Atlanta bravely carrying on

Craig Kimbrel anchors what Charlie Manuel calls 'the best bullpen in baseball.'
Craig Kimbrel anchors what Charlie Manuel calls 'the best bullpen in baseball.' (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: January 31, 2012

Second in a series

APPARENTLY, it was nobody's fault.

In Atlanta, it never is.

Last season, the Braves had a wild-card lead of 8 1/2 games on Sept. 6, and blew it.

When an uninterested Phillies team came back and beat them in 13 innings on the last day of the season - they were 0-5 against the Phillies in that span - the Braves became the first team to lose at least an eight-game lead in September.

That is, until later that day when the Red Sox finished their epic collapse.

Jonathan Papelbon's blown save, combined with the Tampa Rays' miraculous comeback, made the Sox the team to fritter away the biggest September lead. They had a nine-game lead Sept. 3.

Before 2011, the Mets' implosion in 2007 - the historic slide that began the Phillies' current 5-year run of NL East dominance - stood as the modern watermark for late-season ineptness. That Mets team finally gave the 1964 Phillies some company.

The Mets switched aces, from Tom Glavine to Johan Santana, but there were virtually no other significant changes. They started the season 34-35, then fired manager Willie Randolph and rallied under Jerry Manuel to again blow a September lead to the Phillies. General manager Omar Minaya lasted through the 2010 season. The Mets have not sniffed the playoffs in the past three seasons.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, needed to purge the perception that the asylum's inmates held sway in September. Almost immediately, the Sox fired manager Terry Francona. With two World Series rings on his hand, superstar general manager Theo Epstein left Boston to help uncurse the Cubs. Papelbon was a free agent, and now is a Phillie.

The Braves? They did less than the Mets.

They replaced solid veteran Alex Gonzalez with rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky.

They hope Jason Heyward shakes off his .227 sophomore slump, a 50-point drop off his 2010 average that made him the runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year.

That's where first baseman Freddie Freeman finished in last season's voting, after a year (.282, 21 homers, 76 RBI) that virtually mirrored Heyward's 2010. Freeman hit .225 down the stretch.

Freeman finished behind teammate Craig Kimbrel, whose 46 saves set the rookie record and who enjoyed a scoreless streak of 37 2/3 innings.

Kimbrel also blew the save in the season finale that cost the Braves a shot at the postseason.

Really, the Braves' issue is not that it did not upgrade. It's that it really cannot.

General manager Frank Wren now is seeing the fruits of his labors since being promoted from assistant GM in 2007.

His first-year manager, Fredi Gonzalez, was in the Braves organization for five seasons and had ties to Wren before that. Gonzalez' hiring was anchored in his success with the Marlins' young talent - success tempered by no playoff appearances in 3 1/2 seasons and an erosive relationship with that youth as it matured.

Big-name free agent Dan Uggla clocked a career-best 36 homers but he hit just .233 in the first season of a 5-year deal that costs $13 million per over the final 4 years. Martin Prado had a lousy September, but, at 28, he's too young, too versatile and too cheap to abandon. Chipper Jones, 39, has a final season on his contract, and he wasn't the problem.

Disappointing Derek Lowe is gone via trade to Cleveland, with the Braves eating two-thirds of his $15 million salary. He will bear the goat horns for the collapse - 0-5 with an 8.75 earned run average in September - but he didn't make the decision to start himself all month.

The Braves will hope young starters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens rebound from injury.

They will hope that the oiled leaked during the swoon by the back end - five combined blown saves from setup man Jonny Venters and Kimbrel - do not affect the pitchers in the future.

Still, this is what the Braves always have been, haven't they?

Fourteen straight division titles, five World Series appearances, one championship - an unmatched reign of unrequited relevance overseen by gilded manager Bobby Cox and bulletproof GM John Schuerholz.

In Atlanta, change is rare.

So is shouldering blame.

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