Atlanta Braves again need to look ahead

Atlanta Braves again need to look ahead

October 7th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Professional

Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones (10) hits a foul tip during the ninth inning of the National League wild card playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - Friday night had just turned from 9:32 to 9:33 p.m. Inside the Atlanta Braves locker room there was anger, hurt, disbelief, denial. Coming to grips with their 6-3, season-ending, National League wild-card loss to the St. Louis Cardinals was going to take some time.

"A lot of shock," retiring third baseman Chipper Jones had said a few minutes earlier. "The people that were talking were obviously talking about the call on the infield fly. There are a lot of guys in there trying to lay blame."

Then former major league manager Joe Torre -- currently MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations -- took the podium in the Turner Field interview room.

Asked about that infield-fly ruling in the bottom of the eighth -- the fly that was misplayed by Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma and fell to the turf but was still judged an out by left field umpire Sam Holbrook -- Torre methodically went through the play and the Braves' subsequent protest.

A few questions later, hoping to end any doubt about the ruling, Torre said, "It looked like to me it was an infield fly."

From inside the Braves locker room, objects flew and expletives filled the air. This is where the players wanted to place the blame, despite the fact that three throwing errors -- one by Jones, one by second baseman Dan Uggla and one from rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons -- had led to four unearned Cards runs.

Said Jones: "We need to look at ourselves in the mirror. That call is kind of a gray area. Ultimately, three errors cost us the game, mine probably being the biggest."

But will Chipper's retirement from the game further cost the Braves a season from now? Can this overall young team move forward without its best clutch player, its clubhouse leader, its final tie to the 1995 World Series champs?

Will this unexpectedly abrupt end to an unexpectedly successful season negatively impact this group going forward?

"It hurts. It hurts losing games the way we did tonight," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "[But] anybody can have one bad game, one bad call, whatever, go against you. You win 94 games after the September we had last year, you've got to tip your hat to this club."

Indeed, Chipper or no Chipper, the Braves learned well from last year's late-season collapse. In fact, from Sept. 16 on, Atlanta had the second-best record in the NL, going 11-5 to the Cards' 12-4.

Not that replacing Jones is the organization's only concern. Pitcher Tim Hudson expects to return for at least one more season, but he'll be 38 midway through next season and there's always a chance he'll decide to retire.

Then there's the free agency of leadoff hitter Michael Bourn, whom the Braves definitely want to keep, but they must negotiate with Bourn agent Scott Boros, not always the easiest job.

Finally, catcher Brian McCann believes he may need shoulder surgery, which could sideline him for much of spring training and possibly the first month of the 2013 season.

But former Rhea County High School standout Cory Gearrin, who made the Braves' 25-man playoff roster as a reliever, believes one problem the team won't have in Chipper's absence is leadership.

"We've got a lot of guys who are ready to step up," Gearrin said. "Guys like Huddy and Mac are already there. Young guys like Jason [Heyward], Freddie [Freeman] and Craig [Kimbrel], too. We've got a great situation going forward."

Especially if they forget to look backward to Friday's eighth inning and an infield fly that turned out the lights on a 94-win season.