Fredi Gonzalez was quietly handed the Braves’ managerial job before Bobby Cox ever stepped out the door in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge deal, and nobody really had a problem with it.
He had the resume and the personality. Everybody liked and respected him. He knew the players, the organization and the city. The Braves weren’t making over the manager’s office as much as they were changing a light bulb.
Something went wrong.
This is not a “Fire Fredi Gonzalez” column. But we’ve just witnessed one of the worst collapses in sports history, and the Braves can’t just assume that a few roster tweaks are going to fix the problem. When a team goes 10-20 down the stretch — including 0-9 against their two biggest competitors (Philadelphia and St. Louis) — and loses three consecutive series to the division’s flotsam (Mets, Marlins, Nationals), this isn’t about just injuries or a few guys going into a slump.
The vibe was missing this season. That’s on Gonzalez. The team fell apart when it needed to come together, blowing an 8½-game lead in 23 days. That’s on Gonzalez. The Braves seemed tight and meek and borderline frightened, as if waiting, hoping, white-knuckle-praying for a playoff spot to just fall into their lap. They didn’t just take it, and didn’t play like they felt they deserved it.
That’s certainly on Gonzalez. The shine just came off the perfect replacement.
I understand this isn’t football. Managers make in-game decisions, but they aren’t calling plays. They change the lineup and the batting order. Gonzalez did that. He pulled Chipper Jones out of the No. 3 spot. He benched Jason Heyward.
Ultimately, the question is whether a manager is making a team better, making it believe. The Braves clearly weren’t, therefore Gonzalez clearly didn’t.
Even with injuries, this was twice the team that reached the postseason last year and lost three one-run games to the eventual World Series champions in San Francisco.
Gonzalez doesn’t need to go. But he needs to change. Or maybe someone. Gonzalez said Thursday that all of his coaches are coming back. But for all the screams from the cheap seats about former hitting coach Terry Pendleton, his replacement, Larry Parrish, didn’t bring anything to the table.
Maybe Gonzalez just needs to change himself. Maybe he came in and, consciously or subconsciously, didn’t want to disrupt things too much in the first season after Bobby Cox retired. It was such a feel-good season last year, that would be understandable. But if that was the strategy, it backfired.
When asked about the collapse following Wednesday’s final loss, Chipper Jones said, “It’s cruel, because probably nobody in Atlanta sports is probably under as much scrutiny as he is filling in for Bobby Cox. To have it slip away in late September, it’s cruel. It’s really cruel. It’s not indicative of the way this team played, the way he managed, and what we deserved in this situation.”
Not sure about the “deserved” part of that quote. The Braves just played 162 games. That’s enough time.
They blew it. They blew it like no team in Atlanta sports history. That blew it like few teams in all of sports history. The only people who aren’t saying today that they blew it live in Boston — because they have their own problems.
What just happened is mind-numbing. But even before the collapse, the Braves seemed to have chemistry issues. They never quite came together like most anticipated. This was a team that figured to challenge Philadelphia in the National League East and possibly for a World Series.
There aren’t a lot of tangible things we can pin on Gonzalez. He certainly stuck with Derek Lowe too long, and the decision to start him Tuesday over rookie Julio Teheran blew up in the manager’s face. He made the bold decision to go with Jose Constanza over the struggling Heyward in right field for several starts, which seemed to ignite the lineup. But then he switched back to Heyward, who is the better player, but still seemed to be a mess.
But it never should have come down to that decision, or to a few starts by Lowe. When a team goes 10-20 to close the season and gets swept at home in the last three games, the issues are bigger than that.
Implosions like this are on the manager. He didn’t make the team better. The Braves underachieved. And Gonzalez just lost the benefit of the doubt.
By Jeff Schultz