guess I could have made some better pitches with two strikes, but with Correa, I got him 0-2, left a cutter up, base hit,” He added. “Got a good strikeout against Alvarez. And then Gurriel, cutter, backdoor cutter. He stuck his bat out there and had a good hit as well.”

“Obviously with Maldonado, I could tell he was going up there trying to work a walk. For me, it was just I tried to aim the ball instead of just driving it to the mitt. That’s obviously the one thing I would take back. And then a flare shot to score two runs, just like that.”

“I’m not worried about it. I’ve been pitching good and feeling good, and I’m still feeling good. I’ll be ready to go Game 6.”

Chris Martin got them out of the fifth and then tossed a scoreless sixth. Still trailing, Snitker went to Drew Smyly who allowed single runs in the seventh and eighth to get us to the final margin of 9-5. Maybe he pulled the plug too soon as a two-run lead is quite manageable. However, the game was lost much earlier when that four-run lead was squandered.

The loss stings, but the Braves are still in good position. They will have Max Fried on full rest in Game 6 with Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and Will Smith fully rested and ready to go.

“It’s good. He’s ready to go,” Snitker said of Fried. “We had him in reserve if something happened today. If we got locked up in extra innings or whatever, we were going to run him down there and possibly use him today also. I always feel good when Max pitches. He always gives you a chance to win. Like I say, our bullpen is in good shape. Max has got full rest, and we should be good to go.”

Maybe the bullpen was in worse shape coming into Game 5 than was known. Matzek, Jackson and Smith had pitched in two straight games but hadn’t thrown a ton of pitches and Monday’s off day would have provided some cover. Maybe they changed strategy because of Lee’s struggles in Game 4. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work and a four-run lead in a potential elimination game was squandered. The benefit of being up 3-1 in a series is that you get three chances to close it out. Well, they have two left.