Wiedmer: This Braves team could win Series

Wiedmer: This Braves team could win Series

August 12th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Mike Minor (36) works in the second inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins in Atlanta, Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - Fredi Gonzalez almost never talks about the Great Collapse of 2011. The third-year Atlanta Braves skipper may have lost much hair and sleep and confidence over that grim September swoon. Losing 18 of your final 26 games, and all of an 8.5-game lead for a wildcard berth over the season's final month will do that to a guy.

Still, he normally keeps that frustration pretty well hidden. Just like the 11 active players from that 2011 team who are still logging important minutes on the 2013 Braves.

Yet if his memory didn't exactly morph into widespread panic during Sunday afternoon's game against Miami, at least a silly millimeter of concern crossed Gonzalez's mind. Not so much because a wild pitch had ended the team's 14-game winning streak on Saturday night in a 1-0 defeat. Everyone loses a few over 162 games.

But now Saturday had rolled into Sunday and the Braves were already down 3-0 to the Marlins before the second inning was half done.

"You lose 1-0 on a wild pitch Saturday night, then start this one the way we did," began Gonzalez late Sunday afternoon. "You kind of think, 'Oh, no, it's going to be one of those days."

Instead, it became another one of those days the 2013 Braves are becoming known for, days of comebacks and clutch hits and cool pitching under fire.

That 3-0 hole became a 9-4 victory, Atlanta's 72nd of the year against just 46 defeats, the best record in all of baseball. The NL East lead is now 14.5 games over the Washington Nationals.

"It's what we've been doing all year," said Big Peach native Jason Heyward after posting his first four-hit game since September of 2010. "Just help each other out."

Said Freddie Freeman, who helped mightily with a three-run homer in the fifth to briefly turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead before the Marlins tied it at 4-all: "We never panic. One guy gets on, another moves him over, another gets him home. There's a lot of trust in our guys right now. We really believe in each other."

This was the way it used to be in the Braves' good ol' days, when one of the best starting pitching staffs ever assembled - Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, etc. - kept it close and a few savvy hitters (Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, David Justice) would produce just enough runs to almost always win.

"Yeah, I see some of that with this team," said Gonzalez, a former Braves coach under Bobby Cox who then managed against them as the Marlins skipper.

"Those teams had clutch hitting and great pitching. We're starting to get that, too, but our pitchers are pretty young."

Gonzalez paused, then smiled. "Of course, those guys were pretty young when they first started winning, too."

That improbable run of 14 straight playoff berths between 1991 and 2005 aside (not counting the strike-shortened season of 1994), it almost always takes time and experience to build a champion.

To Gonzalez's credit, the 2012 Braves almost never played a group haunted by 2011. They moved one rung up the ladder, making the wildcard spot they'd just missed the season before. That they lost that home game to St. Louis on a controversial infield fly call left a bad taste, but evidently not one nearly strong enough to poison this season.

"This was important, to win this one after what happened Saturday night," said reserve catcher Evan Gattis, who blamed himself for not trapping the wild pitch better. "You don't want something like that to snowball. Yeah, it's just one game, but now it's only one game. We're back in the winning column. That's where we want to stay."

It's still tough to know what to make of these Braves, given the stunning weakness of the NL Least, which should apply to FEMA for disaster relief, given that Atlanta remains the division's only team above .500.

Yet the wins are far from all that's impressive. Atlanta's statistical numbers increasingly suggest that the franchise owning baseball's best record may also be the sport's best team, a club highly capable of winning it all for the first time since 1995.

Saturday night's loss notwithstanding, Atlanta awoke Sunday morning to find its bullpen ranked first in all of baseball in ERA, opponent batting average, fewest homers allowed and fewest hits allowed. The Braves also have the most comeback wins in the majors this year (38), the best home record (40-16) and the third most wins in their final at-bat (18).

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Atlanta currently owns the National League's second best overall ERA, the most home runs hit (141), the second most walks, second best slugging percentage and second most runs scored. Sure, the offense has struck out more than any team in baseball save the Houston Dis-Astros, but nobody's perfect.

And they appear to all be getting better. Heyward - for so long a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill might have described him - is now batting .247 with 33 RBI has a lead-off hitter. Winning pitcher Mike Minor didn't help his pre-game 2.76 ERA, but he did improve to 12-5 on the season. Then there's Gattis, who could form the Balding Beastie Boys with catcher Brian McCann, the two catchers looking somewhat like twin brothers by different mothers.

The easy praise for Gattis will no doubt be aimed at his RBI double in the seventh, but a play in the fourth was maybe better, even if it produced no runs.

Sending a bullet a few feet left of first, Gattis appeared to have grounded into an out when Marlins first baseman Ed Lucas knocked down the ball. But the 26-year-old rookie they call the White Bear - all six feet and four inches and 230 pounds of him - somehow beat Lucas's throw to pitcher Henderson Alvarez. He's clearly faster than the average bear.

"Yeah, pretty good play right there," said Gonzalez. "That's a lot of weight moving down that line at a pretty fast pace. But that's Evan. He never gives up on a play."

Very much like his 24 teammates.

Email Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com