What the f***?
Those three words best describe the collective feeling of Braves fans on the morning of September 28, 2011? The Braves are one loss from completing one of the great collapses in baseball history. After all of their terrible play over the course of the month, they woke up on Saturday morning with a three-game lead and five games to play. Since that time, they have lost four in a row, scoring a whopping four runs in the process. Last night, with the season very much hanging in the balance, Fredi Gonzalez pulled a Bobby Cox in October special, sticking with the underperforming veteran - Derek Lowe - until it was far too late. Yes, the Braves are in a difficult spot because of the injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson,* but the rookies who have replaced them have been perfectly fine. Of the Braves' five starting pitchers this month, Randall Delgado and Mike Minor have the lowest ERAs of the five. How much better would Jurrjens and Hanson have done than a 3.11 ERA in 52 innings? Maybe they would have pitched a smidge deeper into games, but that's it. Meanwhile, Derek Lowe, a guy who is taking up a smidge over one-sixth of the team's payroll, has an 8.75 ERA and a 1.99 WHIP in five starts. He has been the losing pitcher in all five. If by some simple twist of fate the Braves do make the playoffs** and Lowe pitches in any capacity other than long relief, then Frank Wren ought to relieve him of command on the spot.
* - Was anyone else completely non-plussed when Hanson and Jurrjens failed to return from the All-Star Break with their arms intact? That's how baseball is now. You have a good young pitcher and you immediately start counting the days until some arm injury that initially sounds innocuous, then the team can't figure out what's wrong, and then he's finally seeing Dr. Andrews. Baseball manages to combine a turtle's pace with high-impact injuries. Bravo, Abner Doubleday!
** - I'd put the odds at this stage at around 30%. They should win tonight with a favorable pitching match-up, but their odds in a one-game playoff will not be good. The playoff would just be insufferable. The Cardinals will be up 6-2 in the seventh and then Tony LaRussa will prolong our misery with a bevy of "look at me!" switches. And G-d only knows what happens when he gets into the One-Game Playoff Supplement to his Compendium of Unwritten Baseball Rules. Fredi could redeem a season's worth of frustration by decking LaRussa in a stupid, futile gesture at the end of a dispiriting collapse. That would make the whole thing worthwhile.
And then, let's discuss the offense. It has been a sore spot all year, with just about every offensive regular underperforming his PECOTA (or whatever Baseball Prospectus is calling it these days) projection, but September has been a total freefall. The top of the order - Michael Bourn and Martin Prado - both have sub-.300 OBPs this month and have walked a grand total of nine times. Brian McCann is in free-fall, having slugged .313 in September. The team collectively has a .301 OBP in the month. By way of comparison, the Giants - a team that is having a historically bad offensive season - have a .303 OBP for the year. Parrish raus!
The glass half-full thought for a morning that desperately needs it is that I wouldn't trade places with a Cardinals fan for a second. Yes, the Cards look likely to pull off a remarkable comeback. All that gets them is a likely defeat at the hands of the Phillies. Their franchise player is a free agent, which means that they are either going to lose him or they are going to have to sign him to a payroll-crippling contract.* They don't have a single good, young position player now that their cantankerous manager chased off Colby Rasmus because his stirrups weren't perpendicular to his big toe or whatever else it is that LaRussa views as necessary to baseball success. They rely on Dave Duncan to stitch together a pitching staff every year. Their farm system is blah. In contrast, the Braves have young keepers at first (Freeman), third (Prado), catcher (McCann), and right (Heyward), assuming that Parrish has not done permanent damage to some or all of them. We finally have a lead-off hitter. The Braves have five quality young starters and three quality young relievers, assuming that Fredi hasn't destroyed the relievers with overuse this year. Do you detect a theme here? The Braves' future is very bright if the on-field coaches don't screw it up. Maybe the real silver lining here is that a collapse like this requires at least one fall guy in the dugout.
* - If you think that Derek Lowe making $15M next year is bad, think about paying twice that amount for Albert Pujols' age-39 season.