September 2011

Braves will bring back their entire coaching staff

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez admits that his offense never seemed to find a groove this season.   But less than 24 hours after watching his club complete an epic late season collapse Wednesday night, Gonzalez sat at Turner Field Thursday afternoon and revealed that he and the rest of his coaching staff will return for the 2012 season.

“Everybody’s coming back,’ Gonzalez said. ” I invited them back and obviously they accepted, which is good. We’ve got a good staff.”

As the Braves lost 18 of their final 26 games and squandered the 8 1/2-game lead they owned with 23 games left in the National League Wild Card race, there were of places to place blame.   The struggles of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel enhanced questions surrounding the amount of innings they had pitched early in the season.

But one weakness that followed the club throughout the season seemed to be the offense, which was weakened down the stretch as Brian McCann and Martin Prado endured horrific stretches.   This played a part in the fact that the Braves batted .195 with runners in scoring position during their last 26 games.

Still the Braves have opted to retain hitting coach Larry Parrish, who was hand picked by general manager Frank Wren to take over for Terry Pendleton last year.

“I think if you hire people, let them do their job,” Gonzalez said.  ” If they’re organized, detailed and they work… it’s easy to fire somebody and just kind of throw somebody to the wolves. That’s not the way I work.

“You want coaches to be able to come in here and work in a good environment and not be worried looking over their shoulders about that kind of stuff. I’m sure LP will sit back and evaluate some things and maybe do some things different, like we all will.”

There will be more information and storied  published  later today on braves.com.

 

Braves set for yet another stress-filled finale

Now is not the time to evaluate how the Braves put themselves in this position.  There will be plenty more opportunities to dissect what has gone wrong since they entered the regular season’s final month with an 8 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card race.

Instead fans, players and anybody affiliated with the Braves organization should simply embrace their current position, even if it was one they never wanted.   I’m pretty sure there are a whole lot of Giants and Angels fans who would love to still be feeling the stress that fans and players from both Red Sox Nation and Braves Nation are feeling today.

The month of September has proven to be far worse than any Red Sox or Braves fan could ever imagined.  At the same time, it has been far better than any Rays or Cardinals fan could ever imagine.

Consequently, the next day or two could prove to be as special as any you experience this October.

Like the Braves and Cardinals enter their final regular season games tied atop the National League Wild Card standings, the Red Sox and Rays approach their respective finales tonight tied for the American League’s Wild Card lead.

Major League Baseball could not have asked for a more dramatic finish.

So now that you’ve had plenty of time to digest the fact that the Braves have lost four consecutive games and 17 of their past 25 games, it seems you have no other choice but to sit back and enjoy the stress that engulfs you tonight as the Braves play the Phillies and the Cardinals play the Astros.

For more than a week, the Braves were hoping to avoid using Tim Hudson before the playoffs began.  That plan obviously fell apart as they lost eight of their past 11 games.

But now that the Braves find themselves fighting preserve what once seemed to be a certain playoff spot, they are at least fortunate to have the opportunity to send Hudson to the mound to face the Phillies tonight.

This marks the second straight year the Braves have sent Hudson to the mound to face the Phillies in their regular season finale while tied for the NL Wild Card lead.   When he was in this situation last year, the veteran hurler limited the Phillies to two hits (two two-run homers) in a determined seven-inning effort.

A few hours later after watching the Padres lose to the Giants, the Braves sprayed champagne and celebrated like they are hoping to do at some point over the next two days.

About an hour after the Braves and Phillies start playing in Atlanta, the Cardinals will send Chris Carpenter to the mound in Houston to oppose Brett Myers and the Astros.   Myers is 4-0 with a 1.23 ERA in his past four starts.

If the Braves and Cardinals are still tied at the end of play tonight, they’ll play a one-game play-in game in St. Louis Thursday night to determine which team will serve as the NL’s Wild Card entrant.  Brandon Beachy would get the start for Atlanta.

Obviously if the Braves use both Hudson and Beachy during the next two nights,  both would be unavailable for Game 1 of the Division Series.  My guess is that Mike Minor would get the nod.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has not said how he might align his rotation for the Division Series.  Right now, he should just feel happy that he might still have a chance to make these decisions.

Lowe has a chance to surprise yet again

With a one-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card race with two games to play, Braves fans seem a little uneasy about the fact that Derek Lowe is going to the mound to oppose Roy Oswalt and the Phillies tonight at The Ted.

