(Updated: 11:40 p.m.)
Maybe it was the raised expectations that followed the Dan Uggla trade, or maybe it was the euphoria of an anticipated lineup with Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman (the cover of Sports Illustrated!), or maybe it was just the Braves’ return to the playoffs last season that got us all drunk.
But something has been off all season.
Braves general manager Frank Wren said Tuesday, “For most of the season we had the third or fourth best record in baseball, and one of the best pitching staffs.” And that may be true. But there never has been a sense of rhythm to the season. It seems like something always has gone wrong, whether it was Dan Uggla’s half season of whiffs, or Heyward’s post-injury mutant swing, or Martin Prado devolving from all-everything to everything’s-a-struggle, to Derek Lowe — well, let’s not even get started on Derek Lowe — to the injuries to the suddenly mortal tendencies of Craig Kimbrel.
The Braves are an air mattress with holes. Patch one, another opens up.
That team with the “third or fourth” best record in baseball? They have only the eighth-best record today. Since a high-water mark of 79-53, the Braves have gone only 9-14, including Tuesday’s desperately needed 4-0 win at Florida. Philadelphia lapped them in the National League East. Their wild-card lead has been trimmed to 2½ games over St. Louis.
Even with the team’s flaws, there was no way to see this kaputski coming.
Consider: After an 8-3 win over the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 25, the Braves led San Francisco by 9½ games and St. Louis by 10½ for the wild card. They had 30 games left. Simple math said if the Braves played only .500 for the rest of the season, the Giants would need to go 25-6, and the Cardinals 26-5, just to catch them.
The biggest problem has been injuries to starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. The Braves needed Lowe to pick it up to support the kiddie corps behind Tim Hudson. He didn’t have to look like a $15 million pitcher (which unfortunately he is). He just couldn’t look like a $1.50 one. But here’s Lowe’s numbers in his past three starts: 0-3, 26 hits, 17 runs (15 earned) and an ERA of 10.13.
If the Braves had given Nevin Shapiro $15 million, it would’ve been a better investment.
Starting pitching problems have led to an overworked bullpen. Don’t blame any of the young starters because they never should have been put in this position. Don’t blame Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and the rest because the bullpen never should have resembled an abusive textile factory in the 1960s.
Then you watch games like Monday’s 6-5 loss to the Marlins and wonder if it just wasn’t meant to be this season. They were one strike from a victory when Chipper Jones lost a high chopper in the lights and Omar Infante — with five home runs in 606 plate appearances — takes Kimbrel deep for the first walkoff homer of his career.
None of this means the Braves won’t make the playoffs. Nor does it preclude the possibility of them even going on a long and bizarre run. But they’re doing little to stir confidence. They even seem to be sliding off the Atlanta sports landscape.
If the Braves miss the playoffs, manager Fredi Gonzalez probably will take a hit in the public. But the man has changed the lineup a zilllion times, even having the guts to sit down Heyward and taking Chipper Jones out of the No. 3 spot.
“We’ve just got to play better,” Wren said. “We’ve just fallen into a little bit of a funk.”
It’s a helpless feeling for a general manager at this point of the season because the reality is that all of the moves have been made.
“We still feel like we’ll be fine,” he said. “Once you get through that clinch period, then everybody can take a breath and you can start anew in the postseason.”
Still waiting to exhale.
By Jeff Schultz