World Series contender: Atlanta Braves
Chipper Jones is looking to end his career with a post-season berth with the Atlanta Braves. (REUTERS)
When the drama of what has been called “baseball’s greatest day” was over last Sept. 28, it prompted diametrically opposed responses in Boston and Atlanta.
On Sept. 1, 2011, both the Red Sox and Braves seemed playoff locks. The Sox led the AL East by a sliver over the Yankees, but had a nine-game cushion on Tampa for the wild card. Meanwhile, the Braves were well back of the NL East-leading Phils, but still 8.5 games up on St. Louis in the wild-card chase.
On the morning of Sept. 29, both teams awoke dazed and confused by the tumultuous events of the previous night. There would be no playoffs in either city.
In Boston, the last of the beer and chicken wings had barely been consumed when Fenway Park became the scene of a panicked bloodletting unknown since the Revolutionary War. When the smoke cleared, the manager was gone, the GM fled and a full-fledged witch hunt raged.
In Atlanta, everyone went home and ... well, the off-season began. Too bad, so sad, we’ll get ’em next year.
Quite unlike Boston, Braves’ ownership did not spin out of control. They liked Fredi Gonzalez, their manager. They liked their players. Their only concession to the collapse was to fire the hitting coach, Larry Parrish, who oversaw an outfit that hit .195 with runners in scoring position in September. The only team in baseball with a worse September RISP batting average was Toronto, but that’s an entirely different story.
The Braves came back this spring determined to make amends. While they have not played spectacular baseball, the consistency has been there from Day 1. Their monthly win totals are 14, 14, 13, 18, 15 and they now have won seven of 12 so far in September. Since the All-Star break, they have held down second place behind the Nationals, with firm control of the No. 1 wild card position, which brings with it home field advantage in the play-in game that will be contested the day after the season ends.
Rather than running from their September collapse, the Braves have embraced the experience as a teaching point. It is not a coincidence that Atlanta went into St. Louis early in May and swept the Cards and have beaten St. Louis in five of six meetings this year.
“These guys have to get over the hump,” says Braves veteran Chipper Jones, who played in the post-season his first 11 full years in the major leagues and is now making his farewell tour around the National League.
“Whether it’s the wild-card hump. Whether it’s the division hump. If we go on to win a division championship or the National League pennant or a world championship in the next three or four years, these guys will point back to last September and say they learned a lot from it and got better because of it.”
With the extra wild-card berth in play this year, the Braves could make the playoffs and have their season last just one day longer than it did last year.
“It’s much more difficult this year because of that play-in game,” Gonzalez says. “I don’t know if people understand how hard that is. You can get the best team in baseball and the worst team in baseball and play one game. Guess what? That best team is scared to death. You get a great performance, you lose, you go home.”
Although the Atlanta starters have thrown virtually the same number of innings, averaging about 5.91 innings per start in both 2011 and 2012, the Braves have been involved in far fewer stressful one-run games this season. In 2011, they played 55 one-run games and 26 extra-innings games, putting tons of pressure on their key bullpen arms. This year, they have played 32 one-run games and 10 games that went into extra innings.
Coming down the stretch last season, closer Craig Kimbrel was out of gas. He blew three saves in his final six chances, including Game No. 162 when they lost in extra innings to allow the eventual World Series champion Cardinals to slip past for the wild-card berth.
“I feel great,” Kimbrel told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci. “It feels totally different from last year. And it’s not just because of innings or appearances. Check the pitches. Last year I had a lot of pitches, a lot of stress innings, a lot of walks, a lot of jams ... I had to throw a lot more pitches. This year, I’ve been much better, especially with fastball command to where I don’t have to throw as many pitches. I feel a lot fresher.”
The proof for Kimbrel and his teammates will come only after September is in the books.
MEDLEN COULD HAUNT NATS
Mike Rizzo doesn’t need to be reminded who is going to be blamed if and when the Washington Nationals hit a wall in the playoffs.
The GM’s back is already up against that wall as the designated scapegoat for his role in shutting down Stephen Strasburg.
“I’ve been beat up, barbecued, shellacked and shillelaghed,” admits Rizzo.
On top of that, if the Nats’ first opponent in the playoffs happens to be the Atlanta Braves, Rizzo could be facing his worst nightmare.
Kris Medlen has come out of no where to bolster the Atlanta starting staff and just his presence is guaranteed to stir up the Nationals’ faithful. In 2010, Medlen and Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery 16 days apart. The Braves, perhaps by circumstance more than by plan, have managed Medlen’s innings by using him out of the bullpen to start this season. Since he stepped into the rotation July 31, he is 7-0 in eight starts, with a 0.81 ERA.
Medlen began his career as a reliever, so it wasn’t as huge a departure for the Braves to let him work out of the bullpen to keep his workload down as it would have been for the Nats to do something similar with Strasburg.
But there’s no denying Medlen is going to be the elephant in the room if he’s standing on the mound facing the Nationals in the playoffs while Strasburg is stuck in the dugout, leading the cheers for his teammates.
MOST WITH THE POST
Teams with the most playoff appearances since 1991
New York Yankees (16 of 21).762
Atlanta Braves (15 of 21).714
St. Louis Cardinals (9 of 21).429
Boston Red Sox (9 of 21).429
Minnesota Twins (7 of 21).333
Houston Astros (6 of 21).286
Los Angeles Dodgers (6 of 21).286
Los Angeles Angels (6 of 21).286
Philadelphia Phillies (6 of 21).286
Cleveland Indians (6 of 21).286
Oakland Athletics (6 of 21).286