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Braves limp into series against Cardinals with no clear answers in sight

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Atlanta is at a low point after dropping six of seven.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

If this isn’t rock bottom it has to be close to it. Things have gone from bad to worse for the Atlanta Braves, who again fell to the Boston Red Sox 10-8 after the bullpen was unable to protect a late lead. While the bullpen is firmly in the crosshairs, it was the second straight game that Atlanta’s starter failed to make it past four innings. Tucker Davidson left Tuesday’s game in the third with a left forearm strain and Ian Anderson piled up 87 pitches while allowing seven hits and four runs in just four innings Wednesday, though he did suffer some bad luck as well.

Key injuries and underperformance have rendered this team helpless and that puts eyes squarely on the Front Office. It may be just mid-June, but this season is slipping away and the pressure to do something to address the roster is mounting by the day. For a Front Office that has moved as deliberately as Atlanta’s in recent years, that is going to be a significant challenge. The correct move wouldn’t be something rash, but at the same time a sense urgency is now in order, though it’s not clear what the Front Office can actually do.

The problem at this juncture is that fixing the roster isn’t a simple task. It goes without saying that the bullpen could use a reliable option or two. Shane Greene may eventually prove to be that, but that hasn’t been the case so far. The rotation too has holes and has been plagued by inconsistency. The likes of Guillermo Heredia and Abraham Almonte have exceeded expectations while filling in in the outfield, but it is also clear that the lineup has a giant-sized hole right in the middle.

Trade deadline chatter will no doubt heat up soon but there has to be a sense or urgency for the Braves at this juncture. In fact, it might already be too late, as Fangraphs’ playoff odds for the Braves are right at around 12 percent. It’s going to take a gigantic effort to get back into contention at this point.

The Cardinals come into Thursday’s series opener with a 35-33 record and fresh off of a three-game sweep of the Marlins. That snapped a stretch where they had lost nine of their last 10 games. They are currently in fourth place but well within striking distance in what has been a surprisingly competitive NL Central.

St. Louis currently ranks ninth in runs scored in the National League. Nolan Arenado has been productive, posting a 124 wRC+ in his first season with the Cardinals. Paul Goldschmidt got off to a cold start but has heated up over the last several weeks. Tyler O’Neill has been killing it (159 wRC+, .412 xwOBA) despite a strikeout rate more than 30 percent higher than his walk rate, and Yadier Molina is still providing above-average production at age 38. Still this isn’t a high-powered offense that is going to put up big numbers on a consistent basis.

A large part of the Cardinals’ recent struggles has been due to injuries in their starting rotation. Jack Flaherty is currently on the injured list, as is Miles Mikolas. The rest of the rotation has struggled of late and are doing their best to keep the team above water. Overall, this is a team that’s played average-to-below across the board, and is one of the teams that has produced considerably less, by fWAR, than the Braves — not that it’s mattered in the standings.

Thursday, June 17, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

John Gant (12 GS, 56.1 IP, 16.3 K%, 16.3 BB%, 3.36 ERA, 4.99 FIP, 5.46 xFIP, 87 ERA-)

After a successful start to the season, former Brave John Gant will enter Thursday’s series opener looking to bounce back from two straight rough outings. Gant was tagged for five runs in just 1 2/3 innings in his most recent start against the Cubs. He allowed just one hit, but walked five and that lone hit left the yard. In total, Gant has allowed eight hits and 12 earned runs over his last two starts combined. Walks have been an issue for Gant and he will enter Thursday’s start with 42 walks and 42 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings. His ERA is very misleading given that his peripherals across the board are much, much worse.

Charlie Morton (13 GS, 66.0 IP, 26.2 K%, 9.1 BB%, 4.50 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 3.47 xFIP, 111 ERA-)

Like Gant, Charlie Morton will also be trying to put a tough outing behind him. Morton never locked in during his latest start where he allowed four hits, four walks and four runs in just four innings against the Marlins. He has allowed a total of eight runs in his last two starts combined, although only six of those were earned. Morton has pitched well at times but one rough inning each start has skewed his overall numbers.

Friday, June 18, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Carlos Martinez (12 GS, 65.0 IP, 15.7K%, 7.8 BB%, 5.54 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 4.83 xFIP, 143 ERA-)

It has been an inconsistent season overall for Carlos Martinez, but he is coming off of a good outing in his last start. Martinez allowed just four hits and two unearned runs in seven innings against the Cubs in his last start. That snapped a stretch where he had allowed a combined 15 earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings over two starts. Ten of those earned runs came back on June 2 when he didn’t make it out of the first inning against the Dodgers.

Max Fried (10 GS, 50.2 IP, 21.8 K%, 8.0 BB%, 4.62 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 4.17 xFIP, 114 ERA-)

Max Fried will make his 11th start of the season for the Braves Friday. Fried allowed five hits and three runs over six innings in his last start against the Marlins. Two of those hits left the ballpark and were the first home runs that Fried had allowed since May 5. He has allowed three runs or less in six of his last seven starts.

Saturday, June 19, 7:15 p.m. ET (FOX)

Adam Wainwright (13 GS, 79.2 IP, 22.1 K%, 6.6 BB%, 3.95 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 3.91 xFIP, 102 ERA-)

Adam Wainwright will return to Atlanta for Saturday’s start. Thanks to all of the injuries to his rotation-mates, Wainwright has had to play a more important role in the Cardinals’ rotation. He has largely been up to the task, giving them a chance to win on most nights. Wainwright held the Marlins to four hits and two runs over six innings in his last start. He has pitched into the sixth inning in four of his last five starts.

Drew Smyly (11 GS, 56.0 IP, 19.9 K%, 8.1 BB%, 5.63 ERA, 6.01 FIP, 4.90 xFIP, 139 ERA-)

It has been a disappointing season overall for Drew Smyly but he has the distinction of starting both games that the Braves won on the previous road trip, for whatever that is worth. Smyly allowed six hits and two runs over five innings in his last start against the Marlins. His season can be pretty much summed up by looking at his numbers when facing a lineup two or three times. Smyly has a 4.13 ERA the first time through the order. That increases to a 5.40 mark the second time. It jumps to a 9.58 ERA the third time through the order with opponents hitting .326/.396/.605 in those situations. The peripherals tell a similar story.

Sunday, June 20, 7:08 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Kwang Hyun Kim (10 GS, 46.0 IP, 20.7 K%, 8.4 BB%, 3.72 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 4.24 xFIP, 96 ERA-)

Kwang Hyun Kim tossed a season-high six innings while allowing three hits and one run in his last start against the Marlins. He did issue a season-high five walks but was able to limit the damage.

TBA

Sunday’s start would have gone to Tucker Davidson but he was placed on the 10-day injured list due to left forearm inflammation. Bryse Wilson pitched Tuesday in Gwinnett and would be lined up to make this start if needed, but the Braves likely won’t announce their plans before Saturday.