Early advantage melts as Braves lose
Reyes struggles in crucial sixth frame; bullpen gives way
ATLANTA -- Jo-Jo Reyes' learning curve has brought him to a cruel slope where sixth innings prove to be as cruel as the misfortune that he's encountered during his past two starts. As for Jordan Schafer, the early stages of his initiation process have provided a reminder that regular adjustments are the defense against extended frustrating skids.
Reyes' encounter with another forgettable sixth inning magnified Schafer's inability to provide the clutch hit that proved elusive for a number of Braves players during the 7-5 loss that they suffered against the Astros at Turner Field on Sunday afternoon.
"We had a lot of opportunities to score more runs than we did," Chipper Jones said. "We gave them too many opportunities in the middle innings."
In a nutshell, Jones summed up the final four innings of a second successive series loss to begin this current homestand. The 3-1 sixth-inning lead that had been generated with assistance from Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez seemed like a distant memory after Reyes' latest sixth-frame episode preceded another costly Peter Moylan walk and the most significant of Schafer's three strikeouts.
After the Astros tallied three sixth-inning runs of Reyes to claim a 4-3 lead, Greg Norton provided a game-tying, two-out RBI in the bottom half of the same inning with just the ninth hit he's tallied in his past 54 at-bats against a left-handed pitcher.
While the switch-hitting Norton's hit from the right side was a rarity, Moylan's seventh-inning leadoff walk to Geoff Blum seemed a little too familiar for the right-handed reliever, whose nine walks in 9 1/3 innings are a product of his attempt to find consistent control less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery.
Blum advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a go-ahead RBI single delivered by the speedy Michael Bourn, who promptly stole second and third base to put himself in position to score what proved to be the decisive run on Carlos Lee's sacrifice fly.
"We missed some opportunities with runners in scoring position," Braves left fielder Matt Diaz said. "When they took the lead and we came back to tie it up, it felt like we had some momentum going and that we'd hold on. But we didn't today. That's a tough series loss at home. That's two in a row and that's not fun at all."
After delivering a sixth-inning leadoff triple, Diaz had to wait through two strikeouts by David Ross and Schafer before jogging home on Norton's game-tying single.
"You've got to put pressure on the defense by putting the ball in play in those situations," Jones said. "Who knows the defense might give you one here and there and it might start a big inning. We're certainly going to have to get better in those spots."
The Braves, who ended up stranding 11 runners and tallying just three hits in 14 at-bats with runners in scoring position, produced their two-run fifth inning with assistance from Rodriguez, who issued a leadoff walk to Reyes and then balked him home.
While matching the three-strikeout performance he produced while batting leadoff on Saturday, Schafer was responsible accounted for five of those stranded runners with a pair of inning-ending strikeouts. His forgettable offensive weekend ended in fitting fashion, with a bases-loaded, seventh-inning strikeout.
After striking out 13 times during a 21 at-bat stretch from April 12-18, Schafer struck out just seven times during the next 11 games entering Saturday. But the final two games of this series have provided indication that opponents have figured out that the 22-year-old center fielder is prone to swinging and missing the high fastball over the middle of the plate.
"Guys up here, they're not stupid," Jones said. "They watch and they know how to scout hitters. They have found his hole and his hole is just above his hands, middle up and he's having a tough time catching up to it. Until he shortens up and puts the ball in play more consistently, he's going to continue to struggle."
Reyes, who has made 15 starts since his last Major League win, limited the Astros to just two hits through the first five innings and seemed poised to continue the momentum he'd created on Tuesday, when he limited the Cardinals to one run in seven innings and received a no-decision.
But Bourn's one-out bunt single began a stretch of four consecutive singles that the Astros used to erase their two-run, fifth-inning deficit. Back-to-back RBI singles from Lee and Miguel Tejada followed a Lance Berkman single that truly began Reyes' frustrating run.
"There wasn't any one pitch that hurt," Reyes said. "They were all ground balls, and it just wasn't to anybody. I couldn't put a finger on any one thing that I was discouraged about."
"He was good again today," Cox said. "He was fine. It just got away from him in that one inning."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.