Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Braves stay mostly intact from year ago
By Jayson Stark ESPN.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- They are two teams that wear the same scars, feel the same pain, share nearly identical places in dubious baseball history.
You will find them on the same page in your Greatest Collapses in History record books. But that's where the similarities between the 2011-12 Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves diverge. Has anybody else noticed that?
In Boston, blood flowed. Fingers were pointed. Heroes turned to villains overnight. The manager: gone. The general manager: gone. The beer-and-fried-chicken crowd: embarrassed. You know their story. No need to dredge it up again.
Chipper Jones, 39, is back for his 19th season with the Braves.
But meanwhile, in the home of the Braves, we have seen a very different take on an otherwise-identical tale. The manager: still working. The general manager: still leaning against the batting cage this spring. The roster: virtually intact.
It's like watching one of those cool, art-house movies at Sundance. The same plotline begins to unfold on both halves of a split screen. Then one half veers into horror-flick mode, while the other tracks the path of "normal" people who decide that the best way to cope with a crisis is to do their best to act like it's just part of life.
Maybe because it is.
"I had the privilege of listening to the great Georgia football coach, Vince Dooley, at a fundraiser this winter," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "Later, he took me aside, and he said: 'If you're in this game long enough, or any sport long enough, stuff like this is going to happen. It's how you guys come out on the other end that counts.'"
So unlike what has gone down in other towns and other franchises, the Braves have taken a path this winter that you don't often see in our modern, talk-showed-up sporting cosmos. We could sum it up like this:
Life happens. Deal with it.
So why didn't they fire anybody? Why didn't they sign any gazillion-dollar free agents? Why didn't they trade any studs from their pitching-rich farm system for a big outfield bat? It isn't that complicated.
"We just felt," said GM Frank Wren, "that this group needed another chance."
When they look at "this group," they try to look past the team that went 8-18 after Sept. 1, the team that blew a 10½-game lead on the Cardinals with 30 games to play, the team that even managed to cough up a three-game lead with five to play.
What they see instead is a team that had the fourth-best record in the entire sport as late as the first week of September, a team that still believes it employs the best bullpen in baseball, a team with a ridiculous supply of live, big-league-ready arms, a team with untold offensive upside.
They see Jason Heyward this spring, in tremendous shape, his swing retooled after weeks of work with new hitting coach Greg Walker. They see Martin Prado this spring, back to good health, no longer slogged down by the aftereffects of last year's staph infection.
They see Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, throwing baseballs like they can again. They look forward to all the basepath havoc Michael Bourn can wreak over a full season. So they have chosen to dream about what this team CAN be, not relive the train wreck that September became.
By autumn, we'll know whether their vision is right or wrong. But either way, the Braves are giving us a window into who and what they are.
Just as what happened in Boston this offseason was a reflection of the volatility of the Red Sox, what happened in Atlanta was a reflection of the stability the Braves have long been famous for.
"You've got a franchise here that's not going to buckle to pressure from the fan base or pressure from the media," said Chipper Jones, a man starting his 22nd spring training with this franchise. "I'm by no means comparing the two -- the fan base or the media, because I know it's multiplied by 50 up there. And I don't know what it's like up there on a daily basis. But I do appreciate that here, we don't go out and make a move just to make a move."
Oh, don't kid yourself. Had the right deal come along for the right bat, the Braves would have made it. They don't deny that. They made a run at Adam Jones, kicked the tires on Seth Smith, checked in on every other outfield thumper who was available or even potentially available. Never came close, Wren said.
"We took the approach that we were going to be open-minded," the GM said. "But we really never saw a move that we felt would make us better."
So that leaves the job of carrying on after The Nightmare to the same men who lived through it. That's an admirable show of faith in a talented group of people. But let's be honest. It's also a major gamble not to bring in ANY significant addition who could inject some sort of new energy, personality or skill set to this mix.
But if that's the road they chose, it's 100 percent cool with the survivors.
"I just don't think we needed to change anything," catcher Brian McCann said. "We just need to get it done. I feel like we have a really good team. So I'm glad nothing happened. It'll be great to play a full season with Michael Bourn. It'll be great to have a healthy Martin Prado and a healthy Jason Heyward. I'm very confident in our team. I honestly believe that last year will have no impact on this year's team at all."
That doesn't mean, though, that the scars don't still jab at all of them every once in a while.
Chipper Jones still shakes his head at the ground ball he lost in the lights in Florida with two outs in the ninth and says: "That was the first time I really sat back and said, 'Something's going on here -- some kind of divine snowball we can't stop from rolling downhill.'"
