09/07/12 2:45 PM ET
Braves enter final stretch looking ahead, not behind
By Terence Moore / MLB.com
It's in the distant past, they contend, and they say they aren't concerned about what happened -- you know, way back then.
The Braves suggest they've trained themselves to have little to no recollection of spending last September dropping 20 of their final 30 games, including their last five games in a row. They don't think about entering September with an 8 1/2-game lead for the National League Wild Card before watching it vanish by the end of the month. They don't think about having the Cardinals zoom past them along the way to reaching the NL Championship Series, grabbing the pennant and capturing a highly dramatic World Series.
Then again, there is Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, who said he can't stop thinking about those things.
"Oh, man," Bourn said, chuckling by his locker, where he easily pushed his mind back to last year. "After it happens, you think you're over it after four or five days. Then you let your mind relax. You start doing other things. You begin getting around people that you've been around for a while who can help you enjoy life.
"Then, all of a sudden, you start thinking about it again. Then the playoffs start, and it comes back again. So you can't put a number on how long the memory lasts. But it left a bad taste in my mouth, because it definitely was something I didn't like to experience. Sometimes you just have to go through those things to understand the magnitude of this game. We learned that nothing is going to be given to you. But at the same time, we stay loose in here."
Yes, the Braves do.
While Bourn spoke, various objects flew across the clubhouse, which is typical before games.
Basketballs. Footballs. Socks. Towels.
This was in addition to the constant chatter and the loud joking that was everywhere -- all signs of team camaraderie, signs of overall confidence throughout the roster, signs that the Braves really have moved on from their September horrors of last season.
There are too many mixed signals.
As for the positive, Atlanta has won four of its past five games, including a pair of 1-0 victories at home against the Rockies. Not only that, the Braves begin a three-game series Friday in New York against the Mets, with a 3 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals for the first of the two Wild Card spots that have been added to both leagues this season.
The Braves are also doing what they historically have done well since the early 1990s: pitching.
Kris Medlen was just named the NL's Pitcher of the Month for August, tallying a 6-0 record with a 0.54 ERA since leaving Atlanta's bullpen for the starting rotation. Medlen had 34 2/3 scoreless innings during a stretch, and he isn't even the "ace" of the staff.
That distinction belongs to Tim Hudson, who threw the second of those pair of shutouts on Thursday. He is 14-5 overall with a 3.59 ERA, and he is one of the game's most fierce competitors on the mound.
In addition, the Braves have one of the game's best bullpens, featuring flame-throwing closer Craig Kimbrel.
As for the negative, it's hitting. The Braves haven't done much of it, especially in the clutch. They finished the Colorado series going 3-for-35 with runners in scoring position, and both of their runs during those consecutive shutouts were unearned.
Worse, Atlanta began Thursday's game with just 21 hits in its previous 146 at bats (.144) with runners in scoring position, which contributed to 11 losses in the Braves' previous 18 games.
Consider, too, that Atlanta nearly ended last weekend by getting swept at Turner Field by the Philadelphia Phillies, and that would have created a four-game losing streak and 11 losses in 15 games.
We're back to hitting again -- or lack thereof. So it was typical for the Braves to trail the Phillies, 7-3, on Sunday in the bottom of the ninth with a lifeless offense. Then, out of nowhere, their bats rose from the dead as they scored five times, capped by a three-run, two-out blast by Chipper Jones that was seemingly headed toward Mars.
End of the Braves' slide.
No more talk of their Great Collapse.
But to hear Jones tell it, that talk never existed amongst Atlanta's players as a whole, and it never will.
"Absolutely, the quickest way for it to come to the forefront of everybody's mind is to bring it up -- to talk about [it]," said Jones, a future Hall of Famer who is retiring after spending his 19 seasons in the Major Leagues with the Braves. "If you do talk about it, you start to tighten the noose yourself, and that's not what you want to do."
Chipper plays and approaches the game from experience, so he tries to lead by example and let his calm mindset guide the team.
"What I try to give off is just that relaxed attitude," Jones said. "It's like, 'You know what, guys? We're not going to worry about yesterday. We're not going to worry about tomorrow. We're not going to worry about last year. We're going to focus on today's game. We're going to go out and play it as well as we can and let the chips fall where they may.'
"To be honest with you, when the baseball gods decide to go against you, there really is nothing you can do about it."
The Braves know.
They just don't want to know so even more.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.