How do you think Red Sox fans felt on Oct. 20, 2004, when Lowe was preparing to oppose Kevin Brown and the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series  at old Yankee Stadium?

Yeah, it’s been seven years since Lowe limited the Yankees to one run over six innings that night to complete the Red Sox historic comeback in that memorable ALCS.  And yes, at 38-years-old Lowe should not be expected to do the things he did at the age of 31.   <p>

But are you really going to be that surprised if Lowe comes out and produces one of his finest starts of the season tonight?  Hasn’t he already proven that he is at his best when he has given fans every reason to doubt him?   This proved to be the case with the Red Sox in 2004 and the Braves just last year.

OK, you’re right, there was not a need to once again attempt to create optimism by pointing out how Lowe has turned things around at the most unexpected times in the past.   You’ve heard enough about this and right now the only thing you should care about are the results that Lowe has not provided throughout most of this season.

Lowe has gone 4-10 with a 5.92 ERA in his past 14 starts and instead of getting better as the end of regular season neared he regressed.  The veteran hurler has gone 0-4 with an 8.24 ERA in four starts this month.

If these numbers have not provided enough discouragement, Lowe has allowed 18 hits and nine earned runs in his past 11 innings against the Phillies.   Makes it hard to believe he held this team hitless through six innings of his victorious May 6 start in Philadelphia.

But it’s not as if the Phillies have given Lowe fits over the past few years.   He is 4-6 with a 3.67 ERA in the 11 starts he has made against Philadelphia while pitching for the Braves.    He has also allowed two runs or fewer in seven of those 11 starts.

So it’s not as if Lowe will enter tonight’s start without some sense of confidence against Utley, Howard and Co.

The Braves could have even more reason to be concerned about an offense that has scored two runs or fewer in four of the past five games.

Fortunately for the Braves, Chipper Jones is back in the lineup tonight.  The veteran third baseman sent a text message this morning confirming he was going to undergo an MRI exam to determine the extent of damage in the sore right knee that he aggravated during Monday night’s loss.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has put Brian McCann back in the sixth spot of the lineup for tonight’s matchup against Oswalt.   As McCann continues to say that he is healthy, his numbers tell another story.

After missing three weeks with a strained left oblique muscle, McCann returned on Aug. 14 confident that he was ready to resume his role as a force in the middle of the Braves lineup.  But his production has been essentially limited to a pair of two-homer games.   The .168 batting average he has produced dating back to Aug. 14 ranks as the lowest mark produced by any qualified Major League player.

The Braves enter tonight’s game against the Phillies with their magic number to clinch at two.    With help from the Astros, Cubs and Mets, that magic number has been reduced from six to two during a five-day span that has included just one Atlanta win.

If the Braves win tonight and the Cardinals lose a second straight game to the Astros, Atlanta will have clinched the NL Wild Card for a second straight season.

If the Wild Card is not clinched tonight, the Braves will have to send Tim Hudson to the mound for Wednesday’s regular season finale.  This would mean he would be unavailable for Game 1 of the NLDS.   He would be on short rest if asked to pitch what would be Game 2 of the NLDS.

 

 

 

 

Chipper to have right knee examined via MRI

Chipper Jones plans to undergo an MRI exam Tuesday afternoon to provide him a better understanding of how much damage he has done while playing through right knee discomfort.
Jones’ right knee has bothered him most of the season and has only slightly improved since he underwent arthroscopic surgery in July to repair torn meniscus.  The 39-year-old veteran third baseman seemed to aggravate the knee as he went from second base to third base during the sixth inning of Monday night’s loss to the Phillies.
The MRI exam might simply provide Jones some peace of mind.  He said after Monday’s game that he planned to play on Tuesday and Wednesday as the Braves conclude the regular season against the Phillies and attempt to preserve their lead in the National League Wild Card race.
The Braves own a one-game lead over the Cardinals in the Wild Card race entering Tuesday and their magic number to clinch sits at two.
Jones played the entirety of Monday night’s game and was able to push himself as he sprinted to first base attempting to prevent a double play in the eighth inning.
The right knee discomfort has caused the switch-hitting Jones problems when he has faced left-handed pitchers over the past couple months.  But he found some success Monday as he homered in the first inning off Cliff Lee and then doubled off the Phillies southpaw in the sixth inning.
Before Monday night’s game, Jones said it was time for he and his teammates to ignore the aches and pains that have been feeling as the season has neared its end.
“I don’t want to hear, ‘I’m hurting,’ or ‘I’m tired,'” Jones said. “It’s all hands on deck from now until the end of the season. There’s no excuses. Go out and do your job.”

