Glad I didn’t write anything about it beforehand, because I’ll admit I was like the afternoon radio hosts who drew the ire of Chipper Jones, after he heard them criticize the Braves for their celebration after clinching a spot in the wild-card game.
When we were in Philly last weekend I mentioned to Mark Bowman that didn’t know if the Braves should or would celebrate clinching a spot in the wild-card game, as opposed to clinching a spot in an actual postseason series. Then when I asked the Braves PR man, he told me he was pretty sure they would celebrate if they clinched a wild-card berth.
And so they did. They drenched each other – and later a lot of fans who stuck around till the Braves came back on the field – with dozens of bottles of champagne and cases of beer after Freddie Freeman’s dramatic two-run walk-off homer gave them a 4-3 win Tuesday that clinched a wild-card berth, even though the Braves said they were still aiming for a division title.
The next day, after Chipper heard the aforementioned radio guys criticizing them for celebrating just getting into the do-or-die Wild Card game, a game many of us have referred to as a postseason “play-in” game, Chipper blasted back and said you’re damn right they’re celebrated, because this team deserved it after what it went through, he said.
That included last year’s September collapse and the countless questions they faced in the ensuing months and, in fact, right up through the first week of this month when the Braves were in a brief slump and many were writing them off and saying “here we go again” with September Swoon, Pt. 2.
But they didn’t collapse. Far from it. And after hearing Chipper and a couple of other Braves talk about the celebration and what it meant to them and Fredi Gonzalez to shake off the albatross that was last season’s 10-20 finish and blown wild-card lead of 8-1/2 games in September, well, I changed my mind and came around to their way of thinking. If they felt like celebrating – and they did – then good for them for letting it all out and enjoying themselves. They earned it.
And for any skeptics who assumed that after celebrating like that, the Braves would come out flat or hung over or whatever the next day, and play poorly for a game or two and lose the momentum they had built up, well, they proved that assumption wrong by shutting out the Marlins on Wednesday.
Looking back on it, celebrating like they did, when they did, could help the Braves in the bigger picture. They got it out of their systems, made it official that last year’s collapse was behind them, celebrated the accomplishment of at least extending this thing beyond the regular season. And with that celebration coming more than a week before the end of the regular season and 10 days before their wild-card game, they will both have something to draw from – how good it felt to win, to rally from a run down in the ninth and win – and enough time between that game and their next hugely important game, the wild-card game, to get back to the business of hand and just playing baseball.
So I was wrong. No damage was done by celebrating. To the contrary. They partied for a night, celebrated being one of the 10 major league teams that will play beyond the regular season, and let off plenty of steam after finally, officially shedding the stigma of last year’s collapse, which they’d carried around for 12 months and which so many had predicted would linger and and ruin another season.
By the way, one other thing regarding this last week: Even if the Braves weren’t still mathematically alive in the NL East race, I’m one of those who believe they’d be dead wrong to rest uninjured guys for multiple days, to run out spring-training lineups for most of the last week as they prepared for the wild-card game and possible division series. I say this because I’ve seen it time and time again, teams that clinch early – like so many Braves teams that clinched division titles early – then go into rest-and-coast mode for the last week or two, aren’t able to flip the switch and get back to hitting on all cylinders again.
So those teams that played so well for so long to get to the postseason, come out sluggish or just out of sorts for a game or two and fall behind in the division series, while the team that had to play hard until the end just to get into the tournament, that team barely has time to catch its collective breath and then plays the same kind of ball in the division series that it played for the last month or so to get there.
And that’s why we’ve had an inordinate number of wild-card teams, or division-title teams with far lesser records than others in the same postseason field, go on to win the world series. And so many 95- and 100-win teams get beat in the first round and go home.
• RISP? Pfft: So the Braves are still dead last in the majors in hitting with runners in scoring postion, their .230 average actually lower than it was a few weeks ago when it seemed it could get no worse. The next worst RISP averages belong to the Cubs (.231), Padres (.232), Astros (.233) and Marlins (.234), Mariners (.236), Indians (.237) and Pirates (.240) .
And what do all of those other teams have in common? All have losing records, and all but the Pirates are last or next-to-last in their respective division standings. (The Pirates are fourth in the six-team NL Central, ahead of the Cubs and Astros.)
So why have the Braves been able to overcome that horrendous RISP average? Two things, the first one being obvious: Pitching.
The Braves went 4-10 with a .213 team batting average, 41 runs and a 4.02 ERA in 14 games through Sept. 1, but since then they are 16-6 with 80 runs and a 2.48 ERA in 22 games, including 9-2 with a 2.19 ERA (though only a .225 batting average) in their past 11 games.
The Braves have allowed one or no runs in five of their past 11 games.
Like the Tampa Bay Rays (.245), who are tied for the ninth-worst RISP average in the majors, the Braves offset it with pitching.
Since the All-Star break, the Rays lead baseball with a 2.64 ERA and the Braves are second at 2.98, while the next two behind them are more than one-third of a run back since the break – the Phillies (3.35) and Nationals (3.39). The Rays (.211) and Braves (.239) also have majors’ lowest opponents’ batting averages since the break.
The other thing the Braves have is harder to define. It is “it,” an umbrella term of sorts to describe any number of intangibles that certain teams and/or players have in spades. The Braves have shown “it” at varying times this season, like they did a few years ago when they kept pulling out late-innings comebacks. But that team didn’t have the pitching this team does.
