The Atlanta Braves will have to rely on clutch hitting, solid pitching and airtight defense if they plan to outlast a crowded field and make the postseason as one of the National League's two wild card teams.
A little selective amnesia also might come in handy.
A year ago today, the Braves sported the fifth-best record in the majors at 82-57 and led St. Louis by 8½ games in the NL wild-card race. It appeared the Braves had survived injuries to the pitching staff, a lack of production from injured regulars Martin Prado and Brian McCann and a disruptive three-day hiatus caused by Hurricane Irene and were playoff-bound for only the second time since 2005.
Then the levee broke. The Braves dropped 16 of their last 23 games and were overtaken by the Cardinals on the final day of the season. Freddie Freeman, who hit into a 13th-inning double play to end Game No. 162 against Philadelphia, embodied the sense of despair in Atlanta when he slammed his helmet to the ground, then dropped to his haunches with a vacant stare. The word "frustration'' didn't do justice to the sense of shock and emptiness that pervaded the Atlanta clubhouse.
"It was unreal,'' said reliever Jonny Venters. "That whole last few weeks, it was tough because we knew we had a good team. I felt like, 'We're going to turn this thing around. We're gonna be OK.' But we just kept struggling. To have to pack your bags and go home like that, it was such a crappy way to end a season.''
In contrast to the Boston Red Sox, whose season ended with a soap opera montage of fried chicken and finger-pointing, the Braves maintained their sense of togetherness and their dignity. To this day, the Atlanta players refuse to blame injuries to starters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens for the team's demise. They also discount the impact of Hurricane Irene, even though they went 10-19 while cramming 29 games into a 30-day span down the stretch.
"You can take anything and try to make an excuse out of it,'' said outfielder Michael Bourn. "To me, we just lost, man. The Cardinals played good baseball and we lost. We remember the taste it left in our mouths. Everyone in here last year remembers it.''
If recent events are any indication, the Braves and their true believers might be in for an action-packed sequel. In the opener of a three-game series with the Phillies on Friday, Atlanta carried a 5-4 lead into the ninth inning. After throwing two unhittable sliders to Erik Kratz for strikes, closer Craig Kimbrel caught too much of the plate with a 99-mph fastball. Kratz crushed it for a solo homer, and John Mayberry followed with a three-run shot in the 10th to give Philadelphia an 8-5 victory. Considering that opponents are hitting .073 (9-for-124) with two strikes against Kimbrel this season, it would be an understatement to call the turns of events "stunning.''
Two days later, as the Phillies were on the verge of a sweep, the amazing Chipper Jones drove a Jonathan Papelbon fastball into the right-field seats to complete a five-run ninth inning rally and give Atlanta an 8-7 victory.
Braves down. Braves up. It's a day-to-day proposition.
Amid the inevitable palpitations, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren remains convinced that the decision to keep the 2011 team intact was the right one. Even in his lowest days, Wren refused to let a bad September completely obscure the good things the Braves achieved from April through August.
"We felt strongly that we had a good team,'' Wren said. "We had a bad month. In our view, there wasn't a reason to overreact and blow it up and say, 'This team can't do it.' We felt it could.''
Because of attrition, starting pitching could be a concern for Atlanta in September. The Braves lost Brandon Beachy and his 2.00 ERA to Tommy John surgery in June. Jurrjens has been a washout, and prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are still navigating the learning curve in the minors, so the rotation isn't turning out quite as the Braves envisioned. At the moment it consists of warhorse Tim Hudson, the underrated Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Hanson and Paul Maholm, who came over from the Cubs by trade after a deadline deal for Ryan Dempster fell through. Ben Sheets, who gave the team a huge lift after signing as a free agent in July, recently hit the wall and is on the disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder.
To me, we just lost, man. The Cardinals played good baseball and we lost. We remember the taste it left in our mouths. Everyone in here last year remembers it.
”-- Braves outfielder Michael Bourn
Atlanta's modest in-season acquisitions -- Sheets, Maholm, Reed Johnson, Paul Janish and Jeff Baker -- tell you everything you need to know about the constraints on the front office. Even the Pirates, in acquiring Wandy Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider, made a bigger splash at the deadline.
"Let me tell you something -- Frank Wren has done a hell of a job there,'' said an AL scout. "He's had to take some chances, because it's not like he can go out and acquire a big-time guy or a real difference maker. He has no money to work with.''
Is the Atlanta roster, as currently assembled, good enough to prevent another meltdown? As a pick-me-up for Atlanta fans who fear their team could become deja unglued this month, here are six reasons why the Braves might have the requisite staying power to survive:
1. Experience is the best teacher
The great September fade of 2011 taught Atlanta's young players something about holding up down the stretch. Pitchers learned that it might be in their best interests to lighten their workouts to stay fresh, and hitters discovered that more hours in the cage aren't necessarily a cure-all for a slump. The veterans and kids also are conditioned to understand that every missed opportunity today could come back to haunt them later.
