10/03/11 11:02 AM ET
Collapse ends Braves' promising season
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
With 23 games remaining, the Braves owned an 8 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card race. With five games remaining, they still held a three-game advantage, and plenty of reason to believe they would celebrate a second straight postseason berth. However, five consecutive losses completed an epic collapse that will forever link them to the 1964 Phillies, the 2007 Mets and every other club that squandered the comfort they had created during the season's first five months.
One year after clinching the Wild Card entry on the regular season's final day, the Braves concluded this year's once-promising season with a 13-inning loss to the Phillies. Had the Braves won, they would have forced a one-game tiebreaker against the Cardinals to determine the National League's Wild Card winner.
Yet, the loss to the Phillies sent the Braves home for the winter, forcing them to think about how things went so wrong, so fast. Even after winning just nine of their first 26 games in September, they entered the ninth inning of the last game on their schedule possessing a one-run lead and the luxury of giving phenom closer Craig Kimbrel the chance to preserve it.
But instead of closing out the game in successful fashion as he did a rookie-record 46 times before in 2011, Kimbrel came up short in a way that was representative of the Braves' season-ending collapse.
However, Gonzalez's first season as Atlanta's manager was filled with many great memories long before the somber finish. The success enjoyed during the season's first half was a product of a deep starting rotation and a bullpen that featured the game's best relief trio -- Kimbrel and his left-handed setup men, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.
Kimbrel, Venters and Jair Jurrjens were all rewarded with their first career All-Star selections this season, and Tommy Hanson was widely considered to be one of the most glaring All-Star snubs. All seemed to be going great for the Braves, until injuries essentially prevented Jurrjens (right knee) and Hanson (right shoulder) from providing any value after the break.
With Jurrjens and Hanson on the disabled list, the Braves had three rookies -- Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado -- in their starting rotation in September. But the young pitchers could not be blamed for the club's dramatic decline. Instead, most of the blame was directed at the lineup, which scored two runs or fewer in 10 of the last 25 games.
The offensive woes cost hitting coach Larry Parrish his job two days after the season concluded, but six-time All-Star Brian McCann and Martin Prado had to take some responsibility for the lack of production. Over the course of the final two months, as they attempted to battle back from injuries, the pair failed at providing needed consistency. Meanwhile, another big bat in Jason Heyward struggled mightily through his second Major League season.
The late-season collapse was painful, but the Braves may eventually remember this season as a foundation for their youth movement. Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman established themselves as the National League's top two rookies. In addition, the organization's top three pitching prospects -- Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Delgado -- each impressed in their first taste of the big leagues.
Of course the only taste the Braves players will remember this winter was the bitter one that overwhelmed them when the season ended.
Record: 89-73, second in NL East
Defining moment: After Kimbrel squandered a one-run, ninth-inning lead in the season's final game, Gonzalez handed the ball to Kris Medlen with the bases loaded and two outs in a tie game. A team that seemed so rich in the pitching department most of the summer had become so thin by the end that it had to call upon Medlen to experience this high-pressure situation in his second appearance of the season. Medlen wasn't sure he'd even pitch in September, after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery for the previous 13 months.
Approximately four weeks earlier, during a Sept. 2 loss that seemed to spark the late-season collapse, the Braves blew a five-run lead against the Dodgers when 20-year-old reliever Vizcaino allowed five runs during a seventh-inning relief appearance. Vizcaino had started the year at Class A Advanced Lynchburg, and he had yet to transition to a relief role until the middle of July. Yet when the Braves needed a right-handed reliever in early August, they decided he was their best option.
What went right: Dan Uggla's first three months as Atlanta's new second baseman were bumpy to say the least. His batting average sat below .200 during the first week of July, but then Uggla began a club-record 33-game hitting streak, vaulting himself toward a career-high 36 home runs. ... Chipper Jones battled right knee discomfort even after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in July. However, the 39-year-old third baseman proved to be one of the lineup's most consistent producers down the stretch. ... Beachy's first full season in a starting rotation at any level proved quite successful as he drew rave reviews across the league, and set a modern franchise rookie record for strikeouts. ... O'Flaherty took another step toward becoming a top setup man or closer as he posted 0.98 ERA in 78 appearances. ... Tim Hudson again filled the role of ace during the season's final two weeks and racked up 16 wins on the season. Hudson has reached 16 wins in each of his past three full seasons. ... Michael Bourn provided the speed the club desired and needed when it acquired him from the Astros at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
What went wrong: Heyward endured a sophomore slump that lasted the entire season. The 22-year-old right fielder battled right shoulder discomfort that sidelined him for about a month. He returned to health in the middle of June, but his mechanics and approach were a mess. ... Hanson's troublesome shoulder and Jurrjens' bothersome right knee destroyed the makings of a rotation that could shine in October. Both of these pitchers entered the All-Star break with two of the National League's top four ERAs. But after the break, both struggled mightily. ... The absence of Hanson and Jurrjens seemed to put more strain on the bullpen down the stretch.
Venters and Kimbrel proved to be a dominant setup/closer duo through the first five months. Yet, as they both blew at least two leads in the eighth inning or later in September, there was focus placed on their workload because they ranked first and second in appearances in the Majors. The heavy workloads they experienced early in the season could also be blamed on the fact that the offense never really had enough thunder to put together a string of convincing wins.
Biggest surprise: The month of September seemed to become more shocking with each passing day. The Braves ended August with the game's fourth-best winning percentage. However, the Braves were never the same after Hurricane Irene paused their schedule for three days during the month. Even with the addition of Bourn and the Aug. 31 acquisition of Matt Diaz, the team struggled mightily to score runs and pick up the slack for the pitching staff when it needed it most.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.