Thursday, September 29, 2011

Two Big Chokes

As I posted back in the summer, history is made almost every day in baseball. Sometimes it is the “bad” kind of history. The kind of history that makes baseball fans like me suffer. Lord knows the Atlanta Braves made me suffer aplenty in 1970’s and 1980’s. But, they didn’t make me suffer in a classic choking kind of way. They waited until the 2011 season to do that.

Along with the storied Boston Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves are the
only two teams in baseball history to hold such a massive lead in a play-off race only to see it squandered in a September swoon. Nothing like this has ever happened before and now it has happened to two teams in the same season. Truly historic twin chokes.

If I disassociate myself (briefly) from the trauma of the demise, last night’s action was pretty incredible from a pure baseball perspective. The St. Louis – Houston game was
an 8-0 blow out. So, it doesn’t count except to cap a terrific hard charge by the Cardinals when it matters most. So, my hat’s off to them for besting the Braves in a tight National League wild-card race.

But, the other three games played, all with critical play-off implications, all decided in either last at-bats and/or in extra-innings, all making history on the last game of the regular season, were simply terrific games of baseball. Baltimore eliminated the once American League wild-card commanding Red Sox with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. The Tampa Bay Rays made an almost unbelievable comeback against the DamnYankees and beat them 8-7 in 12 innings.

Evan Longoria's walk-off home-run was the first to send a team into the play-offs since Bobby Thomson's historic "the shot heard 'round the world" in 1951. 60 years ago.

Then there was the Braves' collapse to this year’s most dominant team, the Philadelphia Phillies. Taking a slim 3-2 lead into the ninth inning, after another great outing by Tim Hudson with help from Eric O’Flaherty (the lowest ERA in the majors this year among pitchers that qualified – 0.98) and Jonny Venters, possible rookie-of-the-year Craig Kimbrel got wild and allowed the game to be tied. The Braves dropped the game in 13 innings 4-3. Choke city.

It was the 26th extra inning game played by the Braves in 2011. An Atlanta-era record. See? All kinds of baseball history being made here.

Now, I have to live with this lump in my throat all winter long. “We’ll get ‘em next year” ain’t gonna cut it. Leading the wild card race by 8 ½ games at the end of August the Braves went 9-18 in September to lose the race to the Cardinals on the last day of the season.

Last year I was at the final game of the season. It was Bobby Cox’s last regular season game. The Braves were tied for the National League wild card with the San Diego Padres. The Braves edged the dominant Philadelphia Phillies 8-7 while the Padres lost on the west coast. So, we made it into the play-offs by the slimmest of margins on the season's final game.

This year it was a very similar story. Only with different results.

It is easy to get into apologetics. You can talk about the injuries to arguably the Braves’ two best starters, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hansen. You can talk about the horrible year Derek Lowe had (he lost 17 games and we owe this guy $15 million next year?!). Or the terrible first half of the season Dan Uggla experienced at the plate. Or Jason Hayward’s awful season. Or nagging injuries to Brian McCann and Martin Prado. You can talk about a lot of little things but the bottom line is that the Braves did not play well in September. They ended the season undeserving of the post-season berth that looked so promising just a few weeks ago.

This is what it is like to be a baseball fan. Success and failure is usually a persistent, grinding thing. The Braves spiraling out of control didn’t happen overnight or even in over the course of a few games. It was a slow train wreck over the course of some 27 games.

If I had to pick a moment that defined the choke it would the three-game series earlier this month in St. Louis. More specifically, I can point to a single half-inning. It was
September 9, the Braves were leading by a score of 3-1. Their star rookie closer came in to end the game. And he blew a save. Before blowing that game Kimbrel had pitched 37 2/3 scoreless innings. The longest stretch by any pitcher in the majors this year. Guess he just peaked too early.

I can’t fault possible rookie-of-the-year Kimbrel with the weight of the whole sucking collapse. He has certainly pitched outstanding as a reliever in his first full season with the Braves. But, he’s not perfect. No one is. And his greatest moment of imperfection so far in his young career came at worst possible time. If he saves that particular game, all else being equal, we have an extra game lead in the wild card. But, as
Don Meredith used to say, “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.”

Being swept in St. Louis seemed to establish the indisputable momentum. And it wasn’t just the Braves giving it away. The Cardinals, to their credit, took care of business and finished strong down the stretch. In the end, they are a more deserving wild-card team, as are the Rays.

After 162-games, luck doesn't get you in or keep you out of the play-offs. Baseball is unforgiving that way. In the end, everybody gets what they deserve.

And usually history is made.

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