Braves endure schizophrenic campaign
No wonder Bobby Cox is retiring: he can’t stand the schizophrenic play of his ballclub.
The Atlanta Braves have had a nine-game losing streak. They have also had a nine-game winning streak.
Their long-time icon, Chipper Jones, said he would retire at the end of the season if he didn’t hit better than he did in 2009. When he finally started to hit in August, he suffered a season-ending torn ACL when landing awkwardly on the back end of a fielding gem. His average ended at .265, exactly where it was the year before but 100 points below where it was in 2008. Now Chipper says the Braves can count on him to come back.
Kenshin Kawakami, an expensive import who once won the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, lost his first nine decisions, won one almost by default, and eventually was banished to the bullpen and the minors. When he made a fill-in start for ailing veteran Derek Lowe, Kawakami lasted only a few innings — long enough to drop his record to 1-10.
Newcomer Melky Cabrera, whose youth and ability to switch-hit seemed attractive last winter, was dreadful during the first month, as was free agent signee Troy Glaus. The former eventually produced a few singles, but less than a handful of homers, but showed an appalling lack of speed plus an iron glove at all three outfield positions.
Cabrera contributed to a black hole in center, where he teamed with Nate McLouth and Rick Ankiel, two other recent trade acquisitions, to hit just .227 with four homers through Labor Day.
Glaus carried the club in May and June but sabotaged it in July and August, eventually retreating to the minors for a refresher course on playing third base. After hitting .391 at AAA Gwinnett, he returned only to find a seat on the bench.
Glaus was blocked at the gateway by Derrek Lee, who happened to hammer four home runs for the Cubs in a weekend series against St. Louis that Jim Fregosi happened to be scouting. The minute Lee landed in Atlanta, his ability to hit disappeared and he banged into a dozen double-plays in a matter of weeks.
The bullpen, a consistent bright spot, lost Rafael Soriano, who became baseball’s best closer after Tampa Bay landed him in a one-sided swap for the illustrious Jesse Chavez (since departed to Kansas City in the Ankiel deal). Billy Wagner, signed to succeed him, gave the Braves good news and bad news: his pitching was fine but also final, as he announced intentions to quit after the season no matter what. That’s what happens when you sign a guy 10 years older than the guy you traded to make room.
No matter where the Braves finish — and the playoffs suddenly seem an impossible dream — Cox can take credit for steering a ship that had no speed, no power, virtually no lefthanded starting pitching,Â an uncertain defense, and a maddening inability to hit with men in scoring position.
How he got them this far, when even the Marlins and Pirates can beat them, will be up to historians to decipher.
General manager Frank Wren deserves credit too: it’s not his fault that time-tested veterans seem to fall apart the minute they don Atlanta suits. The list includes Lee, McLouth, Ankiel, Cabrera, Kawakami, and even Derek Lowe, who somehow won 27 games in two Atlanta seasons despite a knack for yielding more than four-and-a-half runs per game.
The 2010 Braves are so schizophrenic that they play like world champions at home and doormats on the road. Since the National League has home-field advantage in the World Series — thanks to Brian McCann’s bases-filled double in the All-Star Game — that would give the team a huge upside if they survived the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But first they have to get there.
Assuming Cincinnati will keep its lead in the NL Central, there are four teams jousting for three playoff spots: Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Francisco. Don’t discount the surging Rockies either, though there may be too many teams ahead of them.
The Braves held first place for 99 days but the Phils finally jelled when Roy Oswalt arrived from Houston, Cole Hamels regained his 2008 World Series form, and Roy Halladay made a late rush for the Cy Young Award.
Those two teams play six more against each other, with the final three games of the season in Atlanta.
But the Mets, Marlins, and Nationals may have something to say as they play spoilers down the stretch in the NL East.
San Diego won nine of its first 12 against the Giants but has to hope its recent 10-game skid was just an aberration.
No team can match the Phillies for offense but San Francisco may have the best balance, especially adding a solid bullpen to a strong starting staff. San Francisco’s once-dormant offense has been erupting lately.
And then there’s Atlanta, a team with plenty of playoffs experience but a knack for running hot and cold like the water in a hotel room shower. Colder than ice as the season veered past Labor Day, the Braves could catch fire again and salvage the season for Bobby Cox.
But it would take a herculean effort, both for the players and the ever-patient manager.