One week ago, the Atlanta Braves opened a 10-game homestand against Washington and Stephen Strasburg, a team and a pitcher they’d come to own. They weren’t in great shape, playoff-wise, but they had a chance: They trailed Pittsburgh by four games for the second wild card. Take two of three from the Nats and maybe sweep the Mets and the Braves would face four games against the Pirates at Turner Field. (Never mind that Milwaukee was also ahead of the Braves.)
Today the Braves and Pirates will begin that four-game series, and the former has been eliminated. The Pirates went 4-2 on their week; the Braves went 1-5. The team that had a slight chance threw it away.
I’m never comfortable with suggesting a team has “quit,” simply because I’m not a mind-reader. Sometimes you’re outplayed. Sometimes you’re unlucky. Sometimes the other team is just better than you. That said …
For argument’s sake, let’s say a team had quit: Would it look much different from the Braves’ past six games? They led in only one, that on a night when the Nationals, who’d clinched the National League East the day before, rolled out their B-team. And even then the Braves didn’t score until Washington pulled its starting pitcher.
The Braves were outscored 27-9 over the six games. They were shut out twice. They scored — even for the Braves, this defies belief — in four of the week’s 53 innings. They managed three earned runs off six starting pitchers. We shouldn’t have been surprised, given that these Braves had spent the previous 5 1/2 months not scoring, but still: This was shameful stuff.
After Sunday’s game, Ervin Santana — who’d lost the first and the last games of the week — told reporters it was hard to be confident when, as a pitcher, you knew “you had to pitch a complete-game shutout or something.” Santana won’t be a Brave beyond this week — he’s due to become a free agent at season’s end, and there’s no way the Braves will again meet his hefty price — and those words sounded like exit lines. They also spoke the gospel truth.
The Braves have gotten enough good pitching to have won 95 games. They lead the majors with 107 quality starts. They’ve won 76 times. They haven’t hit at all — last week manager Fredi Gonzalez recalled the nine-game winning streak of midsummer as the only time they’d looked potent — and the batting order wasn’t the area wracked by injury. Only one of the Braves’ everyday eight (once the everyday eight no longer included Dan Uggla) has gone on the disabled list. There was no reason for this lineup to have failed so utterly.
A month ago, even two weeks ago, I’d have mounted a defense against overreaction. One down year of five, I’d have argued, shouldn’t override the previous four. (This same principle is why Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith still work in Flowery Branch, where the Falcons are 2-1 after 4-12.) After the week just past, I can’t offer the same objections with any enthusiasm.
Frank Wren built a lineup that will have to be rebuilt over the winter. Gonzalez made out the lineup card — no easy task given the available names, I’ll grant you — and his team has wilted for the second time in four Septembers. During the 9-18 Epic Collapse of 2011, the Braves had the excuse of being without two starting pitchers. These Braves lost Evan Gattis to illness, but they’ve had all the other big names available this September. Those big names have enabled this team to go 4-14, which is worse than 9-18.
A month ago, even two weeks ago, I’d have said Wren and Gonzalez deserved another year. Today I don’t know. A poorly constructed lineup is offering only token resistance, and that doesn’t augur well for anyone in charge.