SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Braves began this season, they were committed to separating themselves from last year's late-season collapse. But as they continue to stumble through the final days of August, they are creating reason to wonder if they will repeat the nightmarish conclusion.
There was certainly a somber mood in the Braves' clubhouse after Friday night's 5-3 loss to the Giants at AT&T Park. Their slumbering offense was limited to three home runs and Ben Sheets' improbable comeback story was tarnished with some more unfavorable results.
"It's getting frustrating, honestly," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "We're a winning team and we're just not winning right now. We've run into some good pitching, though. We really battled. They just came out on top today."
Freeman accounted for most of the Braves' offense with the third two-homer game of his young career. But his solo shots combined with the one that Jason Heyward hit off Ryan Vogelsong in the first inning were not enough to prevent the Braves from losing for the sixth time in their past seven games.
Even with this latest loss, the Braves remain atop the National League Wild Card standings with a three-game cushion to secure one of the two available playoff berths. But as this week has progressed, they have started to create memories of last year, when they lost the 9 1/2-game Wild Card advantage they carried into September.
"You can't think like that," Freeman said. "That was last year and this is this year. It's a whole different season. We're still in first place in Wild Card."
Looking to spark his club's offense, which had batted .199 in the previous six games, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez opted to give Eric Hinske his seventh start of the season as an outfielder and first since July 14. By the time the third inning concluded, it was a decision that was being second-guessed.
Along with striking out and grounding into a double play in his only two at-bats, Hinske was unable to secure two catchable fly balls that resulted in a pair of doubles in San Francisco's game-tying two-run third inning. The chain of events marked the start of the misfortunes experienced by Sheets, who allowed four earned runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings.
"I think he left some balls out over the plate," Gonzalez said. "I think they hit some balls pretty good. I don't think we made any misplays or anything behind him."
Gonzalez provided every indication that he was not impressed with what he saw from Sheets, who had completed at least six innings in each of the previous eight starts he had made since ending his two-year retirement. But the results could have certainly been different if Martin Prado or Reed Johnson had started in left field.
Hinske came up just short after racing to the left-center-field gap in an attempt to catch Angel Pagan's third-inning leadoff double. Two batters later, Pablo Sandoval took a down-and-away fastball and drove it to deep left field.
Hinske raced back and seemed to be in position to make the catch just before Sandoval's drive missed his glove and hit off the outfield wall. The Giants added two more in the fourth inning with help from Pagan's two-out RBI triple, which produced a lead that would not be squandered.
"With a break or two, I could have had a great game today," Sheets said. "The more good pitches you throw, the better. The more you can miss a bat with two strikes, the better off you are, too."
Since allowing one run or none in four of his first five starts, Sheets has allowed at least four runs in each of his past three outings. "He's one of those guys, he's going to charge," Gonzalez said of Sheets' aggressive nature. "Maybe some of those balls are catching too much of the plate. You see the breaking ball is still there. You see the velocity is kind of still there. Maybe we just need to make better pitches."
Vogelsong entered the game having allowed 17 hits in the 5 2/3 innings that he had combined to complete in his previous two outings. But after allowing the home runs to Heyward and Freeman in the first two innings, he did not allow another hit until Michael Bourn singled to begin the sixth inning.
"The first home run, I thought, was right in the middle of the plate," Vogelsong said. "The second one was a first pitch, a two-seamer away, and it was running away. He just put a good swing on it. They're both pretty big, strong guys, and if they get the barrel on it, it's going to go a long way. I'm just glad we were able to come back and score some runs and get the win."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.