The manager still talks about how he spent the first two or three weeks of October "sitting there going, 'What if? What if?' And you know what? You drive yourself crazy if you sit back and try to analyze and dissect every pitch that happened. You can't bring it back."
The general manager still wonders what might have been had that hurricane not veered toward New York while the Braves were visiting in late August, forcing them to take a four-day break when they were playing as well as they played all year -- "and we never played the same afterward," Wren says.
And when McCann himself begins to reflect on how long it took him to get over what happened, he finally says: "I don't think you ever fully get over it."
Then again, how could you? How could anyone? The secret to surviving anything that traumatic, though, is not to pretend to forget it. It's to use the pain as fuel, to use the mistakes as teachable moments, to use those times of weakness as a reason to summon more strength.
That's not a baseball lesson, ladies and gentlemen. That's a life lesson.
"Here's a point I tried to bring up in the offseason," Jones said. "Maybe last year was a good thing, in that maybe it was good that some of these young guys can learn from that experience. If we learn from that, and come back and either make the playoffs or win the division or, a year or two down the road, win a World Series, then that collapse last year was a good thing, because then it taught us something. And we learned from it. And we got better because of it.
"Nobody wants to experience that. Nobody wants to go 10-20 in September. Nobody wants to give up a 10-game lead with five weeks to go. But if we spin it, and use it as a positive, and think about whatever silver linings there were, and we learn how to close seasons, and we learn how to close ballgames, that's how we'll learn how to win championships."
The irony of that assessment is that, for most of last season, closing ballgames was the thing the 2011 Braves did best. For five months, when they got a lead and handed the baseball to Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, hey, that was that. Thanks for coming. Drive home safely.
A SEPTEMBER TO FORGET
* Record when leading after seven innings.
On the day they waved sayonara to August last year, O'Flaherty had a 1.21 ERA, Venters had a 1.31 ERA and Kimbrel was at 1.64. And no bullpen in history had ever had three relievers with ERAs that low. But then September arrived.
O'Flaherty was as good in that final month as ever (14 scoreless appearances). But Venters, who had been scored on in only six appearances all year, gave up runs in six of his 13 appearances just in September alone (for a 5.11 ERA).
Then there was Kimbrel. One minute, he hadn't allowed a run since June 11. The next, he was getting scored on in four of his last eight appearances and three of his last four, including a devastating blown save in the final game of his team's season.
So not surprisingly, the second-guessing began. Venters' 85 appearances were more than that of any other pitcher in baseball. Kimbrel's 79 were more than that of any other closer in baseball. Venters' 88 innings pitched tied for third-most in the big leagues. Kimbrel's 77 were the most of any closer in the big leagues.
It was impossible not to wonder if, in retrospect, they'd both been overworked -- and in the end, all those trips to the mound had taken their toll. But it wasn't just people on the outside asking those questions. The manager admits that he and pitching coach Roger McDowell asked the same questions themselves.
"People sometimes think that we don't care or we don't see what's going on," Gonzalez said. "So when stuff like that gets written, you take it personally -- because believe me, there have been many times where Roger and I have talked about whether we were overusing Jonny or overusing O'Flaherty, or anybody for that matter. Believe me, you don't set out to say, 'I'm going to use Jonny 100 times this year just because I want to.'"
So Gonzalez and McDowell have studied what happened, too. And they can't get past the fact that they played 55 one-run games, tied with the Giants for the most by any NL team that finished with a winning record. They can't overlook the 26 extra-inning games, the most by any team since the 1992 Cardinals. They figured out that those games resulted in 54 additional innings pitched -- which comes to six full games' worth of outs that all had to be recorded by the bullpen.
They've also seen it written that Venters and Kimbrel both made more appearances last year than Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman ever made in any season in their careers. And that's true. But almost no one has mentioned that Rivera has blown by Kimbrel's innings total (77) four times, or that Hoffman beat that total three times.
So obviously, the manager wishes those games and innings hadn't piled up the way they did. But the way the season unfolded, he still feels as though circumstances forced his hand.
"In a perfect world, you want to do stuff perfect," Gonzalez said. "But every game counts in the major leagues. And they're hard to win."
They will head into this season with a more conservative game plan, in theory -- one that dictates they won't use O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel unless they lead by three runs or fewer. But it's easy to say now, tougher to do in June and July.
Will the season unfold in a way that makes that possible? Nobody ever knows for certain in February. But when the Braves write that script for 2012 in their heads, they don't see tired bullpen arms or ground balls that get lost in the lights. They think about how sweet the champagne will taste if this is the year they write that happy ending.
"I can tell you this," Jones said. "What happened to us last year did not taste good. And nobody in here wants to experience that taste again."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter @jaysonst.