The Braves hope this is just about injuries. They hope it’s just about a ground ball freakishly caroming off Chipper Jones’ calf and the fact none of their starting pitchers suddenly can make it through three innings without getting hit on the head with a mallet.
But when a team seemingly crumbles whenever adversity hits, there’s something wrong.
The Braves have gone from the third-best record in baseball (26-16) to losing eight consecutive games, the past five by a combined score of 36-15. Stay calm, say the eternal optimists. It’s a mere hiccup. Maybe. But if this spiral is being magnified, it’s justified.
The slide comes with the backdrop of last season’s unraveling. General manager Frank Wren brought back the same team that went 10-20 in the final stretch in 2011 because he viewed the drain-circling as an aberration. But here we are again, watching players do dumb things in the field, throw two-strike grapefruits down the middle and grip bats like they’re dangling from a rope bridge over a rocky canyon.
Injuries, erratic pitching and a deteriorating defense are all significant issues. But what happened to remembering how to compete? What happened to intangibles such as chemistry and leadership? The Braves are at the point now where they have to prove those things exist in their clubhouse because there certainly has been no evidence of them.
They want to forget about last year. Sorry. Saying it’s behind them and playing like it’s behind them are two different things.
They had a certain chemistry two years ago when they reached the postseason in Bobby Cox’s final season. They survived losing starting pitchers. They survived injuries to Jones and Martin Prado and the great Troy Glaus Belly Flop of 2010. They found ways to win games. There were many nights they left you thinking, “How did they do that?”
Resilient teams don’t hit a bump and face-plant. They don’t get body-slammed in a four-game series at Cincinnati, then come home and get hammered again in a three-game series against Washington.
The Nationals were missing Mike Morse, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos. Did they groan? Nope. They just won — 7-4, 8-4 and 7-2.
St. Louis came to town Monday and won 8-2. The Braves were outscored 30-12 in the first four games of this homestand.
So where’s the evidence that last year was an aberration?
Wren has done little. There were two minor moves Tuesday: reliever Kris Medlen was sent to Gwinnett to get in a couple of starts, with the intent of eventually adding him to the Braves’ rotation. Jose Constanza was called up to fill out a dented bench.
It was the equivalent of dusting the furniture when a ceiling caves in.
There have been no major trades, and Wren suggested he’s not close to that mindset. He said the uncertain status of so many players, as opposed to having guys on the disabled list, makes it difficult to get a read on the team.
“Freddie Freeman may suddenly wake up one day and be able to see,” Wren said.
He probably didn’t mean that to sound as funny as it did.
I understand Wren’s dilemma. But isn’t it fair to question to makeup of a team that pulls apart and not together?
“We haven’t seen any of that,” he said. “One thing you can be pretty sure of is this group is very close. They’re in each other’s corner. When you have four guys who are in or out of the lineup on any given night, it impacts what you can do in the lineup, it impacts how long you stay with a pitcher and when you hit for him. Believe me, these are things we talk about every day.”
Nor does Wren believe any of this should fall on his manager, Fredi Gonzalez.
“He didn’t blow sand in the eyes of Freddie Freeman,” Wren said. “He didn’t give a virus to Brian McCann. He didn’t hit a ball off Chipper’s ankle.”
True. But should a manager be doing more to help his team through a crisis?
Everything is on the table. Everything should be being questioned. Bad things happen to good teams every season. But good teams don’t get punch-drunk and keel over.
And this is starting to look a little too much like last September.
By Jeff Schultz