ATLANTA — For 135 games, Fredi Gonazalez made replacing Bobby Cox as Atlanta Braves skipper look easy.
No, the Braves weren’t going to catch the Phillies for the National League East crown. But in September’s first days they led the St. Louis Cardinals by eight and a half games in the wild-card race. No NL team since the 1964 Phillies had blown a lead so large. And there was no way the Braves were going to copy those Phils, who became known as the Pholds around the City of Brotherly Love.
At least there was no way that was going to happen until Sept. 19, a Monday night that will live in infamy with the Bravos.
That was the night Atlanta entered the bottom of the ninth at the Florida Marlins’ Sun Life Stadium with the lead and ace closer Craig Kimbrel on the mound. That was the night Kimbrel got the first two outs before forcing Florida’s Emilio Bonifacio to hit a high chopper toward the Braves’ Chipper Jones at third.
Only Jones whiffed on the play, losing the ball in Sun Life’s lights, which are set up more for football — the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and college football’s Miami Hurricanes both play there — than baseball.
Given a reprieve, the Marlins used a walk-off homer from former Brave Omar Infante two pitches later to earn a 6-5 win. Given that shot to the gut, the Braves lost six of their final eight games.
Said Jones on Wednesday night inside the Braves’ Turner Field locker room, the season having just ended in a 13-inning loss to Philadelphia: “When you lose a third out in the lights, then the next guy up hits a two-run homer to beat you, you start to wonder if something out there’s working against you.”
Indeed, for the remaining eight games, the Braves looked awful, both manic at the plate and timid on the mound and in the dugout.
Even Gonzalez conceded, “We never could right the ship.”
Thus did a franchise that always played its best down the stretch of countless regular seasons under Cox lose 18 of 27 in September. A Braves team that posted more than 20 last-at-bat victories collected just four hits against the Phils in the final 10 innings Wednesday.
Moreover, a team that led the National League in on-base percentage under former hitting coach Terry Pendleton last season finished 14th among 16 NL teams this season for new hitting coach Larry Parrish.
This is not to say Pendleton didn’t have his detractors, including me. Atlanta could rarely deliver a timely hit in the postseason under Pendleton, and the same became apparent down the stretch of the regular season this year.
Maybe it’s the players, and you can get rid of only so many at one time. But when it comes to hitting, there’s a disconnect with the Braves, and if Gonzalez doesn’t expect to be quickly disconnected from his job, he needs to find someone who can teach his team how to connect the bat and the ball when Atlanta comes to the plate.
“We’re not going to make excuses,” Gonzalez said as Wednesday rolled into Thursday morning. “We had opportunities. Couldn’t capitalize on them. Maybe we’ll be better for it next year.”
Maybe. But Gonzalez announced Thursday that there would be no staff changes, which means Parrish better find a way to improve the Braves’ bats in a hurry or the team almost certainly won’t be better.
That said, if Gonzalez had starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson healthy for September, the Braves almost assuredly would have been readying for the postseason, since Hanson was 11-7 with a 3.60 ERA before going down in early August and Jurrjens was 13-6 with a 2.96 ERA before being lost for good in late August.
Still, that doesn’t explain Parrish being hired as a hitting instructor when he’d never previously held that title, or Gonzalez not walking the Phillies’ Hunter Pence in the 13th to get to Michael Martinez, who was hitting under .200 for the season. Or Kimbrel not being visited on the mound until it was too late.
Baseball is won or lost on little things — a shift of two feet to the right here, moving a runner from first to second there instead of swinging for the fences. You can’t say Gonzalez didn’t push numerous right buttons, for the Braves wouldn’t have won all those last at-bat games without doing much right.
But once under the microscope over the final half of September, almost all the Braves did too much wrong.
Said Chipper after the final loss of 2011: “I have to put this up there with some of the biggest disappointments since I’ve been here, and that’s saying a lot.”
Only time will tell if Gonzalez instantly announcing he’ll keep Parrish says a lot about the disappointments that could arrive in 2012.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...