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