Predictable formula cost Atlanta latest series
Strikeouts, managerial decisions -- but not on closer -- helped doom Braves
ATLANTA -- It is time to put the Braves on a psychiatrist's couch for so many reasons. I am talking about everybody in the organization, from the general manager to the batboys. OK, I'll exclude the batboys, but consider the following: At the very least, the Braves were supposed to spend Tuesday afternoon working out at Turner Field in the pleasant October sunshine of Georgia along the way to a decisive Game 5 at home Wednesday night in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers.
Instead, it happened ... again.
The Braves just spent another postseason losing in the first round or the NL Wild Card Game. They were eliminated, 3-1, in this best-of-five series with a 4-3 loss Monday night in Los Angeles in Game 4. For those counting, Atlanta has dropped seven consecutive postseason series (not including last season's NL Wild Card Game defeat to St. Louis). Not only that, since advancing to the NL Championship Series past the Astros in 2001, the Braves are 10-23 in playoff games, and they have dropped eight of their last 10 games when facing elimination.
Not good. Not when your offseason featured the signing of B.J. Upton to the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history, and not when you made even more news weeks later by trading for B.J.'s brother, Justin. Then there was your pitching staff, which finished with the best ERA in the Major Leagues during the regular season, and the fact you led the NL in home runs. Plus, you had the most victories in baseball for much of the summer before finishing with a highly respectable 96.
No wonder manager Fredi Gonzalez wasn't doing real Tomahawk Chops in front of reporters late Monday night after Dodgers fans did fake ones earlier that evening to mock Braves fans.
"To end the way it did tonight, it's going to hurt," Gonzalez said of the Braves watching their 3-2 lead vanish during Game 4 in the bottom of the eighth inning after a leadoff double by Yasiel Puig, L.A.'s latest obsession. That was followed by a towering home run from Juan Uribe, and to worsen matters for Atlanta, Uribe's shot came after boos shook Dodger Stadium when he botched two previous bunt attempts.
Added Gonzalez: "It's going to be a long way back [home]. You know the sad thing is there are no more games."
To hear many tell it around Atlanta, where emotions are raw, Gonzalez needn't go further than the nearest mirror to find one of the culprits for why the Braves are taking another early vacation in October.
I don't agree. Well, not totally. But inquiring minds are entitled to question a couple of Gonzalez's decisions regarding this NLDS. Going backward, there was the bottom of the eighth Monday night, when the Braves had that 3-2 lead, and they also had something just as important in their bullpen: Craig Kimbrel.
Now that Mariano Rivera is retired, Kimbrel is the game's best closer. Earlier in the series, he kept blowing away Dodgers hitters with fastballs approaching the speed of light. So when that bottom of the eighth arrived in Game 4, Kimbrel shifted back and forth behind the right-field wall of Dodger Stadium, eyes flashing, resembling a raging bull preparing to burst through the swinging gate to challenge all of those matadors disguised as Dodgers hitters.
It didn't happen. Gonzalez opted to start the inning with capable reliever David Carpenter, but Carpenter is no Kimbrel. The manager's idea was to have Carpenter record the first two outs of the inning, and then Gonzalez wanted do what he has done before (including earlier in the series). He wanted to signal for Kimbrel to record a four-out save. You know, as opposed to a risky six-out save, which is what the slew of Tuesday morning quarterbacks throughout Tomahawk Nation said Gonzalez should have done Monday night.
"We had it set up to bring [Kimbrel] in for four outs," Gonzalez told reporters without wavering. "I think six outs was something that we weren't even talking about in the dugout."
For good reason. Even though Kimbrel has Superman attributes, he is not used to working two full innings during a game. So why would you risk the chance of having Kryptonite appear out of nowhere with the season on the line? You wouldn't. Still, if you are the Braves, and if you are looking for your best shot at winning a playoff series for the first time since forever, you would put Dan Uggla on your NLDS roster despite his Major League-worst .179 batting average during the regular season.
That said, Gonzalez and the rest of the Braves' decision-makers replaced Uggla with Elliot Johnson, and the results were underwhelming at the plate and in the field. Johnson did end his hitless ways throughout the series in Monday night's seventh, when he tripled and then scored the go-ahead run on a single by Jose Constanza. Even so, unlike the journeyman Johnson, Uggla has a career full of big moments, which is why it made more sense to gamble that the Good Uggla would surface more often against the Dodgers than the Bad Uggla.
We'll never know. We do know those who run the Braves did not increase their odds of winning a playoff series by the way they constructed their roster after last season. In addition to acquiring the Uptons, they also added third baseman Chris Johnson as a "throw-in" in the trade that brought Justin Upton from the D-backs. And no question, Johnson quickly responded as a steal for Atlanta, as he finished with the NL's second-highest batting average.
The thing is, Johnson and the Uptons swing and miss a lot, and they joined guys on the Braves such as Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Uggla who do the same. So it was not surprising the Braves led the NL in strikeouts this season. And heading into Tuesday's playoff games, guess which team had more strikeouts during the postseason than anybody? Uh-huh. The team of Johnson, the Uptons and the rest.
When you strike out a lot, you are not putting the ball in play, and much of the postseason is about doing just that. All season long, that strikeout problem was there for Atlanta, but those who run the Braves choose to ignore it, because it was smothered by all of those home runs.
How many home runs did the Braves hit against the Dodgers?
The same number of games they won in the series.