ATLANTA — Fredi Gonzalez is sitting in the Braves dugout at spring training, musing with a small group of reporters about the upcoming season, when the subject turns to something he’d rather forget.
So, how is the team coping with what happened six months ago?
“It leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” the Atlanta manager keeps saying, with a bit of resignation in his voice. “But now it’s over with.”
Not so fast.
Atlanta’s historic September collapse loomed over the winter like a bad hangover, and the questions didn’t let up just because the team is heading into a new season. Until the Braves start carving out a different paththey’re going to be queried about what happened a year ago.
How they seemingly had the NL wild card locked up with a month to go, only to throw it away by winning just nine of their last 27 games. How a gut-wrenching, 13-inning loss on the final day of the season finished them off. How the St. Louis Cardinals stormed back to edge the Braves by a single game, then carried that momentum all the way to a World Series championship.
As much as Gonzalez and the Braves are determined to turn the page, they can’t get away from the constant rehashing of 2011. Every time a new reporter showed up at spring training, there were the familiar questions, the ones they’ve answered over and over again. Look for more of the same once the games begin counting, especially if the team gets off to a slow start.
“It’s gonna be like this,” Gonzalez said. “I understand the whole process.”
The impending retirement of Chipper Jones only adds to the sense of urgency.
Approaching his 40th birthday and plagued by injuries, Atlanta’s longtime third baseman announced in spring training that this will be his final season.
One thing the Braves didn’t do was rip apart their team. Quite the opposite, in fact. Other than a new shortstop (most likely rookie Tyler Pastornicky) and a new starter at the end of the rotation, this will be largely the same team that played so well for such a long period – a .626 clip from the beginning of May until the end of August – only to fritter it away with that ugly final month.
“We’ve got a pretty good club,” Gonzalez said. “Going into the last month, we had the third- or fourth-best record in the major leagues. We’ve got a good club. We’ve got a good young club. There was really no reason to make any changes.”
Instead, Atlanta is counting on comeback years from several players who fell off dramatically last season.
Start with Jason Heyward made the All-Star team and was runner-up for NL rookie of the year in 2010. His sophomore season was the exact opposite, a brutally poor campaign that Heyward blames on an ailing shoulder.
“The big thing is being healthy and being able to make the adjustments,” insisted Heyward, who hit .227 with just 14 homers and 42 RBI. “Right now, that’s all I’m doing. No different than any other spring.”
Heyward wasn’t the only one to blame for an inconsistent offense that plagued the Braves all year.
Slugging second baseman Dan Uggla struggling mightily until July. He then ripped off a 33-game hitting streak and finished with a career-high 36 homers, but was so pathetic the first three months he still finished with a career-worst .233 average.
Brian McCann and Martin Prado also went through slumps.
Even Gonzalez conceded the Braves need to get off to a strong start this season, if for no other reason than to turn the focus away from last September.
“Obviously, if go out and start 5-11 in April,” the manager said, “that’s all gonna come back.”