"You have to keep nitting-and-gritting it right down to the end,'' Bourn said. "Don't take nothing for granted.''
Manager Fredi Gonzalez's biggest challenge will be injecting the clubhouse with the requisite sense of urgency without making the players tight. Last year he was criticized for sticking too long with Derek Lowe during the veteran's awful September. This year, Gonzalez has served notice that he will make whatever moves are necessary to help the Braves win on a given day.
Case in point: Dan Uggla, who leads major league second basemen with 207 homers since 2006 and is signed to a five-year, $62 million contract, has played himself out of his starting job with an extended slump at the plate. Gonzalez officially benched Uggla on Monday and plans to go with Martin Prado at second base and a combination of Johnson and Jose Constanza in left feld.
Johnson, who has a .313 career batting average and an .834 OPS against left-handed pitching, came over from the Cubs by trade on July 31. In the five weeks since, Gonzalez has made it a point to find at-bats for him by slipping in rest days for Bourn, Uggla, Prado and Jason Heyward.
"I think about utilizing every asset on the team -- every single player -- and putting them in a position to be successful,'' Gonzalez said in a recent interview. "For example, we got Reed Johnson. He wears out left-handed pitchers, so my job is to make sure Reed Johnson plays someplace against a left-handed pitcher. You can't worry about having any hurt feelings or bruised egos.''
2. The bullpen is fresher
Gonzalez understandably took a lot of heat for overusing his bullpen in 2011. But the Braves played so many tight games, it was tough to avoid. Atlanta played a whopping 55 one-run games and went to extra innings 26 times. This year, in contrast, the Braves have played 29 one-run games and only nine extra-inning contests, so it's been easier for Gonzalez to protect Kimbrel, Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. Atlanta's heaviest relief workload belongs to veteran Chad Durbin, who is tied for third in the majors with 66 appearances.
3. The offense is better
With 613 runs scored, the Braves are only 28 short of their total for the entire 2011 season. They have a team OPS of .724 compared to .695 last year. The improved production is a credit to the play of Jones at third base and nice comeback seasons from Prado and Heyward, both of whom have stayed healthy after dealing with a variety of maladies last season.
The Braves have more quick-strike ability this year, but they could use more production out of catcher and second base. McCann is limited by a frayed labrum and a cyst in his right shoulder, and Uggla is on course to finish with career lows in homers and RBIs. Among 152 major leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances, only Adam Dunn, Brendan Ryan, Justin Smoak and Carlos Pena are hitting lower than Uggla's .208. Now Uggla will be watching from the bench -- at least for the foreseeable future.
"If either one of those guys was even 25 percent better, they might be three back [of the Nationals] instead of 6½ back,'' an AL scout said.
4. The defense is tighter
Last year the Braves were 14th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings, which measure the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs. This year they're 15th. But the eye test tells you they're a better defensive club overall.
The Atlanta outfield has been particularly good, with a full season of Bourn in center field, a healthy Heyward in right and Prado playing above-average defense in left prior to his recent shift to second. Bourn ranks second to Mike Trout among MLB center fielders in the Fielding Bible's run saved rankings at plus-33, and Heyward ranks first among right fielders at plus-29. If NL managers and coaches are paying attention, Atlanta could have two Gold Glove Award recipients this offseason.
Janish has done his usual fine job in the field since coming over from Cincinnati, but the Braves will get a lift with the pending return of rookie Andrelton Simmons, who displayed his amazing defensive chops before breaking his right hand in July. Simmons was hitting .296 with 11-extra base hits in 33 games, so he should provide an offensive upgrade over Janish and help lengthen out the lineup as well.
5. The schedule is reasonable
Atlanta's final 28 games are against Colorado, the New York Mets, Milwaukee, Miami, Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Braves' 38-28 road record is the third-best in baseball behind the Nationals and Reds, so it's not going to faze them to travel to PNC Park for a three-game series to end the season with a playoff berth potentially on the line.
6. Win one for the Chipper
Jones announced in March that he would retire at the end of the season, and he's been resolute despite signs that he has a lot more left to give. His .881 OPS is his highest since 2008, and he is as dangerous as ever with a game on the line. At some point each day, Jones shoots Gonzalez a text or drops by the manager's office to let him know if his creaky bones will allow him to play. He has become a master at picking his spots.
"You'll see him go 3-for-4 with two home runs and he's running around like a teenager,'' Gonzalez said. "And there are other days when he comes in and he knows he made the right decision.''
Jones' farewell tour is a motivating factor for him and his Atlanta teammates, who would love to send him out with a postseason appearance. The thought of a 2011 repeat is too gruesome to contemplate.
"He keeps getting knocks and making plays at third and you say, 'Man, he's still got it,''' Venters said. "Every now and then he'll do something really special and you think, 'How awesome would it be to send him off with a really strong playoff push or getting to the World Series?' It's definitely cool to think about that.''
As the Braves strive to shake the burden of one of the worst collapses in baseball history, they know it's a heck of a lot cooler than the alternative.