Braves have put themselves in a tough position

Never thought I’d write this, but the Braves really are right where they didn’t want to be  —  one game ahead of the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card race with just three games to play.

Yes the Braves control their own destiny and yes they even have a slight margin for error.  But if you ignore the facts, doesn’t it seem like they are the team that is one game back with three games to play.

This obviously has something to do with the fact that the Braves will spend the next three days playing a Phillies club gunning for its 100th win, while the Cardinals will spend the next three days playing an Astros team that has already compiled 100-plus losses.

Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that the slumbering Braves offense will try to give rookie Randall Delgado necessary support tonight as he matches up against Cliff Lee.    The Braves have scored one run or fewer in three of their past four games.  Lee has allowed one run or less in seven of his last eight starts.

Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that to win the Wild Card entry, there is seemingly a good chance the Braves will have to start Tim Hudson Wednesday.   This would mean Hudson would be unavailable to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series and available only on short rest for Game 2.

There is still a chance the Braves could clinch before Wednesday and set up the possibility of saving Hudson until the start of the Division Series.

But to put themselves in this position, they would likely have to beat Lee tonight and Roy Oswalt on Tuesday.   At the same time, they have to hope Wandy Rodriguez (Monday vs. Jaime Garcia) or Henry Sosa (Tuesday vs. Jake Westbrook) beat the Cardinals one of the next two nights.

The Astros will send Brett Myers to the mound to oppose Chris Carpenter in Wednesday’s regular season finale.  Myers has gone 4-0 with a 1.24 ERA in his past five starts.

If the Braves have to use Hudson Wednesday, he’ll be going against a collection of Phillies pitchers.  Joe Blanton is likely to start the game and Cole Hamels will likely work a couple innings at some point.The Phillies would like to insert Hamels around the the fifth inning, where he might have a chance to be credited with what would be his 15th victory.

A couple weeks ago there was little reason to think this series would matter.  In fact as recently as Friday, when the Braves claimed a three-game lead with five games remaining, it seemed like they were just a few days away from clinching the Wild Card for the second straight season.

But the Braves totaled just one run during their final two games in Washington D.C. and essentially extended the offensive frustrations that have followed them throughout the month.   They have batted .193 with runners in scoring position over their past 23 games.

Some of the key figures who have struggled with runners in scoring position during this span are Martin Prado (5-for-27), Dan Uggla (5-for-25), Michael Bourn (5-for-24), Chipper Jones (3-for-17) and Jason Heyward (1-for11).

Now this club that has struggled to score runs finds itself hoping to extend the frustrations they have presented Lee in the past.

Lee has gone 1-3 with a 4.21 ERA in 6 starts against the Braves in a Phillies uniform. But he has allowed just one earned run in the his past 17 innings against Atlanta.

With this being Lee’s final start before the playoff start this weekend, he’ll likely be limited to somewhere around 80 pitches and six innings.

As their starting pitchers start backing down and their position players focus on staying healthy for the playoffs, the Phillies might not give the effort that they might have earlier in the season.  But having won just one of their past nine games, they would like to gain at least a little momentum as they enter the playoffs.

 

 

 

Time for the Braves to start helping themselves

So you woke up yesterday feeling pretty good and went to bed wondering, “Is there really a chance that they’re going to blow this?”

Well consider yourself lucky Braves fans.  The millions who make up Red Sox Nation did not even have the opportunity to wake up feeling good about their team Saturday.

Welcome to this year’s version of September baseball, the conclusion of Wild Card races have been delayed as futility has reigned.

At some point yesterday most Braves fans were likely cursing Cubs closer Carlos Marmol, who was as accurate as a politician’s campaign speech while issuing three walks and uncorking a game-ending wild pitch in a two-run ninth that gave the Cardinals a 2-1 victory.

But as this race has prolonged it has become even more apparent that there is no need for the Braves to worry about what is happening to the Cardinals.   With the start of the playoffs one week away, it’s time for them to start worrying only about themselves.

Yes you can say the Cardinals stole a victory Saturday afternoon in St. Louis.  But if if you say this, you must say they were also robbed of a victory when they did not hold a four-run ninth-inning lead during Thursday’s loss to the Mets.

