Wiedmer: Braves can't finish

Wiedmer: Braves can't finish

September 29th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - Here came Philadelphia's Hunter Pence, the Jim Furyk of baseball players, all arms and legs and goofy swing.

Yet much like Furyk's uniquely efficient golf swing, Pence's broken-bat single was the blow that finally put the Atlanta Braves out of their misery late Wednesday night. Pence was the guy whose RBI in the unlucky 13th inning made the NL East champion Phillies 4-3 winners over the Braves. Pence was the guy who would hand the NL's wildcard berth to the St. Louis Cardinals rather than Atlanta, which led the Cards by 10 games for that spot in late August.

"Give them credit," said Braves outfielder Michael Bourn, who collected three hits and scored one run. "Maybe that hit was a little lucky, but this wasn't about one game. It was about the last two weeks, when we couldn't protect our lead."

Indeed, this wasn't August. This was somber September, where Atlanta lost 18 of its last 27, including its final five in a row.

So Pence became the hero and rookie closer Craig Kimbrel became the goat, blowing ninth-inning save opportunity with a 3-2 lead that, if held, would have forced a one-game playoff today in St. Louis.

"I let my teammates down," said Kimbrel. "I let my emotions get the best of me. I was too excited coming in for the ninth inning. Everything started moving too fast. I tried to think of it as just another game, game No. 162, but I couldn't."

Not that the game moved fast. The Cardinals started their contest against the Houston Astros one hour later than the Braves, scored eight runs and finished their 8-0 victory over Houston more than 30 minutes before Atlanta.

At least the Braves didn't have to sit around the locker room after their game wondering if St. Louis was going to win or not, which had been the expected scenario.

But inside Turner Field, having felt so confident in victory around 9:45 p.m., what with Craig Kimbrel on the mound, the Braves Nation's 45,350 loyalists nervously shook their red foam tomahawks more than an hour later.

It shouldn't be this hard to hold an eight-and-half game lead in the wildcard race with less than a month to go. It really shouldn't be this hard to reach a single-game playoff against the Cardinals after leading 3-2 with one out to go and your ace closer on the mound.

"We had our opportunities, but we couldn't capitalize on them," said first-year manager Fredi Gonzalez, who replaced Bobby Cox last October. "We had a very bad month of September. We just could never right the ship."

That doesn't mean it wasn't worthy of a game that meant everything to only one of the two teams. In fact, that may be what casual sports fans should most remember about this contest, if they remember it at all.

For the next time someone questions the competitive or professionalism of major league players, Wednesday night in Atlanta should be Exhibit A of how much most of them care.

This game really meant nothing to the Phillies. They already had their 100-win season. They entered the night with three straight wins, surely enough momentum to wipe away the eight losses that preceded that modest victory streak.

Moreover, they were as healthy as they'd been all season. Why risk anything on a night growing more chilly by the minute in the heart of Georgia?

Yet they sent menacing starter Cole Hamels to the mound in relief in the third inning, only to watch him give up two runs on a homer to Dan Uggla. Still, he stayed in the game two more innings, a portrait in stubborn pride more than sterling execution.

That said, for all the fight the Phillies showed for no reason other than the notable fact they're paid huge sums of money to play a kid's game, the Braves had everything they wanted in the ninth.

"I started to go say something to him, just try to keep him calm," said 39-year-old Chipper Jones of Kimbrel. "But then I thought, 'No, he's good enough.' And he is. He'll probably be the rookie of the year. But I wish I'd said something now."

It should have been the perfect scenario for an Atlanta win. Instead, it all looked way too much like most of the Braves' last four games, all of them losses.

Moreover, it looked a lot like 2010, when Kimbrel couldn't lock down the Giants in Game 3 and infielder Brooks Conrad couldn't catch a cold, much less a ground ball.

After all, it was a Jack Wilson miscue of a ground ball at short in the seventh that pulled the Phillies within 3-2. Without that run, maybe the Braves win in the ninth, with or without Kimbrel at his best.

Instead, they'll now have to look to next season, where Gonzalez noted with a weak smile, "Maybe we'll be better for this next season."

Especially in September.

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