They were characterized as choking dogs a year ago and, truth being the ultimate defense, they had no cause to sue for libel. They’d gone 9-18 in September and wasted an 8 1/2-game lead, finally losing the wild card in the 13th inning of the 162nd game. In the bitter days that followed, some among us wondered if this team could ever recover from a collapse so egregious.
Three hundred sixty-three days later, we got our answer. Yes, it could. Yes, it has.
The man who made the final out — the final two outs, having hit into a 3-6-3 double play — of September 2011 hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to put the 2012 Atlanta Braves in the playoffs. “Probably the coolest thing ever,” Freddie Freeman said of his climactic blast to dead center field, and nobody felt moved to dispute the point.
Champagne flew afterward in the Braves’ clubhouse, and if you’re saying, “Champagne for a wild card?” … well, you’re a raging killjoy and you’re hereby dismissed from class. Because we just saw, in this redemptive season and on this clinching night, a team that refused to yield to the doubts and fears spawned by September 2011.
“Last year we were a great team that had a bad month,” said Brian McCann, a beer in his hand and a Postseason 2012 cap on his noggin. “But we kept the core together and we kept believing.”
Said the great Chipper Jones, rarely greater (one huge hit, two runs scored, one driven in) than on the first night of his final homestand: “This is huge. There’s a lot of vindication, a lot of relief.”
Well, yes. As Tom Verducci of SI.com has noted, teams that fall apart so completely at the end of one season tend not to fare well the next year. Of the nine previous authors of collapses Verducci defined as epic , not one made the next year’s playoffs. (And the 2011 Red Sox, the Braves’ partner in fizzle, won’t do it, either.) This one just did, and it did it in grand style.
The setting seemed ripe for clinching. Kris Medlen was starting, and the Braves hadn’t lost a Medlen start since May 23, 2010. The opponent was Miami, which gave up on the season a while back and is now sitting around deciding whom to fire. Give the Marlins credit, though. On this night they looked like a real team.
Nathan Eovaldi, who entered with a 4-12 record and a 4.36 ERA, essentially matched the lately untouchable Medlen, and the rookie second baseman Donovan Solano hit his first career home run to hand the Fish an early lead. Then he hit his second career home run to give them a late lead. And then it was the bottom of the ninth and the Braves entered having had one hit since the third, and then …well, let’s let Frank Wren tell it:
“Chipper came up and got the double, and then Freddie was trying to do his job and get him in [from third, where Jones had advanced on a Mike Dunn wild pitch], and he hit it out.”
On this night of celebration, let’s spare a thought for Wren, the general manager who refused to destroy what he regarded as a good team after its epic collapse. (Contrast this with the Red Sox’s kneejerk behavior, which has resulted in a full season of wretchedness.) As the champagne splashed around him, Wren was asked if he felt vindicated.
“This team is very resilient, very driven,” Wren said. “We saw the culmination of that tonight … This speaks to the quality and character of the guys on this team.”
Translated, that was a proud GM’s way of saying yes. And Wren also said something else: “They’re not done.”
We know these Braves will play beyond the 162nd game. Perhaps it will be for only a day — that infernal play-in looms — but even if it is, just getting beyond the regular season is a major accomplishment for a team that failed in such a major way the last time around.
“These guys have played their hearts out all year long,” Wren said, and in their clinching moment there was on display all the heart and skill anyone could want. After losses, manager Fredi Gonzalez is fond of saying you have to tip your hat to the winning side. Here’s where we, meaning all of us, should tip our hats to Gonzalez and Wren and the team they held together. Here’s we give three cheers for these rather remarkable Braves.
By Mark Bradley