With four games remaining, the Braves own a two-game advantage over the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card race.   The magic number to clinch sits at three.

The Braves would certainly help themselves if they can clinch before putting themselves in a position where they are forced to send Tim Hudson to the mound to start Wednesday’s regular season finale against the Phillies.

If Hudson has to start Wednesday’s game, he might not  be available to start again until Game 3 of the Division Series.   There’s certainly a chance, he would be brought back on short rest to start Game 2.  Either way, the Braves don’t want to put themselves in a position where he would not available to start Game 1.

Of course to conclude this Wild Card race before Wednesday arrives, the Braves would likely have to win at least a couple games in a row  — a rarity this month.

The Braves have won two games in a row just twice this month and that includes that September 8 doubleheader sweep of the Mets.   In case you were wondering, the Red Sox have not won consecutive games since sweeping a twinbill against the A’s on Aug. 27.

Mike Minor will take the mound for the Braves this afternoon to oppose Ross Detwiler, who allowed three hits while tossing 7 1/3 scoreless innings against the Phillies.   In his only appearance against Atlanta this year, he allowed three runs while working two relief innings.

Oh yeah, Detwiler was born in St. Louis and attended Missouri State University.  You think he’s received a few calls from a few friends/Cardinals fans over the past couple days?

Minor has made incredible strides since the beginning of this season and has impressed since becoming a fixture in the rotation over the past two months.   He made a couple mistakes to Mike Stanton and another to Logan Morrison in Miami Tuesday night.  But he pitched much better than you might have envisioned if you simply saw that he allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings.

After concluding this three-game series against the Nationals, the Braves will come host to host the Phillies, who have lost eight in a row since clinching a fifth consecutive division title.

UPDATED:  The Phillies start Cliff Lee Monday and then plan to utilized their bullpen to get through Wednesday’s game.   Roy Oswalt will start Tuesday in what could be an abbreviated appearance in preparation of the playoffs.

But it’s also seemingly safe to assume Charlie Manuel’s troops are going to want to taste another win or two again before heading to the playoffs.

Once they conclude their three-game series with the Cubs today,the Cardinals will travel to Houston for a three-game series against the Astros, who are already evaluating who they might choose when they have the top overall pick in next year’s First-Year Player Draft.

Maybe Astros centerfielder Jordan Schafer will help his former Braves teammates before this week concludes.

But the only sure fire way the Braves are going to clinch this Wild Card is if they start helping themselves.

Willie Harris grew up in Cairo, Ga.  loving the Braves.  After Harris delivered the decisive two-run single in the six-run ninth inning that gave the Mets an incredible win over the Cardinals Thursday afternoon,  he instantly became a beloved figure in Braves Nation.

Before Thursday, Harris was known in Braves lore as the guy who matched a team record while recording six hits  (using a giveaway bat) in a July 21, 2007 win over the Cardinals.  Four years later, Braves fans really only care about one of the 20 hits he has recorded in his career against the Cardinals.

Harris started the miraculous ninth inning with a walk and capped it with the two-run single that allowed the Braves to exhale and regain a little cushion with six games remaining in the regular season.

Had the Cardinals preserved the four-run lead they carried into Thursday’s ninth inning, they would have drawn within one game of the top spot in the National League Wild Card standings.  It would have marked the first time since June 26 that a team had drawn this close to the Braves in this race.

But with Harris delivering the crushing blow after another former Brave Rafael Furcal committed the crucial error, the Braves gained a two-game lead with just six games to play.

The difference between a one-game and two-game lead at this stage seems significant, especially for the Braves, who have lost 13 of their past 20 games.

They have looked nothing like a playoff club over the past few weeks.   But now that they have been given Thursday’s gift, it once again looks like they will be competing in the playoffs.

But these final six games against the Nationals and Phillies could prove to be a challenge.

The Nationals have won 10 of their last 12 games and as you know Nationals Park has not exactly been friendly to the Braves.  They have won 13 of 33 games played in this park and just six of the past 15.

The Nationals are coming off a four-game sweep of the Phillies, who have lost six straight.   While the Phils might back their starting pitchers down next week, you have to think they will also be trying to carry some kind of momentum toward the postseason.

TIDBITS:   If the Braves and Cardinals have identical records at the end of the regular season, a one-game playoff would be played in St. Louis to determine which team gets the Wild Card entry.

