ATLANTA -- Now that another once-promising season has ended with yet another early postseason exit, the Braves are again left to ponder about what might have been.
David Carpenter held himself accountable after the Braves ended their season with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the National League Division Series on Monday night. But the decisive two-run, eighth-inning home run that he had surrendered to Juan Uribe had simply served as the final blow to an Atlanta club that began to wobble in late August.
"We have a complete team here, from top to bottom," Brian McCann said after playing what may have been his final game with the Braves on Monday. "We wish we had more games to play. This is a special group of guys. Talent-wise, it's the best team I've ever played on."
At times, the Braves looked like legit World Series contenders. They won 13 of their first 15 games and then escaped a long stretch of mediocrity to go 20-4 from July 26 to Aug. 21, which was the day Jason Heyward's jaw was fractured by Jon Niese's fastball. Minus these two impressive streaks, Atlanta went 63-60 and looked much like the club that was outhit, outpitched and outplayed by Los Angeles during the NLDS.
"You know, it's going to be one of those seasons that you're not going to appreciate for about a couple of weeks," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "And then you will say, 'You know what, it was a pretty darn good team. [This was a] pretty darn good season.'"
Regardless of how the season is evaluated, it was one that fell far short of the great expectations that existed when Atlanta owned Major League Baseball's best record as late as Sept. 12. At that point, the Braves were in good position to earn the NL's top seed, which would have provided home-field advantage leading up to the World Series and, more importantly, a chance to play the winner of the NL Wild Card Game instead of the Dodgers in the best-of-five NLDS.
While facing the Pirates in Buctober might not have been an easy task, it certainly would have been less imposing than having to face Clayton Kershaw twice during the four games played in the NLDS.
Now that the season is complete, the Braves can only wonder if things would have been different had they not gone 13-14 in September, leaving them one win shy of gaining the NL's top seed.
What if David Hale would have been added to the expanded roster before Kameron Loe lost his unexpected start against the Mets on Sept. 4? Would things have turned out different had Gonzalez not opted to give Jordan Walden a chance to prove he was healthy in a one-run game against the Phillies that resulted in a costly loss on Sept. 29?
Should B.J. Upton have been given more of a chance to build on the success he had when first returned from the disabled list in August? Along these same lines, did Atlanta give Dan Uggla a fair chance when the team essentially benched him after he had recorded just 41 plate appearances after undergoing LASIK surgery?
When the playoffs began, the club's two highest-paid players were essentially spectators. Uggla was left off the NLDS roster and Upton was a backup outfielder. Scott Downs, the club's key Trade Deadline acquisition, was also left off the playoff roster after allowing hits to nine of the 13 left-handed hitters he faced in September.
"We all realize we didn't achieve the goal we set out to do," Heyward said. "But we did give our best and I'm just proud to do it with this group."
It was a group that was both flawed and resilient. Despite losing their top two projected setup men -- Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters -- to season-ending elbow surgeries in May, the Braves led the Majors with a franchise-record 2.46 ERA. Two days after losing Tim Hudson to a gruesome season-ending right leg injury on June 24, Atlanta began a 14-game winning streak.
After serving as a catalyst during that winning streak, Heyward suffered the broken jaw that kept him sidelined for a month, a stretch during which the Braves split 26 games. There was no denying the resiliency of this club. But it never did quite overcome the late August groin injury that ended Walden's days as a reliable setup man.
With Walden out of the mix, Atlanta's bullpen experienced a gradual late-season decline. It compiled a 4.24 ERA during the regular season's final 16 games.
Then, of course, with a cruel twist of fate, this bullpen that served as one of the team's strengths throughout this year surrendered what proved to be Los Angeles' knockout punch. Gonzalez said he was ready to give Craig Kimbrel a chance to record a four-out save on Monday night, but it was too late for Kimbrel to save the season.
Would things have been different had Gonzalez allowed Kimbrel to enter either at the start of Monday's eighth inning or at least after Yasiel Puig doubled down the unguarded first-base line?
Maybe. But these are just a few of the questions the Braves will continue to ponder as they look back on this season and think about what might have been.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.