Wiedmer: Braves say tide may be turning

Wiedmer: Braves say tide may be turning

May 3rd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

ATLANTA - With Atlanta's 3-2 loss to St. Louis just ended Saturday afternoon, Braves general manager Frank Wren boarded an elevator to the clubhouse.

"This one was tough," he said. "But I think we're close."

To those outside the Braves' inner sanctum, America's team may look about as close to ruin as renaissance. Even after Monday night's 6-2 win over Milwaukee - which moved Atlanta to 15-15 for the year - the Bravos were tied for third place in the National League East, four and a half games out of first.

Worse still, pitcher Derek Lowe was charged with a DUI last week after being arrested for racing his 2011 Porsche Panamera on a downtown street. At least that gave him an explanation for falling behind the Cardinals 4-0 on Sunday before his teammates rallied for a 6-5 win. Hangovers aren't as easy to shake off when you're 37.

Then there is the two-week suspension of pitching coach Roger McDowell, who apparently directed homosexual slurs at some San Francisco fans during the weekend of April 23, then reportedly compounded that deplorable behavior by telling an angry parent, "Kids don't [expletive] belong at the ballpark."

When the parent of two young girls then had the audacity to respond to that remark, McDowell reportedly raised a baseball bat toward the man and asked, "How much are your teeth worth?"

You could make a fairly sound argument that McDowell should have been McFired by either Major League Baseball, the Braves or both, if for no other reason that if we don't let kids come to the ballpark, in 20 years or so there won't be any fans there at all.

But there is no arguing that these guys had a tough week far beyond blowing leads in each of their last three losses.

"I think hopefully the worm has turned a little bit, because we've been on the other end of those games - a lot of extra-inning games, a lot of one-run games, a lot of heartaches and broken hearts at the end," first-year Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after Sunday's win over St. Louis.

"Hopefully, it's our turn to get it going a little bit."

Even though the season's not yet 20 percent complete, Atlanta needs to get it going quickly if it intends to remain even remotely in the division hunt.

After all, the Braves must travel to Philadelphia this weekend for a three-game set, then host the Phillies for three more May 13-15. Having already lost two of three home games to the defending NL champs in early April, dropping four of the next six to them before June could be disastrous.

"Certainly, we're doing better here recently," third baseman Chipper Jones told the media Sunday, "but we went through a rough stretch at the beginning of the last road trip where we were getting ambushed in the first inning. When you have a struggling offense, two or three runs are like six or eight."

It's not just the hitting, though, that has Atlanta in a funk, though the Braves' .230 team batting average does stand 14th among the NL's 16 teams.

Though the Braves entered last weekend ranked second in the league in overall team pitching, supposed closer Craig Kimbrel has blown two saves and lost a game in the last 11 days. Atlanta is 1-3 in its last four extra-inning games, blowing a lead in all three defeats.

Yet it's also May 3. A minimum of 132 games remain to make a charge at a wild-card berth, if not a division title.

Beyond that, a 10-game West Coast road trip and home series against the Phillies, Marlins and Cardinals are no kind of schedule from which to pile up lots of wins.

And no matter what kind of manager Gonzalez ultimately may prove to be, it's never easy to replace a legend such as Bobby Cox. The Braves may not appear much different on the outside - which is probably one reason Cox lobbied for Gonzalez to succeed him - but change is change, whether subtle or seismic.

Yet a quote from St. Louis reliever and Dalton, Ga., native Mitchell Boggs concerning Braves reliever and Rhea County native Cory Gearrin also bears repeating.

"I know he had a tough loss last night," Boggs said Saturday, referring to the two runs Gearrin allowed in the 12th inning of a 5-3 loss after shutting out the Cards in the 11th.

"But several of our guys were really impressed with his stuff. When guys on this team are impressed, you're probably doing something right."

But are the Braves close to making a run or getting run out of the playoff picture?

We'll surely know a lot more 12 days from today, right after the Phillies have exited the Big Peach. But for those with short memories, the Braves were 9-14 during April a year ago before finishing 20 games over .500 (91-71) and in the playoffs.

Maybe Gonzalez is right. Maybe May will be the month the Braves begin breaking the other guys' hearts.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.