Half their season behind them, the Braves awoke Thursday holding third place in the five-team National League East, standing fifth in the wild-card chase. They were six games behind Washington, their biggest deficit of 2012.
(On Thursday night the Braves beat the Cubs to halve the series and the 10-game homestand but gained no ground in the East. First the Mets and then the Nationals rallied to win in the bottom of their respective ninth innings, prompting groans from those Braves players watching in the clubhouse.)
Asked Thursday afternoon to characterize the first 81 games of 2012, manager Fredi Gonzalez said: “Just OK. We have pretty high standards around here. This was just OK.”
Said Frank Wren, the general manager: “I think we’re better than our record. I think everyone — players, staff — would say that.”
At the close of business on the Fourth of July, the Braves were 42-39. At the midpoint last season, they were 46-35. The Braves chose not to make major offseason moves because they believed their September collapse was an aberration, and certainly no month in 2012 has been so epically wretched. Neither has one been outstanding: These Braves were 14-9 in April, 14-15 in May, 13-12 in June.
The Braves rank sixth in the league in team batting average, ninth in ERA. That latter bit flatters to deceive: Their starting pitchers have posted the league’s 12th-best ERA; a year ago, the Braves’ rotation was fifth-best.
Said Chipper Jones, telling no lies: “We haven’t had the same pitching, at least in terms of starters, we did last year. We’ve hit better than last year, but we haven’t always hit consistently.”
There are nights when the Braves’ batting order can seem as potent as an American League club’s — and try finding a better outfield than this — but other times these hitters go hungry. The nightly yield for the Braves in the first three games of their series against the Cubs was one run, then 10 runs, then one again. Quite the pattern, eh?
Wren: “I’ve used the ‘C’ word very consistently — we haven’t been consistent from game to game. I think Chipper said it best the other day: We need to bring it every night.”
Obvious question: Why don’t the Braves bring it every night? (Here we stipulate that, this being baseball and baseball seasons lasting six month, some waxing and waning is inevitable.) Chipper’s suggestion: “When you have young guys, you can get young mistakes and inconsistency.”
That might account for the wobbles of starting pitchers Mike Minor (who’s 24) and Randall Delgado (22), or even first baseman Freddie Freeman (22) and right fielder Jason Heyward (22). But what of second baseman Dan Uggla (32) or catcher Brian McCann (28) — neither of whom was, as of Thursday morning, hitting even .230? What of Jonny Venters and Jair Jurrjens, 2011 All-Stars who have been ordinary or worse in 2012?
Gonzalez: “We could have been better than we’ve played, and I think the reason we haven’t played better is that we haven’t been consistent in starting pitching. I can’t think of many times we’ve gone through five games [or one rotational turn] with quality starts; the best teams do that four or five times.”
So what happens now? Does a team that was good enough to take two of three games at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay’s yucky place) contrive to miss the postseason yet again? Does an inconsistent team find consistency over Games 82-162? And does Wren make a move before the trade deadline?
“I expect something [meaning a deal],” Chipper said. Then this: “The best cure for an inconsistent team is to heap on the starting pitching. Five lockdown starters can make a team awfully consistent.”
Perhaps the retread signee Ben Sheets, who yielded four earned runs in five innings in his first start in Double-A on Wednesday, can take one sport. Perhaps Zack Greinke, the Milwaukee free-agent-to-be, will arrive on or about July 31. Perhaps a rotation that has hamstrung an otherwise pretty good team will become a second-half juggernaut.
Then again, maybe it’s time to face economic reality. The Braves have the 16th-biggest payroll among big-league clubs, and as of noon Thursday they had the 14th-best record. But that wouldn’t explain the Nationals (20th in payroll) and the Pirates (26th) leading divisions, would it?
Being owned by faceless Liberty Media means this organization will never be profligate, but this remains a sound franchise with a good farm system. There are enough resources in place. To date, the 2012 Braves haven’t maximized theirs. It’s time for everyone involved — this GM, this manager, these players — to implement some halftime adjustments.
By Mark Bradley