As Braves fans awoke Thursday morning, it must have felt as if they were awakening from a nightmare, a terrible hangover, or both. Wednesday night, after playing 13 innings against the Phillies, their once promising season, which saw them destined to be wildcard winners for a second straight season, came to an abrupt end with a 4-3, 13 inning loss.
To anyone who’s been paying attention over the last month of the baseball season, the bitter end to the Braves season should really not come as much of a surprise. Atlanta played for most of the month, as if their postseason ticket had already been punched and went into prevent defense mode, playing not to lose. But lose they did and in a big way…9-18 in September. That is not the record of a playoff bound team.
As we survey the wreckage of this monumental collapse, there is plenty of blame to go around. As the Braves hit Labor Day, they enjoyed an 8 1/2 game lead on the Cardinals for the NL wildcard. Everything seemed to be right in Braves country. But then, the news came that both Jair Jurrgens and Tommy Hanson were both probably lost for the rest of the way, and at best, might return for the postseason.
The two pitchers were a combined 23-8 through July. In August, they combined to go 1-4, with Hanson throwing his last pitch on August 6th in New York against the Mets. Yet the Braves managed to go 17-9 in August, thanks mainly to Dan Uggla, who single handedly carried the team on his back. Uggla, had broken out of his first half funk, to put together a 33 game hit streak. In August alone, Uggla hit .340 with 10 HR and 21 RBI.
So, besides the loss of two of their top three pitchers for two months, and with that 8 1/2 game lead on September 5th, how and why did it all come apart?
The loss of Jurrjens and Hanson meant the Braves needed three things to happen: 1) They needed another veteran besides Tim Hudson to step up and carry the load for the starters. 2) They needed their young arms to step in and give them quality starts, and 3) They needed the bats of anyone not named Uggla to produce. None of three ever happened.
First, Derek Lowe was a complete and total disappointment. Whereas in September of 2010, Lowe was the Braves best pitcher going 5-0 with a stingy 1.17 ERA, this September, Lowe was 0-5 with an ERA of 8.75. His longest outing in September was 6.1 vs. Florida, in a game the Braves lost to former teammate Javier Vasquez 4-0. Lowe has quite possibly thrown his last pitch as a Brave. Frank Wren has to find someone to take Lowe off his hands this winter, or eat his $12 million salary for 2012.
With Lowe a major disappointment, the young arms of the future (Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Tehran, and Brandon Beachy) needed to step in, step up, and give the Braves innings and quality ones at that. Of the quartet, only Beachy pitched six full innings twice. Minor went six just once. This put a tremendous burden on the “O’Ventbrel” trio (Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel).
The three bullpen mates, finished 1, 2, and 5 in appearances in the majors, with Venters (85) and Kimbrel (79) finishing one/two. The wear and tear started to show in September, as Venters and Kimbrel’s numbers went up quite a bit. Kimbrel, who will probably be the NL Rookie of the Year come November, was handed a 3-2 lead in game 162 vs. the Phillies, and couldn’t close it out.
Last and certainly not least was the hitting. For the season, the Braves hit just .243 as a team. Only the Nationals and Giants (.242) and the Padres (.237) hit less. Only San Diego (.303) and the Giants (.305) had lower team OBP then the Braves .308.
Individually, Martin Prado saw his average fall 47 points (.307 in 2010, .260 in 2011). Prado however was far from being the biggest disappointment offensively. The title of most disappointing has to go to Jason Heyward, who saw his average drop 50 points in his sophomore season (.277 – .227) while seeing his RBI total drop from 72 – 42.
For the second consecutive September, All-Star Brian McCann was virtually a non-factor at the plate. In Sept. 2010, McCann hit .221, with 2 HR, 7 RBI. This September, he hit just .200 with 2 HR and 9 RBI.
Offensively, the Braves also seemed to not be able to drive in runners in scoring position the last few weeks of the season. In their final road game of the season in Washington ( Sept. 25th) two innings stood out as a microcosm of the Braves futility in the clutch. In the third, they loaded the bases with no outs and the top of the order (Bourne, Prado, and Chipper) did not bring home a single run. The next inning, the Braves had first and second and no outs, then first and third with one out, and again, failed to score. Playoff teams find a way to score those runners. The Braves did not.