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Bullpen blows lead, Braves drop series to Reds

The Braves are a two-Freeman team and right now both of them are slumping, with one in particular having a big part in Wednesday’s 6-5 loss to the Reds.

No one doubts that MVP candidate Freddie Freeman will soon snap out of his funk, but reliever Sam Freeman’s slide has been long enough to raise eyebrows and concerns.

Sam Freeman came in with a 5-3 lead to start the seventh inning Wednesday and gave up a leadoff walk and a pair of two-out singles, all those runners eventually scoring and sending the Reds to a series-clinching win at SunTrust Park.

“It happens to every ball club out there,” manager Brian Snitker said after the National League East-leading Braves’ 2-4 homestand with series losses against two last-place teams, the Orioles and Reds, albeit a much-improved Cincinnati club since Jim Riggleman took over as interim manager.

“Even the good ones, the ones that win a whole lot of games, go through stretches like that,” Snitker continued. “We won a whole lot of games and we’ve been very fortunate since the season started; this is really our first time to experience this. And the guys will just keep playing. They did today, as you saw. They came back and got right back into this ballgame against a guy that was strapping us. With two out and nobody on, next thing you know we’re winning the game. They’re not going to quit, they’re not going to stop fighting, and it’ll be OK.” 

Scooter Gennett’s two-out single drove in the first run of the Reds’ seventh inning and chased Sam Freeman from the game, and reliever Dan Winkler was greeted by a two-run single from Adam Duvall that gave the Reds their first lead since the Braves’ four-run fourth inning.

The Reds improved to 9-1 in their past 10 games and the Braves were dealt their first consecutive home-series losses of the season. They’re off Thursday before starting a three-city, nine-game trip Friday at St. Louis.

“(The Reds were) another one of those teams that we caught while they were hot,” said Braves starter Sean Newcomb, who allowed seven hits, three runs and two walks with six strikeouts in six innings and was in position for his ninth win in 11 decisions before the bullpen blew it.

“We didn’t play up to our capabilities 100 percent; you’re not going to every day,” Newcomb said. “I know we’re going to come back out at St. Louis and be pretty strong, pitching and offensively.”

Sam Freeman had a 2.94 ERA and .164 opponents’ average in his first 24 appearances through May 22 and the Braves were 16-8 in those games. In 15 appearances since then he has an 8.16 ERA with 15 hits, 13 earned runs and six walks allowed in 14-1/3 innings. The Braves are 4-11 in those games and he got three of the losses including Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Freddie Freeman went 15-for-34 (.441) with six homers, four walks, seven strikeouts and a 1.588 OPS in a nine-game span from June 5 to June 15. In 10 games since then he’s 7-for-40 (.174) with no home runs, one walk and 17 strikeouts, including 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a walk Wednesday.

When the Braves had a chance for another big inning in the fifth, Freddie Freeman struck out with runners at second and third base for the first out of what ended up a one-run inning.

Reds starter Luis Castillo retired the first 11 Braves and had a perfect game going until two out in the fifth, when it suddenly went from perfect to mayhem.

He walked Freddie Freeman before giving up five consecutive singles, the last four of which drove in a run to give the Braves a 4-2 lead after they trailed 2-0 entering the inning.

The Braves went 4-for-9 with runners in scoring position Wednesday after going just 2-for-20 in those situations over the first two games.

“We’re getting guys on and we’re having a hard time getting guys in right now, and that happens,” Snitker said.

For one inning Wednesday, it didn’t.

Freeman’s walk was followed by singles from Nick Markakis, Kurt Suzuki (RBI), Charlie Culberson (RBI), Johan Camargo (RBI) and Dansby Swanson (RBI), with the Camargo hit of particular note because of an alert, creative slide Suzuki used to score when he appeared dead to rights after rounding third and being waved home by third-base coach Ron Washington on a ground-ball single to left field.

“Right when Wash sent me I said, oh (expletive), I’m out,” Suzuki said, smiling. “But we found a way.”

Adam Duvall fielded the ball and came up firing, but his throw pulled catcher Curt Casali about 10 feet toward first base. Still, the throw was so far ahead of the runner that Casali had time to catch it and dive to the plate for the would-be tag. But Suzuki thwarted him by sliding to the right of the plate, just out of reach of the tag, and reaching over Casali’s arm to touch the plate with his hand.

Suzuki smiled on his way to the Braves dugout after the play, the veteran fully aware of how easily he might’ve been thrown out on the play. Instead, his nifty slide gave the Braves a 3-2 lead, the Swanson followed with the fifth straight two-out hit to push the lead to 4-2.

The Reds got a run in the fifth after a Jose Peraza triple, but the Braves answered with an unearned run in the bottom of the fifth before Camargo struck out with bases loaded to end the inning. Two innings later, a two-run lead wasn’t enough for a weary Braves bullpen that might need reinforcements before the trade deadline at the end of July.

On a day when Newcomb didn’t have his best stuff, he still limited the Reds to three runs in six innings for his 11th quality start in 16. He threw a career-high 111 pitches and snapped a string of four consecutive starts of five innings or fewer by Braves pitchers – all four pitchers since Newcomb worked seven innings of one-run ball in his previous start Friday against the Orioles.

He’s the only Braves pitcher to work more than five innings in the past eight games.

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