SAN DIEGO – The Braves lead the National League wild-card race but have lost eight of the past 12 games as September approaches. Fans can be forgiven if this is starting to feel all too familiar.
Twelve months isn’t a lot of time to forget one of the worst collapses ever by a would-be postseason team.
The Braves’ mantra since spring training has been that last season’s meltdown – 20 losses in the final 30 games – was something they learned from and made them stronger, but was otherwise behind them. They still said something to that effect Wednesday, on the last day of a 4-6 trip that included series losses at Washington and San Diego and a four-game split at San Francisco.
“I’m not thinking about last year, I’m not thinking about yesterday, I’m not thinking about tomorrow,” third baseman Chipper Jones said after Wednesday’s 8-2 loss against the Padres, in which the Braves played uncharacteristically sloppy defense and got a rough outing from Tommy Hanson, a recent weak link in an otherwise improved starting rotation.
“I’m just going to go out and play the game and I’m going to play it as well as I can and let the chips fall where they may,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to win some close, big ballgames down the stretch. And I don’t foresee it being any different than last year in the fact that the last couple of weeks to a month of the season, every game is a playoff game.”
Jones, who’s retiring after the season, and his younger teammates believe the Braves are in better position this year to avoid a September swoon. So does manager Fredi Gonzalez.
They based that on the lineup and starting rotation being deeper and healthier, and the bullpen being more rested than it was entering September 2011, when closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Jonny Venters struggled after otherwise terrific seasons.
This year, Braves pitchers lead the NL with a 3.07 ERA since the All-Star break, and they’re getting strong work from four starters: Tim Hudson, ascendant ex-reliever Kris Medlen, July addition Paul Maholm and much-improved Mike Minor. Hanson’s recent starts are troublesome, but the Braves could have an option for his spot if Ben Sheets’ sore shoulder calms down.
With Hanson and Jair Jurrjens hurt most of the second half in 2011, the Braves pieced together their rotation and got 11 September starts from rookies Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran, too often of the five-inning (or less) variety. Derek Lowe was an abysmal 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA in September.
“Last year I just remember we kept getting down early, one, two, three runs,” catcher David Ross said. “It felt like for half a month everything was an uphill battle, every win was really tough. It doesn’t feel that way this year. We’ve got guys who are going to keep us in the ballgame, do their job and just go out there and have fun and grind at-bats.”
After having Kimbrel, Venters and Eric O’Flaherty all among baseball’s top eight in relief appearances in 2011, including a majors-high 85 for Venters, the Braves have none among the National League’s top 10 this season.
“Hopefully it’ll help them in this last month,” center fielder Michael Bourn said. “Last year I noticed we were putting them in every day when I came [in a July trade]. Even though they’re young, everybody gets tired at some point, I don’t care who you are.
“Things like that happen and you learn from it, and you try your best not to let it happen again. We tried our best last year. This year we’re going to try to give it a better effort that we did last year. I think we’ll come out better than we did last year, too.”
The Braves seem to be enjoying the games more in the second half this season than a year ago, when they began to wonder what else could go wrong, and question whether their injury-riddled pitching staff could hold it together. Or who in the lineup could pick up the slack on any given day for the Braves to hold off teams like the Cardinals, who heated up when the Braves stumbled in 2011.
“For me the fun is, I’m on the field every day, able to contribute and go out there and affect the ballgame,” said right fielder Jason Heyward, enjoying a resurgent season after being slowed by a sore shoulder in 2011 and spending time on the disabled list and the bench. “Not just be out there for support, but be able to actually affect the ballgame physically, playing the game.
“That’s what you want to play for, for the chance to win the division, going to the playoffs and playing some October baseball.”
The Braves’ 2011 collapse began in late August, a month that saw Heyward hit .213 with two homers in 47 at-bats. This year in August he’s hit .280 with a team-high seven homers and 17 RBIs in 107 at-bats.
Martin Prado struggled mightily last season after missing 5-1/2 weeks for staph infection that required surgery. He hit .219 with a .611 OPS in August 2011, and has hit .275 with a .776 OPS this month.
But while those two are back to their 2010 All-Star form, the Braves are getting career-worst seasons from catcher Brian McCann, who has hit .194 with no extra-base hits in August while playing with a frayed labrum and cyst in his right shoulder, and Dan Uggla, hitting .150 with six homers in his past 71 games.
McCann also struggled late last season, hitting .180 in his last 37 games after returning too soon from a DL stint for an oblique strain.
Trailing Atlanta by 10-1/2 games in the wild-card race on the morning of Aug. 26, 2011, the Cardinals won 23 of their final 32 games including a sweep against the Braves, whom they overtook on the last day of the season to win the wild card.
There was only one wild card in each league, so the Braves were done. Shell-shocked and done for the year after a 13-inning, season-ending loss to the Phillies.
Don’t look now, but the Cardinals were just 2-1/2 games behind the Braves (74-57) before Thursday, when the Braves had a day off following a demanding stretch of 20 games in 20 days. St. Louis played Washington on Thursday in the opener of a series that could help to either shrink the Nationals’ five-game lead over the Braves in the NL East standings, or increase the Braves’ wild-card lead.
But here’s another factor that could make this September different than last: Starting this year two wild-card teams in each league advance to the postseason, not just one. That’s another reason the Braves might avoid stressing out so much if their recent sub-.500 stretch continues for another week and their fan base and media members start drawing more comparisons to last September.
Or, maybe not. Because with the addition of the second wild card there’s a one-game playoff between wild-card teams to determine who advances to the division-series round. That’s made it more of an imperative to win the division, since a wild-card berth no longer means a slot in a best-of-five division series. It just gets you a “play-in” game against the other wild card. Win or go home.
And so the Braves’ goal remains the division title. Even though they just wasted an opportunity to gain ground on Washington when the Nationals lost five in a row while Atlanta sputtered on its trip, the Braves still have a chance, albeit not a great one, of catching them. A year ago, the Phillies had all but clinched the division in August.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Jones said of the remaining schedule. “Let’s go out and grind at-bats, execute our pitches, and make plays in the field and win ballgames. Plain and simple.”