LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Braves believe one thing that gives them hope this season is that, no matter how many knocks and pings they encounter over 162 games, the road can’t possibly be littered with as many engine parts as we witnessed during last rites last September. But what if it happens again?
What if Jason Heyward in Year 3 isn’t much better than Jason Heyward in Year 2. What if Dan Uggla flails for too many weeks, Brian McCann wilts and this time Martin Prado develops, I dunno, gout? The Braves need a safety net. Actually, what they need is a new mindset.
Most expected this club to become more aggressive last season under manager Fredi Gonzalez. That didn’t happen. If the Braves’ offense wasn’t quite the sit-back-and-wait-for-the-long-ball team we had come to know in the 1990s, they certainly didn’t epitomize small ball. More like dead ball.
Their pitching staff ranked fourth in the majors in ERA (3.48) and batting average (.240). Making the playoffs never should have come down to the season’s final spasm. But the Braves were buried by an offense that ranked 22nd in runs scored (641), 26th in batting average (.243) and 27th in stolen bases (77). This isn’t all about injuries and slumps. It’s fundamentals: hitting a grounder when needed, hitting a sacrifice fly when needed, advancing runners, taking an extra base.
The Braves whiffed at so many “situational hitting” crucial times last season: .249 with runners in scoring position, .219 with a runner on third and two outs. The firing of hitting coach Larry Parrish didn’t come as a surprise.
But this isn’t just about clutch moments. The team seldom made opponents uncomfortable in the field.
“We want to put a little pressure on teams any way we can,” said first-base coach Terry Pendleton, who in the mid- to late-1980s played for a team, St. Louis, that excelled in manufacturing runs out of little. “We have some speed. We have guys who can take the extra base. We just need to start doing that. I hope we’re going to be more aggressive this season. But it’s a mindset, and it has to start here [in spring training].”
It starts with Michael Bourn. This will be the first time the Braves enter a season with speed at the top of the batting order since Rafael Furcal. Bourn, acquired at the trade deadline last season, played in less than one-third of the Braves’ games (53), yet led the team in stolen bases (22). He will tell you that he has been fast “ever since I came out of the womb.”
But this is about more than speed. Bourn is only the centerpiece of an adjusted floor plan. Baseball has changed. Chemically aided power numbers are diminishing. As Gonzalez said, “The days of just sitting around and, bop, playing slow-pitch softball are over with for a lot of the reasons you know [performance-enhancing drugs].”
No team has done it better than the Cardinals. The Braves aren’t built like those Whitey Herzog teams, but they can bring elements of that mindset to their game, and they need to.
“In St. Louis, we knew what we were and weren’t capable of doing, and we had to stretch that out,” Pendleton said. “We had guys with speed, we were able to put the ball in play, and when you have that, you’re able to put pressure on other clubs.
“The only way we were going to score runs was with our legs. So we tried to take advantage of that, whether it was push-bunting, hitting a ground ball to second to get a runner to third, squeezing him home, going from first to third, stretching out a single to a double. We had to do those things — and we had to do it starting in spring training, whether we got thrown out or not.”
Something will go wrong this season. It always does. But an aggressive approach doesn’t have to change. That’s something the Braves have lacked.
By Jeff Schultz
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