“Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
It seems like only yesterday that the Braves were an absolute lock to make the postseason. On Sept. 5 they held a comfortable 81/2-game lead in the National League wild-card race. Now it’s all gone and they absolutely must win one game to guarantee a chance to play another day.
Tonight they face the major league’s best Philadelphia Phillies in the final chapter of the 162-game regular season in dire straits. An epic collapse that matches in misery with the Boston Red Sox in the American League, the Braves have to rally against their nemesis while the St. Louis Cardinals have the luxury of dealing with the Houston Astros, owners of the major league’s worst record.
“We have no one but ourselves to blame for being in this present situation,” said Braves veteran Chipper Jones before losing the fifth and sixth consecutive games to the Phillies.
Chipper is absolutely right, though some folks seem intent on blaming first-year Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, as if he’s at fault for all of the physical breakdowns to his players’ bodies and swings. Surely Bobby Cox would never have let a team limp this mightily into the final game. Just look how well he inspired Derek Lowe to pitch down the stretch last year when a wild-card berth all came down to the final out against the Phillies as well.
Of course, this can’t all be laid at Gonzalez’s feet. The Braves have made a fine mess of things in way too many ways to blame on any one source.
You can’t go 9-17 in September without a whole lot of bad going on. Bad arms. Bad bats. Disturbingly awful hitting with runners in scoring position (.181 before last night’s 0-fer). It all spelled the squandering of a wild-card lead that the Braves have held all by themselves since June 19.
Now they find themselves in the same predicament they were a year ago, with all hope on Tim Hudson’s shoulders against the vaunted Phillies. Only it wasn’t supposed to be this hard this time. Last year’s team overachieved in many ways on the emotional motivation of earning Cox one last playoff shot before retirement.
This team was expected to be a contender. It even looked like one deep into the summer.
Remember early August? Dan Uggla had emerged from a slump with a hitting streak that extended to 33 games. The team’s most reliable bat, Brian McCann, was set to return from the disabled list. Trade-deadline acquisition Michael Bourn was settled in as a fleet and prolific leadoff man. Chipper Jones was still vertical most nights. The pitching staff was deep and balanced and second only to the Phillies’ formidable rotation.
But on the same day McCann returned to the lineup, top starter Tommy Hanson went on the DL with shoulder problems. And that was just the start of rotation nightmares. First-time all-star Jair Jurrjens broke down again. Veteran Derek Lowe lost his ability to win anything (Tuesday night extended his one-run-per-inning rate in five consecutive September losses).
Still, Atlanta’s cushion seemed like it might be enough to coast into the playoffs and hope Jurrjens and Hanson would be ready to return to save the day.
Not the case, as we all are now painfully aware. The bats went dead. Bourn became a strikeout machine. Jones struggled through knee discomfort. McCann is mired in the worst slump of his career, with the all-star catcher’s .174 batting average since his return from the DL ranking lowest among all qualified major leaguers.
Atlanta has lost seven of eight series this month, coinciding with a Cardinals hot streak of winning 15 of their past 20. That’s a bad combination of mathematics for Braves fans.
Want more troubling numbers? The Braves have been outscored 43-9 in six consecutive losses to the Phillies.
So with those happy thoughts, Braves fans will be sweating it out on the final day for the second season in a row. The Cardinals facing the last-place Astros an hour later in Houston. It’s reached the point where Bourn is texting his old Astros teammates and pleading with them to continue fighting from the abyss. Fans were chanting “Let’s go Houston!” at Turner Field while the Braves were getting hammered 7-1.
Since the Astros aren’t the most reliable team to count on, Hudson needs to deliver against the Phillies’ planned bullpen committee slated for tonight’s finale.
However it turns out, Laurel and Hardy wouldn’t recognize the Braves’ brand of slapstick. There’s been nothing funny about this fine mess.