ATLANTA The Atlanta Braves lost just their fourth series of the 2013 season after falling 4-0 to the San Diego Padres at Turner Field on Sunday afternoon. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Padres rookie Burch Smith flirted with a no-hitter, then settled for seven innings of shutout baseball
The 23-year-old right-hander entered Sunday's game with a 9.17 ERA in seven major league appearances. He walked off the Turner Field mound with plenty more confidence after frustrating the Braves' bats and giving the no-hit list a few passing glancing. In short, Smith, in just his fifth start of his major league career, carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning it was eventually broken up by the opposing pitcher, Julio Teheran, as cruel fate would have it and left Atlanta with his first-career win.
The fact that the Braves are the first team to seriously struggle against the rookie from Tyler, Texas, only adds to the team's offensive frustration of late. Smith's final line: three hits and two walks allowed, 10 strikeouts, 95 pitches.
"He's got a live arm, live fastball. Not to much of a command thing, but just kind of wildly effective," said Braves rookie catcher Evan Gattis, who finished 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. "But I thought he threw well, made some pitches when he had to."
Added Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez: "We just didn't score any runs the whole series five runs in three games. (Smith) was OK. I'm not gonna say he was really, really good. He threw some quality strikes when he threw them in the strike zone. He comfortably wild, threw some balls out of the strike zone and down in the strike zone. We just didn't get a good read on them.
"Bottom line: I've seen this club beat really, really, really good pitchers and we didn't get anything going the whole afternoon."
Smith was the Padres ninth-ranked prospect entering the season San Diego and its fruitless pitching staff certainly could have used similar outings throughout the season so the effort was not exactly out of left field. Somehow, though, Sunday's outcome seemed to be more a reflection of Atlanta's recent struggles than Smith's breakout performance.
Entering Sunday's games, the Braves lineup had posted some fairly mundane, if not below-average, September numbers: 1.3 WAR (17th-best MLB), .230 average (25th), .688 OPS (23rd) and a 22 percent strikeout rate (eighth-worst). And yes, that's discounting Smith's efforts.
After the game, Gonzalez did not sound distraught over his team's performance. But this is the third straight series finale in which he's sent out a public message that his bats need to pick it up. He's confident, as he should be, but contending teams want to be trending up at this point in the season (obviously), not the other way around.
"As long as we pitch, I think our bats will come around because they have all year. We've gone through some valleys offensively and then out of nowhere or all of a sudden we rattle off 14 straight or a good seven in a row or something like that. Looking into the next few weeks, that's what we're looking for."
It was the 14th time the Braves have been shutout this season.
2. Skipping Julio Teheran's first start of September is not paying immediate dividends
In the first week of September, the Braves made the long-range decision to skip what would have been the rookie right-hander's 27th start of the season throwing out towering reliever Kameron Loe against the New York Mets instead. The thought process was simple: Teheran, 22, had pitched 161 13 innings at the time, closing in on his career high for any professional season (164 13 in 2011).
As is custom for any MLB franchise, protecting young pitching assets is high on the priority list. For Teheran, especially, after posting excellent numbers in his first full season in Atlanta, extra rest down the stretch was a reasonable choice.
There were no guarantees that he would come right back out of the dugout firing on all cylinders, though.
For the second straight start both coming against lackluster offenses; the Padres and Marlins rank 27th and 30th in scoring, respectively Teheran posted un-Teheran-like numbers. San Diego touched up the young starter to the tune of seven hits and four earned runs in 6 23 innings pitched. Though Teheran did post six strikeouts, he ran up his pitch count to 100 for the 10th time this season. That's not a terrible start for any rookie, but Teheran's just a bit off his season-long pace: over his past six starts, he's allowed three or more runs four times.
"I thought he pitched well enough to deserve a better opportunity to win the ballgame, if that makes any sense," Gonzalez said.
Teheran ran into trouble in the sixth inning when Will Venable singled, stole second and scored (Jedd Gyorko RBI), only to allow Padres third baseman Chase Headley to hit his second home run in as many days. With the way the offense was producing at the time, the odds of a comeback on this day versus an erratic but effective pitcher seemed slim.
"I mean, I knew that he was throwing a no-hitter and I was trying to do my work and just keep the team in the game. (The pitch to Headley) was the pitch that I wanted to throw. I asked (Gattis) if it was a good pitch and he told me that it was a good pitch so I said, 'OK, you got me this time.'"
The Padres loss was Teheran's 28th start of the 2013 campaign. He's now 12-8 with a 3.14 ERA, 3.78 fielding-independent pitching and a 3.6-to-1 KBB ratio. He's doing just fine. But as the postseason looms barring another skipped start (unlikely), Teheran should log two more regular season starts the rookie standout needs to get back on track before facing higher-quality offenses.
(Side note: By the time they reach postseason play, the Braves will not have faced a top-10 scoring offense since visiting the Cardinals on Aug. 22-25. That's a span of 32 games against middle-of-the-pack or more than not below-average offenses.)
3. Division-clinching talk drew varied responses in the clubhouse
Look, everyone loves a good storyline. That's partly why, no matter your college football rooting interests, most viewers tuned in to see the Alabama-Texas A&M game on Saturday. It's why, regardless of fans' or commentators' reactions to Jose Fernandez's actions against the Braves, people will watch his next start versus Atlanta. And, for that very reason, it's why the prospect of Atlanta clinching in Washington the preseason big, bad NL East wolf is intriguing.
However, Gonzalez practically blew off the question. Gattis also approached the idea with disdain. It seems clear that the team is intent on simply playing better rather than winning a division title that was all but wrapped up weeks ago. (It should be pointed out here that Chris Johnson approached the question in good humor: "We win the series, we win the division. That's pretty cool."
Storyline aside, though, the timing of the division-clinching win could not matter less in the grand scheme. As has been stated in this space time and time again, the only thing that mattered once the Braves rattled off the 14-game winning streak and pulled far, far away from the Nationals in the NL East was capturing the National League's No. 1 seed. That's it.
Guess what? Nothing has changed.
The magic number sits at four. When the countdown finally hits zero is the least of the Braves' worries.