On the night of Sept. 15, the Atlanta Braves completed their downward journey to break-even. After 150 games, they’re where they were on April Fools’ Day. Then they were 1-1. They’re now 75-75. They’re no longer a winning team.
It was altogether fitting and proper that this inglorious moment came against the Washington Nationals, the one opponent they’d been able to handle, and Stephen Strasburg, the pitcher they’d come to own. Alas, these Braves have fallen so far that even those Old Reliables have been rendered moot. Strasburg pitched seven shutout innings. The Nats won 4-2 to pare their magic number for clinching the division to two.
And here was the deepest indignity: Afterward the Braves congratulated themselves for coming close. “You like the effort,” Fredi Gonzalez said. Also this: “We battled.”
I know how thin those words sound after Game No. 150 in a season where the Braves haven’t hit a lick, but what’s a manager supposed to say? That his team is punchless and might as well surrender? That having fallen 4 1/2 games behind Pittsburgh for the second wild card and three games behind Milwaukee, his team’s playoff chances are a hair above nil? That he and his men are already making plans to go fishing/hunting/golfing on the morning of Sept. 29?
We’ve known it for a while now, but we saw it again Monday: The Braves’ utter lack of offense has sucked all the air from a season that has yielded improbably splendid pitching. The rule of thumb is that if you can pitch, you can win. The Braves can really pitch but are a .500 team because their offense has descended to Little League level.
They wasted yet another quality start Monday. Ervin Santana worked six innings and was touched for three hits and two runs. The Braves have worked 104 quality starts, seven more than any other team in baseball and two more than they did all of last season, when they led the National League — and they’ve won 75 games. Roughly speaking, they’ve lost 29 games that should have been winnable for a team with even an average offense.
No, you’re not going to win every single well-pitched game. But say the Braves had gone 14-15 in those 29 games. Know where they’d be? Occupying first place in the National League East, three games ahead of Washington.
A season that started with two starting pitchers having been lost to Tommy John surgery was always going to have a limited ceiling, but the Braves have pitched so well even without Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy that they could have made a big run at a second consecutive division title and surely should have been leading the wild card chase. According to Baseball Prospectus, they now hold a 2.7 percent chance of advancing to October.
“Anything short of us getting in some sort of playoff or play-in game is not acceptable,” Gonzalez said, and he’s right. If the Braves don’t make it, changes will be made. (Even if they do, changes will be made.) The issue, as discussed in today’s AJC, is how sweeping those changes might be — and who’ll be charged with making them. Gonzalez and GM Frank Wren? One but not the other? Neither of the above?