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Bullpen meltdown costs Braves ‘toughest loss of the year’

Braves manager Brian Snitker called it “definitely the toughest loss of the year,” and there was really no arguing that point.

A colossal late-inning meltdown by the Braves’ bullpen cost the team a game it needed to win -- and should have won -- Wednesday afternoon at SunTrust Park.

Photos: Braves collapse at home

The Braves relinquished a seemingly commanding 7-1 lead when Boston used seven hits and bad Atlanta defense to score six runs against three relievers in the eighth inning.  Then, after Freddie Freeman came off the bench to hit a dramatic home run that briefly reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the eighth, closer A.J. Minter allowed a two-out, two-run homer to former Brave Brandon Phillips in the ninth. 

That gave the Red Sox a 9-8 victory and a sweep of the three-game series. 

“That game stunk. We all know that. It definitely did,” Minter said. “But we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’re going to come back, keep grinding.”

The 97-wins-and-counting Red Sox had rested most of the regulars from baseball’s most fearsome lineup, including Mookie Betts (.336, 29 home runs, 71 RBIs), J.D. Martinez (.335, 39, 115) and Xander Bogaerts (.281, 19, 89).  In the end, it didn’t matter.

“You can’t make mistakes. You can’t give them more than 27 outs, as we saw,” Snitker said. “They’re too deep; they’re too patient; they’re professional hitters, just all the way through. I mean, they played a bench game, and those guys, the majority of them, could start on a lot of major league teams.”

The Braves built their 7-1 lead with two runs in the first inning, one of them another leadoff home run by Ronald Acuna, and five in the fifth. But the Red Sox, after mustering just two hits and one run in six innings against Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz, attacked the Braves’ bullpen (and defense) in the late innings.

The eighth-inning, game-tying uprising came against relievers Dan Winkler, Jonny Venters and Brad Brach and was compounded by a Johan Camargo throwing error and Adam Duvall’s misplays in right field.

Winkler allowed hits to all four batters he faced to open the inning and demonstrated his frustrations upon returning to the dugout, taking them out mostly on his glove and a water cup.

“Most of the frustration was that I felt I made really good pitches,” Winkler said. “Everything I was throwing was exactly where I wanted it. I felt like I had good stuff. I guess when it leaves your hand, it's out of your control.

“Another reason I was visibly upset is because (Boston) is a good ballclub, and when you have a six-run lead you want to lock it up. That’s our job ... and we didn’t do it today.”

Even so, Freeman’s solo home run in the bottom of the eighth -- a dramatic shot in his only at-bat of a game he didn’t start -- gave the Braves an 8-7 lead going into the ninth.

Minter was one out from securing the victory when he gave up the decisive two-run homer to Phillips, who joined Boston’s major-league roster Tuesday after playing 44 minor-league games this season. Phillips drove the first pitched he saw in the ninth over the left-field wall.

The Braves departed after the loss for a seven-game trip – four games in Arizona followed by three in San Francisco.  

They still lead the National League East by three games over the Phillies, who lost to the Marlins Wednesday night.

“I think a lot of guys forget it’s a long month of September,” Minter said. “This one game isn’t going to define the rest of the season.” 

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