Why are these Braves playoff-bound? Credit steady Fredi

Chipper J. and Fredi G., awash in sweet victory. (AP photo by David Goldman)

Here are Chipper J. and Fredi G., awash in sweet victory. (AP photo by David Goldman)

Hours before Tuesday’s clinch that was, Fredi Gonzalez was asked about the clinch that wasn’t. How often in September 2012 had he reminded his men of September 2011?

“I haven’t,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve not mentioned it since spring training. And I don’t really remember what I said then.”

Even if the Braves’ manager had been inclined to offer a few words on the subject, what would they have been? Something inspirational? Something along the lines of, “Men, let’s try not to blow it this time”?

The only way to handle the disappointment of last season was — not to get all Zen on you — by handling it. Fredi Gonzalez, characterized by some as doing a Nero-on-his-fiddle number while his team burned to an epic collapsing crisp, hit every grace note this time. He kept it loose. He kept it steady. He did what a manager is paid to do.

Yeah, it helped that his team was healthier and that it has played a heck of a lot better, but sometimes how a team performs has much to do with the man in charge. We need only note that the Red Sox responded to their infamous failure by hiring Bobby Valentine, and the man with the golden ego has led $173 million worth of inherited players to fourth place in a five-team division.

Fredi Gonzalez, by way of contrast, went back to work and has taken his Braves — with a payroll roughly half that of Boston’s before the Red Sox started dumping players — to the postseason. There’s a segment of this fan base that’s loath to credit the man for anything, but Tyler Kepner of the New York Times is plumping for Gonzalez as National League manager of the year. So there.

Let’s not be naive. There was a megaton of pressure on this organization this season: For falling short last year, for standing mostly pat over the winter, for not changing just for change’s sake. But this team and this manager handled it all, riding out an uninspiring first half and turning into something brighter and better.

Let’s also not be so naive as to think that Gonzalez, in his determination not to overmanage, did no managing at all. He lost Brandon Beachy, his best starting pitcher, in June. He got next to nothing from Jair Jurrjens, who was an All-Star last season. He got much less than expected from Tommy Hanson, and Jonny Venters hasn’t been the unhittable Venters of 2011. This hasn’t been a rocking-chair season for anyone involved.

But the Braves changed on the fly. With the addition of Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm and the essential cameo appearance of Ben Sheets and the blossoming of Mike Minor, the rotation went from substandard to pretty darn good. The offense went the other way: The Braves hit .259 before the break; they’ve hit .236 since. Still, they’ve gone 15-7 in September, and they clinched a wild card with eight games to spare.

And that took managing. “Fredi kept us together,” Chipper Jones said Wednesday. “He learned from the best in Bobby [Cox, Gonzalez's mentor and predecessor] that there’s a silver lining in every dark cloud. … Everything trickles down. If you’ve got positive vibes at the top of the food chain, so to speak, that’s going to rub off on the players.”

The roughest part of the season was May into June. The Braves lost eight games in a row, the eighth coming on Memorial Day. Two weeks later, they were swept at home by the Yankees, and the clamor over Gonzalez’s handling of the eighth inning of Game 2 — the Braves had taken a 4-0 lead behind Minor, but Alex Rodriguez hit a tying grand slam off Venters and Nick Swisher hoisted the game-winner off Cory Gearrin — was deafening on AJC.com blogs.

Over the next few days, this correspondent asked four men whose salaries are paid by the Braves if Gonzalez was in any trouble. All four of the men were surprised by the question. They felt he had the respect of his players, and they believed those players would continue to play hard for him. (The consensus of the four, just so you know, was that Gonzalez had not totally bungled that eighth inning.) And that, at the big-league level, is more than half the managerial battle.

Had they been working under a man they despised, a man given to hurling invective and furniture after losses, the Braves would have gone belly-up three months ago. They stayed the course, and — please pardon the Chipper-like mixing of metaphors — and Fredi Gonzalez steered the ship. Maybe he doesn’t bunt enough for your liking, or maybe he bunts too much, but this is a good manager who has done fine work.

By Mark Bradley

108 comments Add your comment

Sonny Clusters

September 26th, 2012
7:05 pm

First Clusters!

Sonny Clusters

September 26th, 2012
7:10 pm

Hot peppers in the dugout.

