Update: The Braves are no longer 0-3. They’re 0-4. They lost to the Astros on Monday by five runs, which takes some doing. And now we return to regularly scheduled programming.
Stipulation: It’s a long season. It’s so long that, by the time the Braves finish their regular season, the Georgia Bulldogs — who haven’t yet gotten to G-Day — will have played five actual games. To judge a baseball team off its first series is akin to rating an NFL club on how it handles the opening kickoff of Week 1. That said …
The Braves didn’t enter 2012 with the benefit of the doubt carried by most winning teams. The Braves, as we know, went 9-18 in September 2011. They began the new season by getting swept by a team picked to finish last in the National League East. The awoke Monday having gone 9-21 over the past 30 regular-season games. That’s a winning percentage of .300. Carried over a 162-game schedule, that rate would yield a 49-113 record, which would be the worst in Atlanta annals.
But enough non-fun with numbers. I don’t expect the Braves to lose 113 games. I’m on record as believing they’ll win 92 or thereabouts and make the playoffs, perhaps as NL East champ. I thought last week — and think still — that this is a good team. But even Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm couldn’t fail to note that the Braves of Opening Weekend 2012 bore a lamentable likeness to the Braves of September 2011.
The Epic Collapse ended with them being swept by Philadelphia. The new season commenced with another sweep. Midway through Game 2, the issue wasn’t so much if they’d win — they didn’t lead in the series — but if they’d manage a run. Six innings into Game 3, they hadn’t even mustered a hit.
The weekend’s unhappy totals: Seven runs, 14 hits, 11 walks against 25 strikeouts, an on-base percentage of .238 and a team batting average of .151. Come back, Larry Parrish! All is forgiven!
I’m kidding about the last part. But black humor will soon give way to utter bleakness if the Braves don’t start to hit and win. There’s no consolation in noting that the Yankees and Red Sox likewise started 0-3, or that the Marlins were 1-3, or that the Phillies scored one fewer run in their first three games than did the local Hitless Wonders. At this point, the Braves can’t worry about anyone else. They’ve got to get themselves right.
A team coming off an egregious September — and then a pretty rotten spring training, not that spring training counts — needs to win games and influence people, and it needs to do it soon. Otherwise the doubters will be in full cry, and some of that doubt will spread to the clubhouse. It was never going to be easy for the Braves to put September 2011 behind them, but it will be impossible if April 2012 becomes more of the same.
Baseball isn’t so much a game of momentum — momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitching, to quote the apt phrase — as belief. Even good teams have crummy weeks. By Memorial Day, though, you can begin to tell which teams, in their heart of hearts, see themselves as winners. The same Braves roster in a different year might be able to shrug off an awful April; I’m not sure this one can.
A sorry start could impel Frank Wren to start making trades. He resisted the urge over the winter, but he’s not by nature the most patient of general managers. Some of you will say: “Wren needs to be making trades hand over fist!” Even if he does, beggars tend not to be choosy. Would Wren in right-the-ship mode be able to wait for a sweet deal — getting Michael Bourn without sacrificing a prime arm — or would desperation trump good sense?
Nor would a poor April augur well for the biggest hire of Wren’s tenure. Fredi Gonzalez was seen as such an obvious successor to Bobby Cox that the GM didn’t bother to interview anyone else. To suggest that the collapse was all the manager’s fault is to ignore the obvious: Gonzalez’s best starting pitchers got hurt. But when a team falls to pieces at the shank of one season and makes almost no personnel changes, the front office has essentially said: “We’ve got enough talent.” When a team believed to have enough talent doesn’t win, what usually happens?
I know, I know. A week from now, this could all be moot. The Braves could go on a tear and claim first place and Gonzalez could be managing this club for the next 15 years. It is, let’s say again, a long season. But the 2012 Braves are already on the clock.
By Mark Bradley