10/01/12 11:08 PM ET
One year makes a world of difference for Braves
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Courtesy of Freddie Freeman's walk-off home run against the Marlins, Atlanta punched its ticket to this year's postseason and conquered the demons that had haunted the club a year earlier.
"The champagne tastes a little bit sweeter this year, just because of last year," said closer Craig Kimbrel, who gave up a ninth-inning lead in the '11 must-win regular-season finale that concluded in devastating fashion.
One year after enduring the worst final-month collapse in National League history, the Braves are in a completely different position. A season after blowing a comfortable Wild Card lead with a 9-19 September, Atlanta went 19-8 this September and entered the season's final week fueled by both momentum and confidence.
"We feel like we can compete with anybody," catcher Brian McCann said. "From top to bottom, we are very confident going into the rest of the season and into the postseason."
After officially falling out of the NL East race with a loss on Monday night, they will excitedly approach the one-game playoff that will determine which of the NL's two Wild Card entrants advance to the Division Series.
The most likely opponent in that game that would be the Cardinals, who erased the Braves' comfortable Wild Card lead last year before going on to win the World Series.
"It's been a long time coming," general manager Frank Wren said. "These guys persevered through everything that was thrown at them all season long, starting in Spring Training. They never doubted, kept playing hard and saved their best baseball for September."
Last year, the Cardinals made their incredible run toward a world championship during what proved to be Tony La Russa's last year as manager. The Braves are hoping to encounter something similar with Chipper Jones, who has already enjoyed a magical final season.
Jones homered during his first game of the season and again during his first home game. He went deep on his 40th birthday at Dodger Stadium, a place he considered a shrine during his childhood. Along with recording a hit in his only at-bat during the All-Star Game, he enjoyed a five-hit game against the Cubs in July.
Throw in the two walk-off homers he hit against the Phillies this year and it's easy to understand why the Braves are hoping some of that magic carries into the playoffs.
"I think the end of Chipper's career is the greatest part of it," Braves CEO and chairman Terry McGuirk said. "Certainly there is a linear greatness to everything that he has done. It's hard to say he wasn't something special every year. But what he is getting out of his body and mind out of this past 12 months is all guts and guile. He's willing himself to be the leader and, obviously, a Hall of Famer."
McGuirk, Wren and team president John Schuerholz deserve some credit for not panicking at the end of last year. While the Red Sox reacted to their own collapse by making a number of significant changes, the Braves' roster looks much like it did last year.
Though many of the names are the same, the strength of the roster is completely different. While last year's Braves limped through the season's final months burdened by the season-ending injuries incurred by both Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, this year's team overcame the significant loss of Brandon Beachy and the decline of Jurrjens and Hanson.
Courtesy of the acquisitions of Paul Maholm and Ben Sheets, the impressive turnaround experienced by Mike Minor and the perfect run Kris Medlen enjoyed since moving to the rotation, the Braves reconstructed their rotation in impressive fashion during the middle of the season.
"We fought hard last year and we just weren't good enough, plain and simple," catcher David Ross said. "Right now, it's a different team. Different guys are going out there and battling. A lot of the guys that have learned from that experience are doing a better job."
When this season is complete, the Braves will remember it as one in which Medlen became an ace and Kimbrel produced one of the finest seasons ever by a closer. From an offensive perspective, Jason Heyward started to live up to tremendous expectations and create reason to wonder what he and Freeman might be capable of doing over the next few years.
With Jones preparing to retire and Michael Bourn nearing the possibility of going elsewhere via free agency, the Braves understand the need to take advantage of this playoff opportunity that they squandered last year.
"What happened last year happened, and we just weren't good enough," veteran starting pitcher Tim Hudson said. "I feel like we're a better team this year. Last year stunk for everybody. I think they're trying to do whatever they can for everybody to put out a product and create an environment to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.