Wiedmer: Braves rolling wrong way at wrong time

Wiedmer: Braves rolling wrong way at wrong time

September 19th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Atlanta Braves logo

It was late September of 2011, the Atlanta Braves about to complete one of the epic regular-season collapses in major league baseball history.

Having watched his inexperienced teammates lose for the 16th time in their last 24 games -- they would end the year on a five-game skid -- the wise veteran Chipper Jones sagely observed: "Our young guys need to get out of their heads what's at stake and get into their heads what's in front of them."

What wound up in front of them was the hunt for something to do in October, those Braves -- along with that year's Boston Red Sox -- becoming the first teams in major league history to miss the playoffs after leading (for a postseason spot) by at least eight games in September.

Now fast-forward to Tuesday night, this year's Braves having dropped their ninth game in their last 13 outings after losing a double-header at Washington.

Said Atlanta reserve catcher Gerald Laird, who has played in the last two World Series, of this latest Braves swoon: "You've got a lot of guys who haven't experienced (locking down a division title) yet. You can see it in their faces. They're trying to make things happen. Get out and play the game hard and let the game come to you."

What's coming to them is dark history, though it doesn't figure to repeat itself quite as dramatically this time around, since there's almost no way these Braves can miss the playoffs, given that they still began Wednesday night with the best record in the National League (89-62) and the second best record in the majors behind Boston's 92-60.

So even if the last two weeks have caused Braves Nation to suffer 2011 flashbacks, perhaps third-year Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez is also right to shrug off such a slump with a Bobby Cox-like quote: "I like where we're at."

But that doesn't mean it isn't fair to ask what's happened to a team that was 32 games over .500 on Sept. 3 after winning 31 of its last 43 games.

Why is this starting to feel like 2011 all over again, especially since Atlanta has batted just .199 the past two weeks while scoring an average of but 2.8 runs? Why does Tuesday's collapse by Craig Kimbrel -- who blew his first save opportunity since May -- call to mind the last game of that 2011 season, when he entered the top of the ninth with a 3-2 lead against Philadelphia, couldn't find the strike zone and allowed the Phillies to tie a game they would win in extra innings.

Said Kimbrel that night, sounding anything but the colossal closer he's become: "My mind was rushing. Things started moving too fast. My head started moving too fast."

Thus did that season end at least one game too fast, the Braves blowing a chance to at least travel to St. Louis for a one-game playoff.

Then came last year and Atlanta reached the postseason, even if the Cardinals won the one-game wildcard playoff on a controversial infield fly out.

And for the longest time this summer, this season seemed to be building on that, the Braves once owning baseball's best record, which figured to lock down the home field until the World Series. Toss in the fact that Atlanta still owns the best home record in the majors (52-22) and that its final seven games are at home, much still seems winnable, including the franchise's first World Series appearance since 1999.

But look past that 85-53 record on Sept. 3 and you could just as easily argue this team has dramatically overachieved. If someone had told any loyal member of Braves Nation that their heroes would own the best record in the NL on the afternoon of Sept. 18 despite relievers Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters basically being lost for the year, that starter Tim Hudson would miss more than half the season, along with Brandon Beachy, and that Jason Heyward would suffer a broken jaw after being hit by a pitch less than six weeks from October, well, in some ways what they've done to this point is already a miracle.

Yet if another quick playoff exit arrives next month, much of that good work will be swiftly forgotten.

Said Gonzalez late Tuesday: "We just have to get back on a roll again."

Oh, they're on a roll. They just need to start rolling in the right direction again.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com