LOS ANGELES — Braves manager Brian Snitker has repeatedly said he will be cautious with his pitching staff as it works through the early stages of a season preceded by a short Spring Training. But it was unclear why Sean Newcomb was the first option out of the bullpen in the fourth inning of a 7-4 loss to the Dodgers on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.
When a reporter asked why he used Newcomb, Snitker replied, “as opposed to who?”
A.J. Minter could have been an option with the Braves trailing by just three runs with two outs and Freddie Freeman coming to the plate in the fourth. Instead, Freeman walked and Trea Turner followed with a three-run double off Newcomb.
“If I start doing that with [A.J.] Minter and Will Smith and [Tyler] Matzek … if I use those guys in that position, then we won’t have them by the All-Star break,” Snitker said.
There’s no doubt Snitker has the responsibility of ensuring his top relievers stay fresh throughout the entire season. But none of the primary relievers were used on Sunday and the team has an off-day on Thursday. Plus, with 28 players on the active roster through May 1, the Braves are currently carrying 16 pitchers.
The decision to go with Newcomb became even more questionable once the Braves cut their deficit to 6-4 and chased Clayton Kershaw during a three-run sixth.
Minter or Darren O’Day, who both made scoreless appearances on Monday, were other options to use in the fourth. But a cautious approach gave Newcomb another chance to prove himself. This time the challenge was Freeman, who further endeared himself to his new fan base with a first-inning home run against Huascar Ynoa.
“It feels like we’re in Hollywood and you couldn’t script it any better for him,” Snitker said of Freeman homering in his first career at-bat against the Braves, who had served as the first baseman’s only previous employer before this season.
This was a matchup of one of the best players in Braves history against one of the club’s most maligned pitchers of the past few years. The result was a four-pitch walk, which was followed by Trea Turner’s three-run double.
“It’s just tough when you come in and have a four-pitch walk,” Snitker said. “He’s got the stuff to match up against Freddie. His stuff can match up against anybody. He’s just got to throw it over.”
Nobody has questioned Newcomb’s stuff. It’s what led the Braves to trade Andrelton Simmons for him after the 2015 season. It’s what kept him a highly regarded prospect leading up to his 2017 MLB debut.
But five years later, minus a successful 2019 season, the 28-year-old southpaw has struggled with a 6.71 ERA and 1.80 WHIP since 2020. And he found himself on the mound for a key inning against the Dodgers.
“This is one game in April,” Snitker said. “They can’t pitch every day. We’ve got to be careful. We might have the lead the next two days and use them. If we do and we had used them in that situation tonight and it didn’t work out, you don’t have them for a [potential] win. Then, you’re going to be asking me the same question.”