03/08/12 6:18 PM EST
Braves working to put 2011 in rear-view mirror
By Hal Bodley / MLB.com
Baseball hangovers are hard to get over.
"No, it takes time and a lot of effort," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said as he watched his Braves prepare for Thursday's Spring Training game against Baltimore. "You work hard to put it behind and don't dwell on it."
Regardless, it's always in the back of your mind.
With less than a month to go in the 2011 season, the Braves held an 8 1/2-game lead for the National League Wild Card and were on cruise control.
But beginning Sept. 2, they lost 18 of their next 26 games, including five in a row to end the season.
When the Phillies stunned them with a 13-inning, 4-3 victory in the last game, the St. Louis Cardinals celebrated the Wild Card and the Braves limped home.
"I would have traded any month we had last season for September," Gonzalez said. "The majority of the teams have one bad month or a couple bad weeks, but ours was September.
"We lost [starting pitchers] Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson within five days of each other, and that's 24 wins sitting next to me in the dugout. Offensively, we had our struggles. We picked a bad month for that to happen."
Gonzalez added, "The kids we ran out there, like Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Mike Minor [who pitched three scoreless innings Thursday in a 2-1 loss to the Orioles], did a terrific job. But we had our problems."
Unlike the Boston Red Sox, who had a parallel epic collapse to Atlanta's, the Braves have made few changes for 2012. The Red Sox replaced manager Terry Francona with Bobby Valentine, and general manager Theo Epstein defected to the Chicago Cubs. Ben Cherington has taken his place.
The Braves have remained a constant, and that is good.
Although No. 1 starter Tim Hudson, recovering from surgery for a herniated disc in his back, may miss the first month, the Braves pitching is second only to Philadelphia's in the NL.
Atlanta's offense remains a question mark, but I believe with Michael Bourn aboard for the entire year, it will be more than capable of helping put 2011 behind. To me, Bourn -- who finished 2011 with a career-best .294 batting average and 61 stolen bases (39 with the Astros and 22 with the Braves) -- is the best leadoff hitter in the Major Leagues.
Chipper Jones, face of the Braves, returns for his 19th and maybe final season. Gonzalez is counting on six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Martin Prado to improve their production. The bullpen, anchored by NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and his left-handed setup men, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, is the best in the league.
As Gonzalez -- who was taking over for the legendary Bobby Cox this time last year -- prepared to greet his team this spring, he spent hours deciding how to approach his players.
By the time the full squad reported, Gonzalez had filled two pages of a yellow legal pad with notes about what went wrong in 2011, and how that nightmare can be put behind.
"I had made extensive notes of things I wanted to discuss," he said. "But most of the position players were here during the period when it was just supposed to be pitchers and catchers. There were so many we had to set up a special field for them to work out. That told me how much they wanted to rebound."
Fredi said when he walked into the clubhouse and realized "the intensity and look in their eyes, I showed them the legal pad but tossed it aside. I said the only thing I wanted to address was that even though we played poorly in September, nobody pointed fingers. I was proud of them. You see players on other teams doing it differently.
"Now, we have to move forward. In September, the one lesson we learned was that when one thing went wrong, like a bad hop, they think, 'What's going to happen next? We're snake-bitten.' You know, last year we had team meetings to prepare for the next meeting. That's just not going to happen again."
Gonzalez believes every player "learned something from the experience, and if we reach this year's goal of playing in the postseason, we'll be better off for it."
Gonzalez had huge shoes to fill when he took over for Cox, who ranks fourth on the all-time managerial list with 2,504 wins.
"It was tough because the expectations here are so high," Gonzalez said. "My goal was to take over and continue [Cox's] winning ways and go to the playoffs. That didn't happen, but Bobby is my best friend -- almost a father figure. He's our biggest fan and wants us to succeed. He lives and dies with every game.
"He'll call me after each game, and when we lose he always blames the umpires! I have dinner with him in Spring Training almost every night."
I believe the Braves have the best chance in the NL East to dethrone the Phillies, who've won the division each of the last five years. That said, this is the toughest division of the six in the Major Leagues this season.
"The Marlins are better, Philadelphia is still Philadelphia with those starting pitchers, and Washington is a team that, for me, is scary," Gonzalez said. "They're a young team with some good pieces. The Nationals are scary and you have to respect the Mets. Sometimes you're more afraid to play those guys than ... the 1927 Yankees!"
To the Atlanta skipper, the division will be decided by the team that can survive when it sustains injuries to key players, "when the Phillies have Ryan Howard missing because of his Achilles, or Chase Utley or players like that on other teams. Staying healthy is the key."
And for the Braves, putting 2011 in the rear-view mirror. Redemption must come from within.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.