The Cincinnati Reds have posted a .500 record this season, so splitting a four-game series against the Atlanta Braves wasn't out of the ordinary. Still, there was an element of disappointment this weekend.
All four starting pitchers went at least six innings. The bullpen allowed two earned runs in 11 innings despite losing Lucas Sims and Tejay Antone to injuries. There were defensive highlights.
Despite the positives, the Reds ended the weekend with a 4-0 loss at Great American Ball Park on Sunday, splitting the four-game set. The offense was shut out for the eighth time this season and held to two hits.
"This was a big game to win to split this series," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "This is a good team, man. They've done a great job here, I think. Some of their young guys, their draft picks, two of their four starters were young guys. This team is going in the right direction, I'll tell you that. It's a tough club."
It's easy to see the potential. The offense, not counting Sunday, has been one of the best in the National League this season. The starting rotation has posted a 3.15 ERA in June, igniting their solid month.
Reds pitchers didn’t allow more than four runs in any of their games against the Braves – not an easy feat on hot, muggy days at GABP – but it still amounted to a series split.
Braves rookie left-hander Kyle Muller, making his second career start, allowed one hit in five innings.
"We got deep into counts, and he had breaking balls and a lot of 3-2 breaking balls," Reds manager David Bell said. "We had a couple opportunities where we almost got something going, but he did a really nice job. I thought the key, he definitely has a good fastball and showed that, but the breaking ball was really good."
In the third inning, the Reds had their best opportunity to create offense in front of the crowd of 21,696. Scott Heineman reached on a bloop single to shallow right field when three Braves fielders converged into each other, allowing the ball to drop. Heineman moved up to second base on a wild pitch and Mahle drew a walk.
That brought up the top of the Reds lineup. Jonathan India, in a 3-1 count, grounded out to third base to move the runners over. Joey Votto struck out to end the inning in a four-pitch at-bat.
The Reds didn’t have another runner touch third base for the remainder of the afternoon. Kyle Farmer drew a one-out walk in the fifth inning, but Muller struck out the next two batters. Muller struck out nine in five innings, permitting only three batters to reach base.
The Reds simply weren’t good enough against left-handed pitching this weekend despite stacking the lineup with right-handed hitters. They scored one run in six innings against lefty Drew Smyly in Friday’s loss. They didn’t score once against any of the Braves’ left-handed relievers.
"A lot of times it will come around," Bell said. "By the end of the year, it balances itself out. We have guys like Aristides and Scott Heineman who missed some time and haven’t been here the whole year. Getting guys like that going will help with that.
"There will be times for sure when our left-handed hitters, some of our best hitters in the lineup, will continue to get that opportunity. More than anything it’s just not facing them a lot, but certainly something we want to be good at because it will be important."
Tyler Mahle gave six hits and four runs across six innings Sunday, striking out seven. He’s struggled at GABP this season, posting a 6.75 ERA in six home starts compared to a 2.01 ERA in 10 road starts.
One of the main issues Sunday was pitching to Ronald Acuña Jr. Arguably the most talented player in the National League, Acuña opened the scoring with an RBI double in the third inning.
Mahle had trouble locating up-and-in fastballs to right-handed hitters all afternoon, and Acuña took one fifth-inning pitch that knocked him down personally. Acuña ducked and the ball hit his bat for a foul ball.
Acuña responded four pitches later with a rocket to dead center for a solo home run. Acuña was hyped up as he rounded the bases, pounding his chest as he looked at his teammates from the basepaths and pointing to a vocal section of Atlanta Braves fans behind the visiting dugout as he rounded third.
"I used to hear people talk about you didn't want to knock Hank (Aaron) or Frank Robinson or any of those guys down like that, because all you'll do is piss them off," Snitker said. "Right there, it looked like all he did was piss him off."
Acuña's homer had a 117.4 mph exit velocity, tied for the third-hardest homer in the Majors this season. It was the hardest batted ball by a Braves player since Statcast began tracking data in 2015.
Austin Riley added a solo homer to begin the sixth inning, connecting on a slider that was left over the plate – the only pitch over the plate in the six-pitch at-bat.
"I wasn’t able to locate up-and-in; they pretty much just scratched that pitch," Mahle said. "With Riley, I couldn’t execute a good fastball up there and he fouled some pitches off. Wanted to go split to him, but I settled for a slider and he hit it out. That was just a stupid mistake on my part."
The Reds don't have the luxury to tread water while waiting for some players to return from the injured list. They've dropped 5.5 games back in the division and they split a series to a team with a sub-.500 record.
"It’s some big shoes to fill when you’re talking about Tejay and Lucas," said reliever Art Warren, who struck out the side in the seventh inning. "It’s going to take every one of us to get to where we want to be at the end of the year so why not start now and get some momentum right before the All-Star break so when we get them back, we’re ready to roll.”