Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Stumbling Into October: The All-to-likely Story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves

At the time of my most recent post on the Atlanta Braves, they were at the top of baseball. Best record. Chris Johnson was the leading NL batter. Best pitching. Solid defense. But only mediocre hitting. Well, in September their hitting went from bad to worse. Their pitching, including their great bullpen, became more inconsistent. All-in-all they were less than a .500 ball club, going 13-14 in the season’s final month; hardly the epitome of momentum.

For that reason, they ended up losing the home field advantage in the play-offs by one game. So, instead of playing the wild-card Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLDS, the Braves took on the Los Angeles Dodgers, probably baseball’s best team in the second half of 2013. Which meant the Braves mediocre offense had to face probably the best pitcher in baseball right now, Clayton Kershaw.  Twice in four games, as it turned out.

When you are down to one game being the difference between playing the wild-card team and the best team in the second half you can pick any game at all as the culprit. But, I can’t look past the final week of the season at home and the Braves losing 2 out of 3 against the lowly Milwaukee Brewers. The two losses, 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, were not close enough to consider the possibility of winning either of them. Yet the postseason schedule would have been completely different had the Braves been able to turn one of those into a win. Instead, by getting shut out those two games, the Braves controlled their own destiny right into the worst possible postseason schedule in 2013’s National League.

The shut outs were fitting in a way. They reflect the inconsistent offense that has sent me raving around the house cursing their bats all season long. No two players better represent the extremes of the Braves offense than Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. Freeman was awesome, a true MVP candidate with a .319 batting average, 23 home runs and 109 RBIs in addition to playing outstanding first base defensively. He turned all kinds of wild throws by the Braves infield into outs with his fancy footwork on the bag and his excellent glove. Uggla had a decent year defensively at second base. But, we saw him make history in 2013. He became one of the few players in the entire history of major league baseball stretching back to 1901 to bat at least 500 times in a season and hit under .190.  Uggla batted .179.  It is the lowest major league batting average in over 20 years. That’s an ugly Uggla…and we have to pay him two more years on his multi-million dollar contract. Ugh.

This was the debate all season long about the 2013 Atlanta Braves. Where they an overrated team tenuously hanging on to the lead? Or were they an underachieving team that had yet to reach their full potential? I could not tell. Following them was a frustrating experience, despite their relative success. If you take away the historic double winning streaks of 10-in-a-row in April and 14-in-a-row in August they were only 6 games above .500 for the year. But why should we cheat them of the great accomplishment of being red hot twice in a season? They ended up 96-66, tied for the third best record in baseball.

So, the Braves battled the Dodgers.  They had not met in the postseason since 1996 when (in happier times) the Braves swept the Dodgers. I had no such high hopes for this series. I knew we would have to beat Kershaw twice and the Dodgers had gone an astonishing 42-8 over a 50-game stretch in the second half. That is wicked winning baseball. At the beginning of the series I felt that Mike Minor was the key to the Braves success. I figured our bullpen would do its job and that Kris Medlin would do his job (voted NL pitcher of the month in September). Well, it turns out Minor pitched decently (not great but good enough) in game two for a Braves 4-3 win. Craig Kimbrel made his only impact of the series by recording a four-out save. But that was our only victory. The Dodgers took game one with a crushing 6-1 score, game three with an even more crushing 13-6 score, and then the finale last night in a close 4-3 game. Hats off to late-season acquisition Freddy Garcia for pitching a decent 6 innings and giving us a chance to win.

But we didn’t win. This is what baseball teaches. Every season ends with only one winner. Everybody else is left to either lick their wounds or to take consolation in lesser achievements. Baseball is a lesson in humility. So, I’m not all that down today as I sort through the memories of 2013 and of previous Braves seasons. I take solace in the fact that we are a young team, my post in September reflected on all our youth. And with youth, hope springs eternal. We’ll be back, at some point. Hopefully I won’t have to wait another 8 seasons for our next division championship (our last one was in 2005). But, even if I have to wait another decade or two one thing remains certain. I am a Braves fan.

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