By the time Harris addressed the media after Thursday’s game, he had already received a congratulatory text from Braves first base base coach Terry Pendleton.

Keeping things short today.  The radar does not look encouraging tonight.  But then again, it didn’t look good in Philadelphia a few weeks ago when the Braves and Phillies played all three games with just a couple pregame delays.

Check braves.com later for details about how Tommy Hanson felt during this afternoon’s Instructional League Game.

 

 

Braves need Lowe to make another surprising rebound

When Randall Delgado began this season with Double-A Mississippi, there was obviously no reason to believe he would produce what might prove to be the most important victorious start any Braves pitchers might make this season.

Yes there might be even more important starts over the next week or during the playoffs.  But the Braves needed somebody to stop the bleeding last night and Delgado was there to deliver five scoreless innings. On the way to recording his first career victory, the 21-year-old right-hander set the tone for the evening and quite possibly the next week.

Had the Braves lost a third consecutive game Tuesday night, they would be entering tonight’s series finale against the Marlins owning just a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card race.

With Derek Lowe set to oppose Javier Vazquez tonight, there would not have been much comfort or confidence swirling around Braves Nation.  Vazquez is 4-0 with a 0.31 ERA in his past four starts and the 2.03 ERA he has constructed dating back to June 16 ranks as the fifth best mark in the Majors during this span.

This is the best Vazquez has pitched since the Braves were financially forced to trade him after the 2009 season when it became apparent that they could not find any suitors for Lowe.

“He’s pitching great right now and there’s no doubt we’ll have our hands full,” Lowe said. “I’ve played against him and with him for a long time.  You know what he’s capable of doing.   There’s probably some motivation for him to pitch well against us and make it harder for us to get to the playoffs.  Confidence will also be there because he’s had a great September.”  <p>

Lowe is coming off the worst start of what he has defined “the worst year he has ever had.”   The usually upbeat 38-year-old veteran has displayed plenty of frustration since allowing the Mets six earned runs in just 2 1/3 innings Friday.   He is 0-3 with a 10.13 ERA in three starts this month.

Lowe completed a short pen session Tuesday afternoon in attempt to gain comfort with some of the slight mechanical changes he has been attempting to make.

Obviously the Braves are not going to see Lowe make the dramatic turnaround that he did with his perfect run through September last year.  But the much maligned hurler still seemingly has the knack to deliver when he is creating the most doubt.

Six days after allowing the Nationals seven earned runs and 10 hits in just four innings on Aug. 2, Lowe limited the Marlins to two earned runs while completing six innings on the same mound he will throw off of tonight.

Lowe has allowed just two earned runs in the 12 2/3 innings he has pitched in Miami this year and he is 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in his past three starts against the Marlins.

What?  Would you have rather looked at even more disappointing numbers that only confirm what your eyes have told you when you have watched Lowe pitch this season?

The Braves own a 2 1/2-game lead in the Wild Card race and their magic number sits at six with seven games to play.  If they win four of these seven games, the Cardinals would have to win seven of their last eight games just to force a one-game playoff to determine which team would compete in the Division Series.

When the Braves host the Phillies next week in Atlanta, it appears they will not have to deal with even a few innings of Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee.  They could oppose Kyle Kendrick or Vance Worley Monday.   During the final two games, they’ll likely face Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

During last year’s regular season finale, Hamels pitched two innings against the Braves and Oswalt followed with one inning of relief.   Both will likely make abbreviated appearances again in preparation for the playoffs.

Tonight will mark the final game the Braves will ever play at what is now known as Sun Life Stadium.   It’s safe to say there will not be one tear shed when baseball says goodbye to this football stadium.

The Braves have actually enjoyed a few moments while playing in this stadium with many names.  The one that stands out occurred in 2009, when Tim Hudson made a successful return from Tommy John surgery.  Of course he had to wait through a couple hours worth of rain delays before throwing his first pitch that night.

But when Braves fans think of this place that has been called Joe Robbie Stadium, Pro Player Park, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphin Stadium, Dolphins Stadium, Land Shark Stadium and Sun Life Stadium, they will never forget Game 5 of the 1997 National League Championship Series.  That was the day when plate umpire Eric Gregg and Livan Hernandez combined for 15 strikeouts.

Like I said, members of Braves Nation will not be shedding a tear when they bid adieu to this stadium tonight.

