MLB: Braves settle for winter of discontent

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 29, 2011

Associated Press
ATLANTA — Nearly an hour after one more loss in a historic collapse, Freddie Freeman walked through the Braves clubhouse still wearing his No. 5 uniform, as if he couldn’t believe he’d be taking it off for the final time this year.
Indeed, the season is over.
It’s going to take a long time to get over this one.
With a September swoon that ranked right up there with all those playoff flops in the 1990s and 2000s, Atlanta frittered away a wild card that seemed a certainly just a few weeks ago. Instead, it’s St. Louis heading to the playoffs, while the Braves have all winter to figure out what went wrong.
Was it that blown lead in St. Louis, which opened the door for a Cardinals sweep that seemed to turn the tide in early September? Was it that potentially game-ending grounder Chipper Jones somehow lost in the lights at Florida, quickly followed by a homer that handed the Braves another excruciating loss?
Was it the injury-plagued starters? The young bullpen that seemed to wear down? The punchless offense that totally disappeared in the final days?
Whatever the reasons, it officially ended Wednesday night with closer Craig Kimbrel blowing a lead in the ninth inning and Hunter Pence coming through with a two-out, broken-bat single in the 13th that gave the Philadelphia Phillies a 4-3 victory.
But the collapse began long before the regular season finale. The Braves were a dismal 9-18 in September and ended with a five-game losing streak to finish a game behind the Cardinals.
“We had our chances,” center fielder Michael Bourn said. “Not just this game. You can go weeks before.”
The Braves were 101/2 games ahead of St. Louis before play on Aug. 26. They were still up by 81/2 games on the morning of Sept. 6. Instead of popping champagne for a second straight trip to the playoffs, they became the first team in major league history to squander a lead of at least eight games for a playoff spot in September.
They had company a short time later when Boston did the same in the AL, but that was of little consolation in Atlanta.
“This is tough,” All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field.”
More than an hour after St. Louis routed Houston 8-0 to claim at least a share of the wild card, the Cardinals got it outright when Freeman hit into a season-ending double play.
Freeman buckled over down the right-field line, burying his head in his hands. Dan Uggla, who was on base, crawled on his knees near second base. In the Braves’ dugout, everyone else just stared at the field in disbelief.
The Braves had this one. And they blew it.
“I can’t fathom it,” Freeman said.
Riding a strong showing by starter Tim Hudson and a two-run homer by Uggla, Atlanta went to the ninth with a 3-2 lead and its record-setting closer on the mound. Kimbrel already had 46 saves, more than any rookie closer in baseball history, and he needed just three more outs to ensure the Braves would head to St. Louis for a one-game playoff Thursday.
But the hard-throwing Kimbrel was all over the place, walking three. He also surrendered a hit and Chase Utley’s sacrifice fly. The stocky right-hander couldn’t even finish the inning, giving way to Kris Medlen.
“My mind was rushing,” Kimbrel said. “Things started moving too fast. My head started moving too fast. My brain. I didn’t put it together. It was just too late.”
Medlen had pitched only one game in the big leagues all year after coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he got the third out in the ninth and breezed through the 10th as well. Unheralded relievers Anthony Varvaro and Cristhian Martinez also pitched scoreless innings, but the Braves’ hitters just couldn’t produce another run in time.
Atlanta scored only seven runs in its last five games.
In the 13th, Scott Linebrink (4-4) got himself in trouble with a one-out walk to Brian Schneider, a .176 hitter. Jimmy Rollins flied out to center, but Utley grounded a 3-2 pitch into right field to keep the inning going. Pence followed with a blooper to right off the fists, the weakly hit ball landing between first baseman Freeman and second baseman Uggla, barely making it to the outfield grass.
But it was in just the right spot. Uggla slid out to get it but had no play anywhere. Schneider raced in with the go-ahead run.
“Liney made a great pitch,” Uggla said. “Hunter just fought it off and it landed in no-man’s land. I couldn’t make a play on it. Just one of those things. It kind of describes the whole September.”
Jones started the 13th by striking out, but Uggla gave the Braves a glimmer of hope by drawing a walk off David Herndon. What was left of the raucous crowd of more than 45,000 pleaded for Freeman to come through, but all he could do was hit a grounder to first baseman John Mayberry, who started the 3-6-3 double play that ended the Braves’ season.
Justin De Fratus (1-0) earned his first career win with a scoreless 12th. Herndon picked up his first career save.
“We got our butts kicked for the last couple weeks of the season,” Jones said.
He pointed to the odd loss in Florida as the one that really pushed the Braves into panic mode. They were never able to get out of it.
“When you lose a ground ball in the lights and the next guy hits a two-run homer to beat you, you kind of get a feeling something’s out of your control,” Jones said. “It just seemed like from that point on we were playing more to protect the lead than to go out and extend it.”
The mood in the Atlanta clubhouse was somber before the game. Jones was sprawled out in a recliner watching television. Uggla sat quietly at his locker. Hudson stared straight ahead, focusing on one of the most important starts of his long career.
Then, shortly before Atlanta took the field, the 39-year-old Jones — the only remaining player from the 1995 World Series champions — gathered the entire team around him in the dugout for a pep talk. Everyone listened intently, then began clapping when he finished.
Hudson pitched six-hit ball over 6 1-3 innings, just the sort of performance Atlanta needed given its offensive struggles of late.
But the final innings were excruciating for the Braves, who saw the Cardinals’ big lead on the out-of-town board and knew they had to win.
Uggla was thrown out at home by Pence to end the sixth. Fill-in shortstop Jack Wilson botched a likely double-play ball in the seventh, allowing the Phillies to cut Atlanta’s lead to a single run.
Eric O’Flaherty took over for Hudson after the error, and the defense came through with a double play that ended the threat. Jonny Venters ran into more problems in the eighth before striking out Raul Ibanez with the bases loaded. Finally, it was Kimbrel, unable to escape the mess he made for himself.
“It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hands,” he said. “And that’s the feeling I have now.”