12/26/11 10:00 AM EST
Collapse overshadows fond memories
Braves' once-promising 2011 season ends with heartbreak
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Everything seemed to be right when the Braves entered September with an 8 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card race. Dan Uggla had seemingly found comfort after struggling through his first few months as Atlanta's new second baseman, and manager Fredi Gonzalez appeared quite capable of carrying the torch Bobby Cox had handed him. A rock-solid bullpen was being anchored by the NL's top rookie (Craig Kimbrel) and the lineup was still benefiting from the presence of a 39-year-old former NL MVP (Chipper Jones).
But while aiming for a second consecutive playoff appearance, the Braves managed to win just nine games in September, and they lost their "insurmountable" lead over the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card race. The epic collapse concluded with a 13-inning loss to the Phillies on the regular season's final day.
As Kimbrel blew a ninth-inning lead and Atlanta crumbled in a must-win situation on that fateful night, the Braves and their fans were left to wonder how things might have been different had injuries not removed Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson from a formidable rotation.
While the winter months progressed, many Atlanta players and coaches admitted they did not watch much of the postseason, which featured St. Louis extending its incredible comeback journey through Game 7 of the World Series. The postseason awards season brought much attention to Kimbrel. But the lingering pain created by September's collapse continues to make it difficult for the Braves to fondly remember many of this year's memorable moments.
Here is a look at the top five storylines from 2011.
5. Passing the torch
While Gonzalez considers Cox to be a close friend and one of his most valuable influences, he attempted to put his personal stamp on the club during his first year as Atlanta's manager. He made Spring Training much more intense than it had been during Cox's reign and altered some pregame routines, like having his players work on fielding drills during the early part of the season.
As the bullpen struggled down the stretch, fans questioned whether Gonzalez used Kimbrel and Jonny Venters too often during the early portion of the season. Gonzalez made an effort to be much more careful with the way he utilized these pitchers during the season's final three months. But even after the season concluded, Gonzalez defended his decisions to utilize his top two relievers to help his club win the many close games it was involved in throughout the year.
The Braves went 29-26 in one-run games and 14-12 in extra-inning games. This forced Gonzalez to dig into his bullpen more often than desired and also highlighted some of the club's offensive woes.
4. Inconsistent offense
When Uggla hit below .200 throughout the season's first half, it was easy to assume he was pressing as he attempted to impress his new employer and fans. But by the time Jason Heyward completed his rough sophomore season and both Brian McCann and Martin Prado endured long, ugly slumps, most were expecting the decision the Braves made when they dismissed Larry Parrish on Sept. 30, less than one calendar year after he had been hired to serve as the club's hitting coach.
Parrish certainly wasn't the only one to blame for the widespread struggles the Braves experienced at the plate this past season. But he seemed uncomfortable in a new organization, and this might have led to the communication problems he had with some players. Within a span of a year, Atlanta went from producing the NL's best on-base percentage to owning the fourth-worst mark in the Majors.
The Braves were limited to two runs or fewer in 52 games, including 12 of their final 30 games. The pitching staff proved strong enough for the club to win 12 of those 52 games. But once injuries depleted the starting rotation, the offense was not able to compensate in a similar manner.
3. Jurrjens and Hanson injuries
When the Braves entered the All-Star break with Jurrjens leading the NL with a 1.87 ERA and Hanson ranking fourth with a 2.44 mark, they believed they had the kind of rotation to battle the Phillies for the NL East title. But Jurrjens' troublesome right knee became a problem out of the break, and by the time August arrived, a struggling Hanson could no longer mask the right shoulder discomfort that had plagued him most of the year.
Hanson ended up missing almost all of the season's final two months and Jurrjens was more of a detriment than a benefit as he attempted to continue pitching before being shut down for good in late August. With Hanson and Jurrjens unavailable, the Braves needed Derek Lowe to step up and produce one of his surprising late-season surges. But the veteran hurler instead extended his struggles and put even more pressure on Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran as they attempted to fill the holes of the fractured starting rotation.
2. Early preview of a bright future
Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman ranked as the top two players in this year's NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting. But by the time the 2011 season concluded, they seemed to be seasoned veterans in comparison to some of their teammates.
When the season started, the Braves were hoping Minor would make the tremendous progress that was displayed once he rejoined Atlanta's rotation in August. But the club was not necessarily expecting that each of its top three pitching prospects -- Teheran, Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino -- would make their season debuts and be asked to fill important roles down the stretch.
Teheran, who is widely recognized as the game's top pitching prospect, made his Major League debut in May and made just three appearances (one start) in September. Delgado assumed a regular role in the rotation during the season's final month and provided indication he is ready to test his talents on the big league level on a regular basis. Vizcaino, a 21-year-old reliever, showed both promise and youth as he attempted to introduce himself to the game's highest level during the season's final two months.
The Braves are hoping the late-season pressure experienced by these talented young pitchers proves as valuable as it did to Brandon Beachy, who introduced himself to the Major League scene during the final weeks of 2010 and spent this past year recording more strikeouts than any other Braves rookie pitcher since 1900.
1. Heyward's trying season
When Heyward homered on Opening Day for a second straight year, there was reason to wonder if this tremendously talented outfielder was indeed ready to build upon his impressive rookie season. But one year after exceeding tremendous expectations, the 22-year-old outfielder was introduced to regular disappointment, which taxed him both mentally and physically.
Heyward began battling right shoulder discomfort during Spring Training, and he missed nearly a month when the ailment forced him to the disabled list in May. He returned after playing just two Minor League rehab games in June and struggled to find any sense of comfort.
After Heyward's shoulder and mechanics continued to hamper his production through July, the Braves benched him in favor of Minor League journeyman Jose Constanza, who energized the offense with his speed in August. Hoping he would get right before the playoffs, the Braves started playing Heyward on a regular basis again in September. But it was far too late for him to salvage a disappointing season.
Heyward has lost approximately 20 pounds this offseason and now has a leaner, more athletic frame. More importantly, his right shoulder has not been a problem over the past two months.
Now, like the rest of the Braves, Heyward is looking forward to 2012 and trying to quickly forget what transpired in '11.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.