 

 

 

Legit playoff teams would not panic in this situation

Since Chipper Jones lost Emilio Bonafacio’s chopper in the lights and Omar Infante followed with his two-out walk off homer against Craig Kimbrel last night, the most popular word among Braves fans seems to be “panic.”

Many fans have asked, “when should we start to panic?”  I jokingly responded to one fan’s Tweet by Tweeting, “No reason to procrastinate.”

But in all honesty, if you have already hit the panic button you’ve essentially admitted that you do not believe the Braves can compete with the Phillies, Brewers and D-backs once the postseason arrives.

Legitimate playoff teams certainly should not panic when afforded the opportunity to protect a 2 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card standings while  playing five of its final eight games against the Marlins and Nationals.

With this being said, the Braves have looked nothing like a playoff contender while losing 12 of their past 18 games.    They have batted .197 with runners in scoring position during this span and Brian McCann has gone just 2-for-16  since halting his post-DL slump with a big two-hit game in last Tuesday’s win over the Marlins.

Of the 12 losses suffered by the Braves this month, seven have been pinned on its proud bullpen.  In five of these seven losses, the Braves have blown a lead after the sixth inning.  Arodys Vizcaino started the trend during a Sept. 2 game against the Dodgers.

Unfortunately for the Braves,  Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are responsible for blowing four of the five late leads squandered this month.   Before it happened  over the past 48 hours, there was no reason to believe they could blow late leads on consecutive days.

But now that Venters blew Sunday’s one-run lead with two outs in the eighth and Kimbrel squandered last night’s lead after having Bonafacio down 0-2 with two outs in the ninth, it’s impossible to overlook their workload.

Venters leads the Majors with 82 appearances and Kimbrel ranks second with 77 appearances.   Venters’ 85 innings rank third among Major League relievers.   Kimbrel ranks seventh with 75 1/3 innings.

Jose Valverde, John Axford and Carlos Marmol are the only other Major League relievers with at least 20 save opportunities who have recorded at least 70 appearances.

While Venters’ sinker might be better when he is a little fatigued, Kimbrel might have shown some signs of fatigue the past two days.  He certainly looked strong while recording three strikeouts in Saturday’s perfect ninth inning.  But while allowing the second and third homers of his career over the past two days, the rookie closer has proven to be human.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has attempted to lessen the physical stress placed on both Kimbrel and Venters.  But the makeup of his club and the twists and turns of this season have prevented him from putting much of a dent in their workloads.

The Braves have played 54 one-run games and a Major League high 25 extra inning games.  These are just a couple simple factors that have added to the workloads realized by Venters and Kimbrel.

A lot of the blame has to be placed on the starting rotation’s inability to work deep into the game.  With Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson sidelined by injuries, this has proven to be even more of a problem since the All-Star break.

The Braves have seen their starting pitchers complete at least seven innings in 38 of their first 154 games (25 percent) and in 12 of the 62 (19 percent) games played since the All-Star break.

The Braves have seen their starting pitchers complete at least eight innings just eight times this season and just twice since the All-Star break.

Tim Hudson has accounted for nine of the 12 instances when the Braves have seen a starting pitcher work at least seven innings since the All-Star break.

In other words four out of every five days over the past couple months, there has been  a good chance the bullpen was going to do have to do some heavy lifting.

As the Braves prepare to play their final eight games of the season, they can only hope that their bullpen has enough bullets left to continue proving to be the asset that it has been over the past six months.

If the Braves do not make the playoffs this year, there is no doubt that Monday’s  ninth inning will haunt them and their fans for a while.

But one inning or more specifically a sequence of two batters can not solely determine the fate of a team that entered September with an 8 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card race.

Slumping Braves have made the stretch run interesting

If you’re a Braves fan who has long been a member of the faction that believes it is not good to clinch early and cruise toward the playoffs, I’ve got ask, “How do you feel about that theory now.”

I’m not saying the theory is flawed, wrong or anything like that.  But when given a choice between clinching too early and potentially enduring an epic collapse,  it seems your cardiologist would likely advise you pulling for the former.

Of course those fans who stressed down the stretch with the 2006 Cardinals, 2008 Phillies and 2010 Giants really did not care what their cardiologists were saying at the end of October.

This is not to say the Braves can or can’t duplicate these runs and win a World Series.  Given the state of their starting rotation and the way they have played while losing 11 of their past 17 games, they look much more like a prime candidate to suffer an epic collapse.

