Midnight had come and gone, and Frank Wren stood in Bill Acree’s office just off the main clubhouse. (Acree is the Braves’ director of travel, and earlier he’d been triangulating the hoped-for trip to St. Louis and then to Milwaukee or Phoenix. Moot point now.) The general manager was staring at a TV above the door. Boston had just lost. Tampa Bay had just won.
“Coming into September,” Wren said, disbelief in his voice, “we [meaning the Red Sox and the Braves] had two of the four best records in baseball.”
Neither will be part of the sport’s eight-team tournament, and today the Braves’ one source of consolation is that the Sox choked even harder than they did. (Unbelievable that two of the three biggest September flops in the game’s century-long annals were concluded within moments of each other. The third happened in 1964 to the Pholdin’ Phils.) There were similarities in these contemporary collapses — starting pitchers got hurt and everything unraveled — but we’ll let long-suffering New Englanders suffer long with theirs.
As for the local nine: Wren did his job. He built a good-looking team. He landed Michael Bourn in July and fleshed out his roster with Matt Diaz and Jack Wilson in August. (And what did the glove man Wilson do? Became the new Brooks Conrad by erring on a double-play grounder that became Philadelphia’s second run Wednesday night.) This should have been a playoff team, and for 5 1/2 months it was playoff-bound. Then it derailed itself.
Blame should attach itself to Fredi Gonzalez, but not the sort that has been tossed around. Jose Constanza would not have saved the season. (He’s a journeyman. Come on.) Starting Derek Lowe in Game No. 161 was a justifiable choice. (You’d start the rookie Julio Teheran instead? Come on.) This wasn’t so much about managing situations — every manager, even the learned La Russa, whiffs on a nightly basis — as in managing people.
I’m not a big fan of team meetings, but sometimes they’re necessary. Gonzalez had one after the Braves lost seven of nine early in the month, which might have been a day too late, and another after they lost Game No. 161 to fall into a tie with St. Louis. What Fredi said Tuesday night was appropriate — “I wouldn’t pick any other guys over you to go out and win a game” — but by then the panic was full-blown. Panic is why this season ended after 162 games.
Ninth inning, Game No. 162: The kid closer Craig Kimbrel is on to do as he has done 46 times in 53 tries — slam the door. He yields a leadoff single to Placido Polanco, strikes out Carlos Ruiz, walks the part-timer Ben Francisco. It’s clear the kid closer, who’s 23, is trying to hurl the ball through the backstop. (”I was overthrowing,” Kimbrel admitted.) Brian McCann walks to the mound.
Roger McDowell sits in the dugout.
Only after Kimbrel walks Jimmy Rollins to load the bases does the pitching coach emerge to speak to his kid pitcher. (Something similar happened in Monday’s game, when McDowell watched as the Phillies mustered four base runners and one run in the fourth inning before going to the mound to counsel the rookie Randall Delgado.) It’s entirely possible that a coaching visitation would have had no effect on Kimbrel, but why not try? Why didn’t Gonzalez say, “Roger, get out there,” one batter sooner?
I asked. This was Fredi’s response: “That’s here or there.”
But it isn’t. There are certain things managers can do to manage a game, and dispatching a pitching coach is one. The Braves’ dugout seemed to be a beat slow in this final series, this whole final month. Again, it might have made no difference. Again, why not try?
And then the hitting, or the lack thereof. Once the Phillies tied it, nearly every Brave wanted to be Kirk Gibson. Guys were overswinging as badly as Kimbrel had overthrown. The Phils were deploying pitchers who won’t work a postseason inning, and the Braves’ flailing made Justin DeFratus and David Herndon look like Mariano Rivera.
“We’ve been swinging really, really hard for a while,” said Chipper Jones, who had the best late-game swing — the deep drive that Michael Martinez hauled down in the 10th — of any Brave. And that, sad to say, was this team’s signature: Swing really hard in case it hit something.
Under hitting coach Terry Pendleton, the 2010 Braves led the National League in on-base percentage. Under Larry Parrish, the 2011 Braves were 14th of 16 teams. Parrish was hired as hitting coach despite never having been a big-league hitting coach. Maybe the Braves would have hit .193 in September with runners in scoring position with Ty Cobb as their tutor. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t.
Yes, players ultimately must bear the blame for plays unmade, but this fine team was, in the end, both too laid-back in its oversight and too tightly wrapped in its playing. I don’t think Fredi Gonzalez needs to be fired — he did, after all, lose his two best starting pitchers — but I do think he needs to be more assertive. He absolutely needs a new hitting coach, but …
No such luck. Fredi announced Thursday the coaching staff would return intact. Which makes you wonder about Fredi.
By Mark Bradley