9/22/2013 2:30 P.M. ET
Reliable bullpen springing some leaks of late
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- The Braves are positioned to produce the best bullpen ERA in franchise history, but the struggles experienced by their relievers over the past week have at least created some concern with the postseason approaching.
Entering Sunday's series finale at Wrigley Field, the Braves had blown leads in the sixth inning or later in three of their previous eight games. Their bullpen has allowed 13 earned runs in the 20 innings during this span. As a result, the club's Major League-leading bullpen ERA went from 2.29 to 2.45.
The 2002 Braves set the franchise record with a bullpen ERA of 2.60.
"We've had a lot of appearances and a lot of innings," left-handed reliever Luis Avilan said. "But I think everybody in the bullpen is trying to do their best. We're thinking it is just a bad week and we'll keep fighting and trying to do what we've been doing the whole season."
The recent struggles experienced by Avilan and right-handed setup man Jordan Walden have influenced this tough stretch. Walden has been ineffective in two of the three appearances he has made since missing three week with a sore groin. Avilan's ERA has risen from 1.17 to 1.60 as he has surrendered four earned runs and allowed opponents to hit .324 against him in 8 1/3 innings (12 apperances) dating back to Aug. 25.
Avilan admits that he has been feeling some of the fatigue that was expected as he nears the end of his first full season. His 72 appearances are three shy of Dodgers reliever Ronald Belisario's NL-leading total.
"I don't feel tired," Avilan said. "I just don't feel the same as I did at beginning of the season. But [the season] is almost over and we've got the playoffs. So I'll just keep throwing the ball."
Had Avilan and Walden been pitching like they had most of this season, the Braves might have preserved the 1-0, eighth-inning lead they had in Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Cubs. Kris Medlen was sent back to the mound having thrown 98 pitches entering the eighth. After allowing Starlin Castros' one-out single, Medlen saw Scott Downs and David Carpenter combine to allow the Cubs to produce a decisive three-run inning.
C. Johnson puts batting title race on backburner
CHICAGO -- Braves third baseman Chris Johnson has spent the past couple of weeks attempting not to think about the possibility of winning his first career batting title. But with one week remaining in the season, it is impossible for him to ignore the opportunity he has created.
Johnson entered Sunday leading the National League with a .332 batting average. Colorado's Michael Cuddyer, who has been sidelined since Wednesday with a strained left wrist, ranked second at .331.
"It's kind of up to me, really," Johnson said. "That's good. I know where I need to be and we'll go from there."
Johnson has made a conscious effort not to think or talk too much about the batting title race until he and his teammates clinch the National League East. The club entered Sunday with a magic number of one.
"I'm just glad to be where I'm at this late in the season," Johnson said. "Actually my teammates are thinking about it more than I am. This guy is telling you need to get one more hit to get your average to be 2-for-4 for the day and stuff like that. So it's pretty cool. They're rooting for me more than I'm rooting for myself."
Coincidently, Atlanta's two most recent batting champions -- Chipper Jones (2008) and Terry Pendleton (1991) -- played the position manned by Johnson.
Whatever happens over the last week, this has already been a memorable season for Johnson, who entered the year with a .276 career batting average. He has has proven to be much more consistent than the Braves could have expected when they acquired him and Justin Upton from the D-backs in January.
Johnson's roughest stretch came when he hit .250 (18-for-72) during a 23-game span from May 27-June 22, the first few weeks he became Atlanta's everyday third baseman. Since then, he has batted .344 (101-for-294) in 77 games.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.