Bullpen options leave much to be desired

Braves relievers allow 6 runs to Pirates over final 3 1/3 innings

Bullpen options leave much to be desired

ATLANTA -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has made a few questionable bullpen decisions recently, but in the latter stages of Friday night's 10-8 loss to the Pirates, it was evident that it's tough to make the right late-inning decisions when so many of the options are unattractive.

"I've got to figure out whatever combination works," Gonzalez said. "It is what it is."

With Friday night's game tied, 4-4, right-handed reliever Brandon Cunniff retired the first two batters he faced in the sixth. Despite the thinness of his bullpen, Gonzalez opted to lift Cunniff and bring in left-hander Luis Avilan to face Gregory Polanco, one of only two left-handers in Pittsburgh's lineup. Avilan walked Polanco and then allowed the Pirates to gain the lead for good with Starling Marte's two-run home run.

Marte's two-run homer

With the lead gone and Avilan's spot due up third in the bottom of the inning, the Braves suddenly were down to five relievers -- or three for the start of the seventh inning if you exclude closer Jason Grilli and setup man Jim Johnson. Gonzalez opted to provide a two-inning appearance to Trevor Cahill, who worked a perfect seventh before allowing five hits during a three-run eighth.

As the bullpen has posted a 9.69 ERA over the past 11 games and a 5.03 ERA on the season, it has become apparent that it might be best for the Braves to rely on as few of the current relief options as a possible on a nightly basis.

"When our starters go deep into the ballgames, I feel like our bullpen is good enough to convert that win," Gonzalez said. "I feel like everybody else, when your starters don't go deep into games, you get exposed more often than not."

It's not like Gonzalez has a hot hand among his middle-relief options. Avilan and Johnson seem to be the most reliable options, but both have allowed three earned runs in the 3 1/3 innings they have worked since May 25. Nick Masset has struggled mightily over the past couple of weeks and the two rookies -- Cunniff and Cody Martin -- have proven their early-season success might have been a mirage.

The Braves are toying with the idea of reuniting with David Carpenter, who was recently designated for assignment by the Yankees. They're also keeping a close eye on Peter Moylan, who began a rehab stint with Triple-A Gwinnett last week. Arodys Vizcaino and Andrew McKirahan could each return from drug suspensions within the next month.

But patience is wearing thin, as the Braves have lost three straight games despite scoring at least six runs in each. They went 133-5 when reaching six runs from 2012-14.

"We know this is a really long season," Avilan said. "I know we're not doing the job right now. But it's a long season, and I'm sure we're going to be able to do the job the rest of the season."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.