Feeble offense likely costs Braves a playoff spot

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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Braves watched another team celebrate at Turner Field.

Barring a remarkable turnaround, they'll be watching the postseason at home.

After spending a good part of the year in or near first place in the NL East, the Braves faded from contention with a dismal showing since the All-Star break. It looks like they'll miss the playoffs for only the seventh time in the last 24 years, a bitter scenario for a franchise that usually saved its disappointment for October.

"We're just not playing good baseball. We're just not scoring runs," catcher Gerald Laird said. "Our pitching's been good. We just haven't been able to string some big innings together to score some runs."

The Braves were off Thursday, facing a daunting 5½-game deficit in the wild-card race with only 10 games remaining.

They were eliminated from the division race on Tuesday with a 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals, who reclaimed the title that Atlanta won a year ago by a comfortable 10 games. It's possible that another team will be clinching its playoff berth next week at the Ted; the Pittsburgh Pirates, who lead the chase for the NL's second wild card, begin a four-game series against the Braves on Monday.

"It's tough because you know how much everybody's putting in work and everybody's trying to get through this funk," pitcher Aaron Harang said. "I think sometimes you tend to press a little too much."

The Braves had the top spot in the East all to themselves after winning their first game after the All-Star break. They've gone 23-33 since then, despite having the fifth-best team ERA (3.33) in the major leagues. In those 56 games, they've scored two runs or fewer a staggering 26 times, including six shutouts.

Simply put, the offense has been awful — a group that doesn't make nearly enough contact (only two NL teams have struck out more than Atlanta), hasn't produced the expected power (the Braves are tied for 10th in the league in homers), and isn't all that fast, either (eighth in stolen bases).

While manager Fredi Gonzalez has faced plenty of criticism for his handling of the team, the decisions by the front office are a bigger concern. General manager Frank Wren invested a good chunk of the team's payroll in two players — second baseman Dan Uggla and center fielder B.J. Upton — who have produced very little payoff.

Uggla batted under .200 the last two seasons and was at .162 when the Braves finally released him in mid-July, even though he was making $13 million this year and is still owed under $13 million in 2015.

Upton remains on the roster, but he's heading toward his second straight dismal season since signing a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves. He batted .184 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in 2013 — one of the worst seasons ever for a big-money free agent — and hasn't improved much this year at .207 with 11 homers and 34 RBIs.

Given the money still owed to both Uggla and Upton, the Braves aren't going to have a lot of financial flexibility to retool the offense this winter.

Others have disappointed, as well. Chris Johnson, who batted a surprising .321 a year ago, has slipped to .263 this season. Freddie Freeman (18 homers, 73 RBIs) and Jason Heyward (11 homers, 54 RBIs) haven't produced the power numbers the Braves were counting on. Evan Gattis has been plagued by injuries and other health problems. Andrelton Simmons is hitting just .243 and Gonzalez has tried eight different players in the leadoff spot, without much success.

"It's everybody's fault," Johnson said. "You can't really single out one guy or two guys and say this is the reason why we're losing and if we could get something different here. ... I just think we haven't really come together offensively all year."

The pitching has been better than expected after losing starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow injuries in spring training. Harang (11-11) and Ervin Santana (14-9) were hastily signed to bolster a rotation that also includes Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, young pitchers who both have ERAs below 3.00. Craig Kimbrel remains one of the game's most fearsome closers with 44 saves and a 1.71 ERA.

It hasn't been enough.

Not with the lack of scoring.

"I bet if you asked everybody on the team, I would say every player has probably said they underachieved this year or they didn't have the year they wanted to have," Johnson said. "That's a tough recipe for winning games."


Associated Press freelancer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd contributed to this report.


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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