"Chef" Tim Dix

September 26th, 2012
7:15 pm

the one, two punch

NCDawg

September 26th, 2012
7:16 pm

I agree, Mark. They have had plenty of challenges and have maintained their collective cool. It would have been sweet to see them win the division, although they aren’t mathematically eliminated but the possibility seems remote. Hopefully, the pitching stays solid and the bats get hot for the playoffs.

NCDawg

September 26th, 2012
7:16 pm

I agree, Mark. They have had plenty of challenges and have maintained their collective cool. It would have been sweet to see them win the division, although they aren’t mathematically eliminated but the possibility seems remote. Hopefully, the pitching stays solid and the bats get hot for the playoffs.

TheOnlyBravesFan

September 26th, 2012
7:17 pm

I’m not one of the biggest supporters of Fredi, but I don’t hate him either. I don’t care who you are, you have to admit that he’s done a great job. He lost his best starter (Beachy), had last year’s all star crumble to pieces (Jurrjens), and Hanson turned in a bad year. Yet, we are set to pass last year’s win total by at least 5 games.

Fredi has done a great job.

Sonny Clusters

September 26th, 2012
7:23 pm

Too bad this wasn’t a video. We was thinking some of Mark’s videos might go well during rain delays instead of the McCann story, and Bobby Dews, and Buck Commanding.

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
7:25 pm

I agree, Mark. There have been a lot of folks on these blogs carping about Gonzalez, and–WAIT, PRADO HOMERS!!!–I’ve never understood it. I want to hear from an armchair manager who tells me what the head man should do before he does it.

boyizyodaddy

September 26th, 2012
7:37 pm

This is a joke blog, right ? Very cruel Mark.

Tim Scott

September 26th, 2012
7:40 pm

I have been critical of Freddi G from time to time while understanding he is managing with one arm tied behind his back,thanks to our cheap ownership. So all that being said “CONGRATULATIONS TO FREDDI AND THE BRAVES” Lets go Braves !!!!

Only and Only IF........

September 26th, 2012
7:40 pm

Only and Only If these Atlanta Braves go to the World Series and Win the World Series will I ever utter any words of praise for the lazy fatso name Fredi…..in my mind he is a total waste – not worthy of even mentioning in the same conversation as Bobby Cox……go back to Havana Fredi we don’t need or want you here in Atlanta.

boyizyodaddy

September 26th, 2012
7:41 pm

They can still collapse in the wild card game. Clinching wild was step one of a 4 step process.

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
7:41 pm

Ouch! Nats 5, Phillies 0; only in the 2nd inning.

Mark Bradley

September 26th, 2012
7:42 pm

Nationals have hit three home runs off Kyle Kendrick.

John Leonard

September 26th, 2012
7:43 pm

Everyday that Fredi stays a manager at the major league level,the baseball Gods laugh out loud.

I'm the Slime

September 26th, 2012
7:45 pm

I think it’s worth noting Freddi’s handling of Uggla. Maybe it came a bit too late for some, but by sitting him down for three games, the message was received and Dan has responded well in September.

Champagne Is My Name

September 26th, 2012
7:46 pm

Keep the bubbly on ice. Braves might celebrate tonight if they win.

Sonny Clusters

September 26th, 2012
7:48 pm

You know what? Mark may be right. Frank kept running Fredi out there and look what happened! Not knowing what happened in the game because he didn’t see the play bothered us at first but maybe Fredi was just being coy.

KakNiqueTree

September 26th, 2012
7:54 pm

Last year the fans said Fredi was an idiot. This year would love to hear Fredi say the fans are idiots. But of course the latter goes without saying.

Champagne Is My Name

September 26th, 2012
7:59 pm

Don’t pour any champagne of Christhian Martinez, he will lap it up and go drive his car…

George Stein

September 26th, 2012
8:21 pm

Huh. And here I thought it was the players who were responsible for the team’s success. They were sure quick to blame them for the failures of last season.

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
8:28 pm

Now 5-2 Nats over Phillies. Go Phillies!

BaseballTopFan

September 26th, 2012
8:30 pm

Fredi Gonzalez did a wonderful job managing the Atlanta Braves.