As I was flying to Ft. Lauderdale this morning, I heard a man a few rows back say, “The Braves will be lucky to win the Wild Card.”  While I completely understood why he had said this, it still was one of those, “So it has come to this” moments.   It’s just something you never would have expected to hear about a team that is 3 1/2 games up in the National League Wild Card race with nine games to play.

After the games played Aug. 29, the Braves were nine games in front of the Giants and 9 1/2 games in front of the Cardinals.  While winning just eight of 20 games since then, they have allowed the Cardinals to creep within 3 1/2 games and the Giants within four games.

Winners of eight straight games, the Giants have also put themselves in Atlanta’s rear view mirror.

This doesn’t seem to be the time to evaluate the rotation, offense or the bullpen.  You did it as you tossed and turned all night and you have continued to to evaluate as you have stressed through this Monday at your workplace.   Given that this piece is not written for the Kansas City Chiefs, there is no need to pile on.

Instead we’ll look ahead at this most important six-game road trip that will pit the Braves against the Marlins and the Nationals.

While the Braves have rarely found success at Nationals Park, they have halted their struggles at Joe Robbie Dolphin Sun Life Stadium this year.  After splitting 18 games in Miami the previous two years combined, the Braves have won each of the six games played down here this year.

In fact, the Braves have won 11 of 15 against the Marlins this year.  If they can win at least twice during this week’s three-game series, they might be able to briefly exhale once again.

Winning two of three against the Marlins would allow the Braves to whittle their magic number to at least five with six games to play.  This certainly wouldn’t guarantee anything.  But in a fashion that would make Dean Smith and other legendary basketball coaches of yesteryear proud, they would at least effectively take time off the clock.

Putting themselves in position to clinch before next week arrives could also benefit Tommy Hanson’s situation.  The Braves want him to appear in a regular season game before potentially making a postseason start.  But if the Wild Card is not clinched by early next week, you really can’t send him to the mound in a meaningful game to make his first big league start since Aug. 6.

Tonight’s series opener pits Mike Minor against Ricky Nolasco, who cruised until Alex Gonzalez and the Braves hurt him with a four-run seventh inning last Wednesday.

The Braves will send Randall Delgado to the mound to oppose Anibal Sanchez, who has posted a 0.86 ERA in his past three starts.   Derek Lowe will attempt to rebound from his worst start of the year when he opposes former Brave Javier Vazquez Wednesday.

Interesting how the  baseball gods would pit Lowe against Vazquez in what will be one of the biggest games of the year.  Remember Vazquez would have gained his wish to stay in Atlanta had the Braves been able to find somebody willing to trade for Lowe after the 2009 season.

While the red-hot Giants will rest tonight, the Cardinals will conclude their four-game series against the Phillies by sending Kyle Lohse to the mound to oppose Roy Halladay.

Winners of nine of their past 11 games, the Cardinals will travel back to St. Louis to begin a three-game series against the Mets Tuesday.  They’ll host the Cubs for three this weekend and then travel to Houston to conclude their season against Jordan Schafer and the Astros.

So while the Cardinals will conclude their season against the NL’s weakest club, the Braves will conclude it against its strongest.

When the Phillies play the Braves next week in Atlanta, they may put their starting pitchers on a limited schedule and possibly rest some of their position players.  But they were in the same position last year, when they won the first two games at Turner Field and forced the Braves to win on the regular season’s final day to clinch the Wild Card.

Of course you could argue this weekend’s trip to Washington D.C. might prove to be every bit as intimidating for the Braves.  They have won just 13 of the 33 games played at Nationals Park since it opened in 2008.    They’re 6-9 in D.C. over the past two seasons combined.

When the Braves were making a run similar to the one the Cardinals and Giants have enjoyed the past couple weeks, they swept a three-game series at Nationals Park.

In other words, they have tamed the D.C. Beast when necessary in the past.  Right now, it’s not necessary that the Braves sweep any series.  But as the losses have mounted over the past couple of weeks, they have put themselves in position where they have to approach every game with a “must-win” mindset.

Maybe the fact the Braves will have to fight to secure their once-comfortable lead will prove beneficial in October.  This is a team that was flat coming out of the All-Star break and Hurricane Irene break.

But right now, I think there are a lot of players and fans affiliated with the Braves who would have rather gone through the season’s final days in stress-free fashion.

 

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