The Braves got obliterated in this one.
There’s a point to recapping some games. It’s a bit of lived history, captured shortly after the events occurred. You may not feel the need to read about something you witnessed — I don’t read plot summaries of movies I’ve already seen. But it’s still kind of nice to have the recaps out there, just in case someone wants to revisit something beyond a box score, a win expectancy chart, or video highlights. It adds to the holistic baseball experience.
This game, though… this game does not warrant a recap. If you want a box score, you know where to find one. If you want to watch highlights, you do you. Recounting the play-by-play for this one probably won’t help anyone, not at this point.
The Braves were trampled by the Blue Jays in Dunedin, FL on Friday night. What could have been a quirky game — a major league contest at a Spring Training venue — got out of hand in the middle innings, and only careened further out of control from there. Coming into the game, Drew Smyly had been awful for his first three starts in a Braves uniform. His cutter was essentially missing in action, his fastball had lost over a tick from where it sat in 2020, and while he was still getting a whiff on about half of swings hitters took against his curveball, he wasn’t really throwing it more often than he did during his 2020, 26-inning renaissance. Tonight, some pieces of the Smyly puzzle got a little clearer: Smyly wasn’t throwing his cutter because it’s apparently kaput. After throwing only 15 cutters through his first three outings, Smyly threw 14 in tonight’s start. None were called strikes. None were whiffs. The four-seamer was even slower than it had averaged over his prior starts. The curveball, meanwhile, was still great. It got eight whiffs on 14 swings, and resulted in all three of Smyly’s strikeouts. Yet, again, Smyly’s usage of it remained below 40 percent. The image below remains as baffling as it is clarifying:
In the third, Smyly threw a first-pitch cutter, letter-high, down the middle to Bo Bichette, who fouled it off. The next pitch was exactly the same, and it was launched so deep into center that Ronald Acuña Jr. didn’t bother chasing it down. In the fourth, Smyly tried a get-me-over 3-0 fastball to Alejandro Kirk, and the Braves were now down 4-0. Even after those things, Smyly only threw 42 percent curveballs the rest of the way in the inning. The fifth started with a leadoff homer by Randal Grichuk, this time off a first-pitch curveball. Smyly was gone after walking the next batter. With a non-functioning cutter, a not-particularly-good fastball that’s lost some zip, and a curveball that for whatever reason isn’t having its usage elevated (and yes, there are some reasons for this, though these reasons don’t justify throwing more cutters or four-seamers anyway), there’s just not much Smyly can do.
Or the bullpen, apparently. Edgar Santana made his Braves debut. Kirk tagged him for a two-run homer after Smyly departed. Jacob Webb gave up a three-run shot to Teoscar Hernandez in the sixth. Sean Newcomb had what would’ve been a memorable meltdown in the seventh, but the Braves were already down by eight runs at that point, so whatever. Tyler Matzek was inexplicably used in a seven-run game and gave up a homer to Lourdes Gurriel Jr. for good measure.
The Braves, as a franchise, have given up six or more homers in a game just ten times, ever. Two of those have already come in the 2021 season. Before then, it hadn’t happened since 1987. The Braves have given up 13 or more runs three times already this season, and this was their second loss by eight or more runs in 26 games. They won’t finish April with a .500 record; they won’t finish it tied for the division lead.
As Drew Smyly’s stock cratered, the Braves were unable to do anything against Robbie Ray, whose stock might very well be on the rise. Ray walked zero men for the second consecutive game, and seemingly ambushed the Braves by hitting 96 mph repeatedly, reaching his highest average fastball velocity in a start since the summer of 2016. Ray was averaging below 92.5 mph on his fastball as recently as 2019, and was having major command issues as recently as two starts ago. Like Smyly, he came into the game with negative fWAR; unlike Smyly, he substantially improved his seasonal line in this game. (Smyly’s pitching line is now a horrific 8.05 ERA, 8.46 FIP, and 5.31 xFIP; his HR/FB actually went up after this one.) Ozzie Albies tagged Ray for a dinger as the Braves chased him in the sixth, but to little end, of course.
Similarly, the Braves rallied for three runs off the Toronto/Dunedin bullpen. The night was perhaps “decent” for Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud, each of whom collected a couple of hits — the Braves’ five runs across two frames in the seventh and eighth could have made for an interesting game had the score not already been so lopsided.
So, Atlanta will head into May a bit dogged — across all of baseball, only the Twins have shed more playoff odds than the Braves over the course of the first month. But, those same odds are still at around 50 percent, even with the 12-14 start, so it’s just a matter of figuring things out going forward, for both Drew Smyly and all of his teammates.