Good luck in the playoffs

WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS is still a possibility for the Atlanta Braves baseball team !!!

john

September 26th, 2012
8:37 pm

I like Steady Fredi’s style of managing. He has played with lineups all year long in order to get it done. I like that he has rested his players and communicates how he will do it daily as to not cause surprises. He also gives a player enough rope to make some mistakes and still gives them a chance to prove themselves–Bobby was very much like this also. He has managed his pitching staff very well thru numerous injuries. Good article Mark! Congratulations to the Braves for sticking together–feel good about the playoffs.

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
8:39 pm

BaseballTopFan
I’m going to start assuming that anybody who doesn’t take the attitude you just expressed is not a Braves fan. I started learning baseball in the 1940s. You rooted for your home team. You were even big enough to acknowledge achievements by opposing players. The turn things have taken is unfortunate and upsetting.

jj

September 26th, 2012
8:43 pm

Lets not forget the most important move Wren made over the winter..He Hired Greg Walker as hitting coach and although McCann (Dad Hitting coach)and Uggla did their own thing most all improved esp J-Hey. Bourn has been working more in batting cage with Walker. Congrats to Team.

Got to win the one game play-off are it all for nothing.

JoeyBagOBravos

September 26th, 2012
8:44 pm

I’ll admit I was one of the ones jumping all over Fredi the first half for what I thought were bonehead moves…. and honestly, I still think they were. But the second half, Fredi really did play his players smartly and made some great decisions to critical to their success.

Growler

September 26th, 2012
8:47 pm

Mark, I’ve read and enjoyed your work years, but I don’t agree with you here. I get the mental/psychological part of your argument, but too many times Fredi makes moves that don’t put his team in the best position to win. [Much like Bobby], he’s benefited this year from an above-average rotation and an outstanding bullpen.

To dovetail it to the end of your story, let me ask [any of] you, this: Last night, Freddy Freeman’s home run was oh-so-dramatic… but how on earth was it the right move not to have him square to bunt on the first pitch? 26 or so other managers would have played it to move the runner over and tie up the game at home. I’m glad it worked out, but under the microscope of the post-season, his strategic faux pas (much like Bobby’s) are going to be exposed.

MattyB

September 26th, 2012
8:51 pm

Great piece, Mark. Could not agree more.

Growler

September 26th, 2012
8:55 pm

Hey is there a reason some [legit] comments get posted here, and others seem to disappear into the ether?

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
9:05 pm

Who would have thought Maholm v. Johnson would be such a one-sided matchup? Not me, but I’ll take it. Maholm is making a case to be part of the post-season picture. That last play was a comedy of errors. Braves try to squeeze and Marlins pitch out but throw it away. Uggla steals home.

Mark Bradley

September 26th, 2012
9:10 pm

Twenty-six other managers would not have chosen to bunt with their No. 5 hitter.

And let’s say Freeman had bunted. Know who was up next? Uggla, who leads the team in strikeouts. So if Freeman sacrifices and Uggla strikes out, you’ve got a man on third with two out.

Growler

September 26th, 2012
9:14 pm

We’ll see what happens in the post-season… (and the post DID show up, but later… weird)

MitchC

September 26th, 2012
9:15 pm

We cant worry about the Nationals. We are in. Er.. in case anyone forgets.. we won division titles fourteen times, and didnt win the World Series 13 of those times. Wild Card is fine with me. Many Wild Card teams have won the World Series. As I said before, I;m more worried about the play in game.

I’m proud of the Braves for getting into the playoffs after the way we collapsed last year. Now, I’m concerned about how long the playoff run will be.

Mark Bradley

September 26th, 2012
9:16 pm

Meanwhile, Paul Maholm has thrown a great game.

Leebo11

September 26th, 2012
9:20 pm

Fredi has done an amazing job. It shows how much character he has to bounce back from 2011, and the early season losing streak to lead the Braves back to the playoffs.. Frank Wren also has done a great job with the players, and depth.

This is a GREAT Braves team..

longtimefan

September 26th, 2012
9:27 pm

Growler, i’ll answer your question and I have to disagree that most managers would have bunted in that situation. You rarely see managers ask their sluggers(Chipper, Heyward, Freeman, McCann) to bunt. Because they do it so rarely they aren’t the most adept at it and you do not want to take the bat out of their hands because of the potential to do exactly what he did.
Good piece Mark. I have said all season that FW and FG have done a much better job than the majority of bloggers give them credit for. The proof is in the record, check the AL and NL records-pretty darn good. I think i’ll vote to keep FG.

