(Updated: 10:05 p.m.)
When the Braves started this season 0-4, a number of thoughts went through the minds of fans, not a single one of which was: “Do you realize that we could still go 158-4? That would be a record.”
But when the first month of the season ended Monday, the Braves were operating in relative bliss. (Well, bliss interrupted by the implausible wrecking ball of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but bliss nonetheless.) Until a 9-3 loss to the Pirates, they were 14-4 following that 0-4 hiccup, a nice place to be with the Philadelphia Phillies coming to town.
It’s not merely that the Braves suddenly found themselves winning games but that they were winning them in ways that suggested this stretch won’t be viewed as some aberration at season’s end.
That projection may seem just as knee-jerk as those who were panicking at 0-4. But consider the words of Chipper Jones when he was asked if he ever sensed that last season’s team had the same character traits as this one, even when things were going well in 2011.
“No,” he said. “Last year for a while things just came easy for us. Then when things got tough and we started falling into some bad luck, it just went downhill. Guys’ hits went down. It was like we were sitting there waiting for something bad to happen. But now we’re going out and taking the bull by the horns.”
This all may seem like standard, rah-rah, go-team bunk to some. But the hiring of hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher has paid significant dividends, and there just seems to be an edge about this team that wasn’t evident a year ago.
The reaction to the 0-4 start bordered on hysterical. But it wasn’t completely surprising. When a team dropkicks a playoff berth the way the Braves did a year ago, there is bound to be a hangover with fans. But you can tell a lot about a team by how it reacts during losing streaks (or 0-4 starts).
“I’ve been on teams, not the Braves, where people kind of jokingly would draw a button on the white board with the word ‘panic’ on it,” Matt Diaz said. “I’ve heard stories on other teams where somebody would draw a picture of a ship under the water, as in, ‘This ship is sinking.’ And that was while they were in first place. But there’s never a sense of panic here.”
The Braves managed only 10 runs in the first four games (2.5). They scored 103 in the next 18 (5.7). Until Mike Minor’s implosion Monday — seven runs, two homers, eight hits, three walks in 6 1/3 innings) — the starting pitching had been so good that the bullpen was on a relative spring break.
How do we know this team won’t fizzle like last year’s? We don’t.
But health likely will be the biggest factor, especially Jones. It’s a different team with him. Before Monday, the Braves were 10-1 when he was in the starting lineup, 4-7 when he wasn’t. It’s not just what he brings as a hitter or in the field. He’s a “calming influence” (his words), and he can’t lead if he’s on the bench.
“It’s my responsibility to stay on top of things,” he said. “Obviously 0-4 is not insurmountable, but moreover what you try to get across to these guys is learning how to win. The sign of championship teams are the guys who bring it day in and day out. That’s why we were on top for so long. That’s why the Phillies have been on top for so long.”
Last season he suggested the Braves got complacent (my word).
“We were pitching so well, we didn’t have to go out and score runs,” he said. “Then all of a sudden some of the guys in the rotation went down, guys in the bullpen got tired and it got difficult. When we really had to concentrate on every at-bat, executing in certain situations, whether it was a bunt, hitting behind a runner, getting a guy in from third with two outs, we couldn’t do that.”
It’s still early. We’ve learned that scientific samplings don’t come until September. But at least this year’s team doesn’t look like it’s waiting for something to happen.
By Jeff Schultz