They’d been portrayed, not without cause, as choking dogs. They finished September having won two of nine series and having watched, numbly if not nimbly, an 8 1/2-game lead go poof. But even a choking dog can have his day, or night, and the 2011 Braves tried to give themselves one Wednesday.
They failed. They failed in the way this entire month had been a failure. They took an 8 1/2-game lead and threw it all away, and by the time they got done losing Game No. 162 they had made us suffer through all the failures that comprised this failed month.
They led 3-1 after three innings and 3-2 after eight, but Game No. 162, like the season itself, lapped into overtime. They hit early, then stopped hitting. They saw a key run thrown out at the plate. In sum, they suffered the kind of wobble that had gotten them into this mess in the first place.
Before Game No. 162, Chipper Jones had noted that the populace seemed ready to box these Braves’ ears. (Or words to that effect.) Attempting a tiny joke, someone suggested such civic outrage only went to show that Atlanta cares. Said Jones: “We care, too. We care more than anybody else.”
Fredi Gonzalez, lately portrayed as a do-nothing manager, cared enough to do something after Tuesday’s ugly loss. He sat his men down and told them he wouldn’t pick any other bunch over this to go out and win a game. Then, being practical, Gonzalez advised his charges to get some sleep and come back ready to play. “It wasn’t Knute Rockne,” he said Wednesday. But then, brightly: “Maybe 50 years from now it will be in a book of great speeches.”
It might not have been Henry V at Agincourt, but it — or something — did the trick. The Braves were loose and supple from the start of Game No. 162, which isn’t easy to do when your constituency stands ready to break out the rotten tomatoes. They had leadoff hits in each of the first five innings. They fell behind in the top of the first but answered in the bottom, and Dan Uggla’s crushed homer off Cole Hamels’ 0-2 fastball untied matters in the third.
And not a moment too soon. Uggla’s ball landed in the bleachers about the time the Cardinals were about to begin their game against 105-loss Houston, and sure enough St. Louis put up a huge early number. (Five first-inning runs on seven first-inning hits against Brett Myers, who like Chipper is an alum of Jacksonville’s Bolles School. Chipper had been hoping for “Bolles mojo.” No go.)
This became the game these Braves had played from April through the August: Tim Hudson gave them 6 1/3 innings textbook innings, and then the once-bulletproof bullpen took the baton. Eric O’Flaherty needed two pitches to induce Shane Victorino to hit into a double play to end the seventh. Jonny Venters walked/plunked the bases loaded in the eighth but struck out Raul Ibanez on three pitches.
Then it was the ninth and the kid closer entered to do as he’d done all season. Instead Craig Kimbrel, who’d blown two saves this month, blew another by slinging the ball around like a bad point guard. He yielded a leadoff single to Placido Polanco, walked the bases loaded, saw Chase Utley drive home the tying run with a fly ball and walked Hunter Pence to boot. The bulletproof bullpen had been hit.
Kimbrel was pulled for Kris Medlen, who in his second appearance in 14 months held the tie and got the Braves through the 10th. The Braves had a chance to win in the bottom of the inning, but Michael Martinez hauled in Chipper’s drive with Michael Bourn aboard. And neither Brooks Conrad, who struck out, nor Martin Prado, who tapped out, could drive home Jason Heyward in the 12th.
To the 13th. Scott Linebrink entered. Ahead 0-2 on Brian Schneider, Linebrink walked him. Chase Utley moved Schneider to third with a two-out single, and Pence brought him home with a broken-bat grounder in the second-base hole. (”Couldn’t have thrown it out there any better,” Gonzalez said.) Down a run, the Braves were three outs from elimination.
Jones led off against David Herndon and struck out. (The Braves’ at-bats from the ninth on had been little except hero swings, to unheroic avail.) Then Uggla induced a walk. But Freddie Freeman rapped into a 3-6-3 double play, and the season was done. There would be no trip to St. Louis, no 163rd game.
There will, alas, be only an aftertaste that will linger long. The 2011 Cardinals became the second team ever to trail by 8 1/2 games in September and reach the postseason. The 1964 Cardinals, beneficiaries of the infamous Philly Phold, were the first, and that’s the miserable company these Braves will keep.
They won their 81st game on Sept. 1. They never got to 90. They led by three games with five to play and never won again. They lost their 162nd game to a team that had no real reason to care about winning. They had the lead and the best rookie closer ever on the mound, and they lost. If you want to say they choked, nobody will argue.
The kid closer all but volunteered the cursed C-word. “You have to bottle up emotions and harness them,” Kimbrel said. “I didn’t do that today. September’s the hardest month of the year, and I let my emotions get to me. Things just started to move too fast, and I couldn’t put it together.”
Kimbrel was overthrowing. The hitters were overswinging. “We’ve been swinging really hard for a while,” Jones said. “When a guy’s living two or three inches off the outside corner, that’s not a ball you’re going to hit out of the ballpark.”
To return to Chipper’s assertion of eight hours earlier, these Braves absolutely tried their hardest. They actually tried too hard. But part, maybe even most, of being a champion is the capacity to perform under pressure, and these Braves buckled. There was, contrary to popular belief, no great mismanagement in this game: Fredi G.’s team was in position to win the exact same way it had all summer, except that summer ended and September arrived and the winning ceased.
“It just got a little wild,” Chipper said, speaking of Game No. 162 but actually the whole lost month. When the Cardinals began to close, the Braves were never the same. Even without Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, this team should have had enough to play into October. It won’t. It won’t because it choked. End of story.
By Mark Bradley