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
9:29 pm

If I were Fredi, I’d have one of those Tees proclaiming the Nationals NL East champions overnighted; then I’d NAIL that thing up in the clubhouse.

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
9:34 pm

Whoever is called on to bunt, everybody should be drilled in bunting. Women softball players bunt better than MLB players, and it’s fun to watch. The drag bunt for a base hit is an exciting play, and it messes with the oppositions’ minds.

kreedham

September 26th, 2012
9:42 pm

What’s the latest on Ben Sheets? Is he at least throwing on the side?

Gus2259

September 26th, 2012
9:44 pm

My only complaint with Fredi is some of his comments were questionable like Hanson giving up those home runs in one game being not so bad and not benching Uggla sooner.His moves on the field for the most part have worked. Keep in mind Bobby failed his first time through. It was when he returned he got things turned around. Fredi is really still learning. I congratulate him and the team on a job well done so far. Still more to come.

Mark Bradley

September 26th, 2012
9:45 pm

Sheets has been activated. I assume he’s having bullpen sessions.

Jack G.

September 26th, 2012
9:45 pm

Mark—Did you ever hear the expression inspite of not because of.

Mark Bradley

September 26th, 2012
9:49 pm

Kimbrel strikes out four in the ninth. Braves win 3-nil

Cracker

September 26th, 2012
9:52 pm

Phillies rally falls a run short in the 8th: 5-4, Nats.

Jake

September 26th, 2012
10:45 pm

Dadgum! Sonny Clusters is back! It’s a Christmas miracle!

wreckmaniac

September 26th, 2012
10:49 pm

Also the Braves lost 3 in a row at home against the Phils earlier this year which made them look wimpy. There have been many downs as there are with all teams. The Phils, Marlins, and Nats were all picked to finish ahead of Atl and only one will. Fredi has done a fine job.

Wilbo

September 26th, 2012
11:00 pm

Wow! Oh, wow! Double wowee zowee! What a crazily outstanding accomplishment! The Braves earned a wild card, and our resident Homer Bonehead correspondent is ready to put Fredi Gonzalez in the Managerial Hall of Fame.

For those of you struck dumb by the fact that the Atlanta Braves have not yet done their patented fall steamed spinach wilt, please let me remind you, it’s only September 26, they still have plenty of time to as usual fall flat on their pudgy faces come the actual postseason.

Dum-Bass

September 26th, 2012
11:31 pm

Good comment, Wilbo, my thoughts too! I guess soon, just like Al Gore, these writers will nominate FG for the Nobel Peace Prize. The manager they are describing would have won the division title, not just a wildcard play-in game.

Wink

September 26th, 2012
11:43 pm

Congrats to Braves for clinching the 2nd WC!

Wait a minute not so fast with the platitudes for Fredi G! We had a 8.5 game lead with under 20 to play last year, correct me if I am wrong but was Bobby Cox his mentor last year as well, so should not that same experience been present in FG last year that help guide him this year.

The improvement was he had a 3.5 lead this year with under 20 games to play and we are in with 8 games to play. Catching the Nats may be out of the question, but the ironic part we will play the Cardinals in a one game playoff, who ran all the way to the WS with our opportunity. Also, we needed a big assist from the Phillies against the Nats, like a sweep, unfortuately for us the Nats are not bowing down like we did last year.

FG has had plenty to deal with, Chipper’s tour, Chipper’s health, Uggla year long slump, McCann lack of production, Venters, Starting Pitchers (Hanson, JJ), plugging the SS hole, but it does not make him a canidate for Coach of the Year. Dude, could have easily bench them all.

Really how do you stick with Hanson all year, even after his injury…FG is so loyal he would have started Hanson in WC, if Medlin did not make such a thought ascinine.

Uggla lead league in strike outs & walks, king of the pop up, and batting average is very subpar for his price tag. McCann has wore down and 2nd year in row with vision problem as well. These two guys playing everyday made a huge hole in the power part of the line up…just and average season from both & maybe we are leading the Nats or 1-2 games back with 8 to play for the division…if this were the case then we could put him in the conversation for MOY, buy this blind loyalty thing just about done us in again down the stretch.

There still is no real accomplishment for 2012, until they at least win the play in WC game, which is a crap shoot….World Champs vs Not Made for Prime Time Atlanta Braves?????