When Freddie Freeman hit that two-run homer, it was just the second game-ending homer that brought a team from behind to clinch a postseason berth. The other was the famed “Shot heard ‘round the world” by Bobby Thomson for the 1951 New York Giants. You’ve seen the footage, however old you are. “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
Freeman was also just the fourth player to clinch a playoff berth with his first career walk-off homer, joining Alfonso Soriano (’99); Hank Aaron (’57), and Thomson (‘51).
No, Freeman’s homer didn’t win a division series or league pennant – there were no division series back then, just the World Series – but it was dramatic, and it came off the bat of a kid who struggled at times this season with vision problems, a finger injury, and then RISP woes. But Freeman stepped up and delivered when it counted, and of course it was Chipper who’d begun the rally with a double and was standing at third, ready to raise his fist in triumph, as soon as Freeman blasted that ball over the center-field fence.
It. They have it. How much of it, we’re going to find out. Because between stellar pitching and some hitters with “it,” you can do a lot of damage if you mix those two things together at the right time.
• Dynamic trio: So I was going through sortable stats today, checking on pitchers and ERAs and such, since Medlen won’t have enough to qualify for the ERA title because of his unusual split-season between middle relief and starting.
Anyway, what I came up with was pretty startling: Among pitchers who’ve worked at least 50 innings this season, the Braves have three of the majors’ six lowest ERAs, led by Craig Kimbrel (1.04) in 60-1/3 innings, which is second-lowest behind Rays closer Fernando Rodney (0.63). Kris Medlen is sixth at 1.64 in 132 innings, and Eric O’Flaherty is seventh at 1.76 in 56-1/3 innings.
Among pitchers who’ve worked at least 75 innings, Medlen is the major league leader by a wide margin, and I’ll bet you can’t guess who is second on the list. Take a moment to think about it before you go to the next paragraph….
Did anyone say Brandon Beachy? Yes, he’s second with a 2.00 ERA in 81 innings. Among pitchers with at least 75 innings this season, third behind the two Braves is Seattle’s Tim Wilhelmsen with a 2.26 ERA in 75-2/3 relief innings, and no one else is as low as 2.40.
• O’Flaherty’s unsung season: Speaking of O’Flaherty, check out his ERAs for the first four months of the season: 4.91 in April, 3.18 in May, 1.86 in June, 0.90 in July. Sense a pattern?
His ERAs in August and September: 0.00 and 0.00.
In fact, he hasn’t allowed an earned run since giving up one in his first appearance after the All-Star break on July 13. In his past 27 appearances, O’Flaherty has given up 15 hits, one unearned run and seven walks with 19 strikeouts in 24 innings.
I asked Fredi Gonzalez about O’Flaherty this afternoon, how he doesn’t get much attention because he’s not a closer.
“He’s under the radar. Baseball people know who he is, but he’s in that role where you’re not in the limelight,” Gonzalez said. “Unless someone is keeping up with holds… And you know what? Knowing his personality, he’s right there. He doesn’t care who gets the glory or the accolades, he just wants to do his job.”
Gonzalez paused a moment and added this: “He’s the most professional, prepared guy that I’ve been around.”
• KKKKKKKKimbrel: As for the Braves closer, in his past 49 appearances Kimbrel has a 0.55 ERA and .103 opponents’ average, allowing 17 hits and three runs (on three homers) with six walks and 92 strikeouts in 49-1/3 innings. His stats read like typos, don’t they. I mean, seriously. Six walks and 92 strikeouts in 49-1/3 innings.
• Battle Axe leading off: No surprise when Chipper hit a leadoff double in Monday’s climactic ninth inning. He’s led the NL for much of the season in OBP when leading off innings, and currently ranks fifth in the majors at .444 in that category (Reed Johnson is 10th in the NL at .407).
When leading off innings, Chipper has hit .353 (30-for-85) with four doubles, five homers, 14 walks, seven strikeouts and a .997 OPS. Not bad for a 40-year-old.
Evan Gattis made Baseball America’s Double-A All-Star team despite having only 272 at-bats including 182 in Double-A. He was the only Braves minor leaguer to make any BA classification All-Star team….
The Braves are hot, and so is the team they are targeted to face in the wild-card game: St. Louis is 8-2 with a 2.09 ERA in its past 10 games. Meanwhile, Washington is 5-7 with a 3.36 ERA in its past 12, including 0-3 in one-run games…
Before today, the Brewers were 17-7 with 137 runs and 32 homers in September before today, but lost three of their past five games and allowed 10 and 12 runs in two of those losses.
• Let’s close this with a classic from the peerless Nina Simone, which you can hear by clicking here.
“I WANT A LITTLE SUGAR IN MY BOWL” performed by Nina Simone
I want a little sugar
in my bowl
I want a little sweetness
down in my soul
I could stand some lovin’
Oh so bad
feel so lonely and I feel so sad
I want a little steam
on my clothes
Maybe I can fix things up
so they’ll go
Whatsa matter Daddy
Come on, save my soul
Drop a little sugar in my bowl
I ain’t foolin’
Drop a little sugar in my bowl
Well I want a little sugar in my bowl
I want a little sweetness down in my soul
You been acting strangely
I’ve been told
Mooove me Daddy
I want some sugar in my bowl
I wanna loose steam
on my clothes
Maybe I can fix things up so they’ll go
Whatsa matter Daddy
Come on save my soul
Droppa little sugar in my bowl
I ain’t foolin’
Drop some sugaaar – yeah – in my bowl.
— David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog