Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Big Papi pops the Braves' holiday balloon

Ervin Santana contemplates the slider that didn't slide. (Brant Sanderlin/AJC)

Fredi Gonzalez tried to get Ervin Santana through five innings with a lead, which would have qualified the pitcher for a win. Trouble is, Santana's team lost. Sometimes a manager, in trying to do a nice thing, winds up getting it wrong. This was such a time.

The Braves led 6-1 with two outs in the top of the fifth on Memorial Day. They hadn't lost this season when scoring as many as six runs, not that they've scored six runs often. Santana wasn't dominant but he was sharp enough to have yielded only one run, that spawned by a triple that B.J. Upton might have caught had he turned the right way the first time. Then Santana walked pinch-hitter Daniel Nava on a 3-2 slider and an inning -- and a game -- came undone.

The Boston Red Sox, who've hit about as little as the Braves this season to much lesser effect, fashioned a five-run surge out of nothing. A Brock Holt double, a walk to Xander Bogaerts and a two-run single by Dustin Pedroia pulled the Sox within three runs with David Ortiz coming to bat. The scariest man in the Boston order had the chance to tie the game. Gonzalez, who manages the Braves, allowed Santana to pitch to, as opposed to pitching around, Ortiz.

To be fair, Ortiz doesn't get a hit in every single key moment. He hadn't had an RBI over the past 10 games, which was one reason the Sox won none of the 10. Santana is right-handed and had needed 90 pitches to record 14 outs. (That was infinitely better than Sox starter Clay Buchholz, who threw 88 pitches and managed nine outs against eight walks.) Ortiz is left-handed. The Braves had lefty Luis Avilan warming, but given the speed with which the inning unraveled he hadn't been warming long.

"You try to give a guy an opportunity to win a game," Gonzalez would say afterward, and probably nine of 10 managers would have done as much. Santana, who'd yielded two earned runs in his first three games as a Brave, had been touched for 11 runs in his past two outings. The Braves, who are paying $14.1 million for one year of Santana's services, need him to be better than that.

Also, Gonzalez said, Santana is a veteran, one who'd faced Ortiz many times in the American League. Maybe a 31-year-old of 10 years' big-league service could finesse a hitter like Ortiz in a way a rushed reliever might not.

My problem wasn't leaving Santana in the game. My problem was him throwing any pitch over any part of the plate. If Ortiz wants to chase pitches, let him. (He usually doesn't. As we know, the Sox are good at not chasing.) If he walks, the Sox have the bases loaded but the Braves still have a three-run lead with one out to get and the less fearsome A.J. Pierzynski to face.

Santana's first pitch was Ball 1. The second, a backdoor slider that slid over the outside corner, landed in the seats in left-center field. The one thing the Braves couldn't allow to happen had been allowed to happen. Big Papi had delivered the game's biggest hit.

It should be said that this slider wasn't as terrible a pitch as the lollipop Milwaukee's Mark Reynolds hoisted for a grand slam off Santana on Wednesday, but it was more misguided. You can't give Ortiz anything to hit when he represents the tying run and the bases aren't loaded. The Braves got what they deserved.

After a rain delay cost them lefty reliever Alex Wood, who'd worked the sixth without incident, the Braves dispatched Ian Thomas to start the seventh. That was another curious choice. It was late enough that Avilan might have been summoned but not so late that righty David Hale was out of the equation. Asked why he didn't use Hale, Gonzalez said, "He was the long man." That's one of those answers managers give when there's really no good answer.

(Gonzalez also noted that the pitcher's spot was due in the bottom of the seventh, which would have limited Hale to one inning unless the Braves wanted to double-switch, which they apparently didn't.)

Thomas was late covering first base on Holt's grounder to Freddie Freeman. Then Bogaerts walked again. Then Pedroia walked. Back up was Big Papi with the game tied, and now the Braves couldn't think about walking him. The good news for the home side: Ortiz didn't hit the ball over the fence. The bad news: He hit it far enough to score Holt with what would become the winning run.

In sum, it was a rotten holiday for the Braves. They blew the kind of lead they've seldom had against an opponent that was struggling to the extent general manager Ben Cherington made a surprise appearance in Atlanta to buck up his team. They tried to give Santana reason to feel good, and they wound up making everyone feel bad. Everyone, that is, except the 20,000 Sox fans who shouted so loud and long that Turner Field felt like a neutral site.

From The Braves blow a lead; the Sox snap a skid.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.