published Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Wiedmer: Braves disappoint again after remarkable season

Los Angeles Dodgers' Juan Uribe, 5, right, is greeted at the plate by Yasiel Puig, second from right, after Puig scored on a two-run home run by Uribe off Atlanta Braves relief pitcher David Carpenter, 48, in the eighth inning of Game 4 in the National League baseball division series in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won 4-3, and advanced to the NL championship series.
Los Angeles Dodgers' Juan Uribe, 5, right, is greeted at the plate by Yasiel Puig, second from right, after Puig scored on a two-run home run by Uribe off Atlanta Braves relief pitcher David Carpenter, 48, in the eighth inning of Game 4 in the National League baseball division series in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won 4-3, and advanced to the NL championship series.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA -- Standing in the Georgia Dome press box early Tuesday morning, glued to a television as the Braves batted in the top of eighth inning against the Dodgers about 2,200 miles away in Los Angeles, a sports writer friend and I cringed simultaneously.

Was that really David Carpenter warming in the Atlanta bullpen for the bottom of the eighth?

After all, we both had been at Turner Field last Friday for the second game of the National League division series between these two former NL West rivals. We had seen Carpenter turn a comfortable 4-1 Atlanta cushion into a 4-3 nail-biter in that eighth inning by surrendering a two-run homer to Hanley Ramirez.

The Braves survived that mistake. But could they escape another Carpenter outing when played on enemy soil, more than 54,000 Blue Meanies filling Dodger Stadium beyond its capacity?

Said my friend: "I'm just afraid Friday happens all over again if Carpenter pitches."

By now, everyone in Braves Nation knows he was right. The gigantically talented Dodgers rookie who began this season as a Chattanooga Lookout, Yasiel Puig, doubled to open the inning. Juan Uribe then hit Carpenter's hanging slider on a 2-2 count over the wall and L.A. won 4-3, running the Braves' run of first-round playoff exits to seven straight.

Given that the Falcons fell to 1-4 thanks to a last-second loss to the Jets roughly an hour before the Braves lost, and Falcs wideout Julio Jones may have been lost for the year with a foot injury, it may have been the worst sports night in Big Peach history. (Even the NBA Hawks lost an exhibition game at Miami.)

But only the Braves of those teams are now finished for another season, home for the winter to polish golf games, attack lengthening honey-do lists and coach their kids' youth-league teams.

So what now? How best to return to the playoffs next year? How not to lose in yet another opening round? Who should return and who should be removed?

Let's briefly return to Monday night, to that wretched eighth inning and the decision to pitch Carpenter.

It has been mentioned more than once over the last 72 hours that it may be time to rethink the notion that closers can pitch only in the ninth inning.

This isn't to suggest that Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel -- the best in the business statistically this year -- should have attempted to get all six outs in the eighth and ninth.

It is to suggest that Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez might have strongly considered both Friday and Monday studying the batting order in those eighth innings and rolling the dice that Kimbrel might have been able to retire four fearsome hitters in each scenario, allowing a lesser Braves reliever to lock down the final two outs of the ninth against weaker bats.

Certainly, had the ploy failed, the second-guessing would have been overwhelming. That's not what the book says, they'd scream. Baseball's not played that way, they'd bellow.

But if it takes your best pitcher to retire their best hitters, that's the only way to play. Nor had that Braves bullpen exactly distinguished itself over the last three weeks. Though it led the NL in ERA for the year, the relievers' collective ERA the last 16 games of the regular season had been 4.24, hardly the stuff of championship seasons.

The probable return to health of Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty should alleviate most middle-reliever concerns next season, but come the playoffs, thinking outside the box with Kimbrel should become an option.

Next on the agenda is what to do with the aging, surgically repaired pitcher Tim Hudson and catcher Brian McCann, both free agents --both also beloved and respected teammates but near the tipping point on return on investment.

The guess from here is that the Braves will reluctantly part company with both, unwilling to pay the 38-year-old Hudson the $9 million he made this year and fairly certain that the 30-year-old McCann will command around $16 million a year on a long-term deal, which will be a noticeable increase over his $12 million salary this season. Though the Braves are the only team the Georgia native McCann has ever known, most believe that Evan Gattis's potential behind the plate and American League teams (especially Texas) willing to turn McCann into a designated hitter will make him impossible to keep.

Then there's little Danny Struggla. The Braves' highest paid player at more than $13 million a season, Uggla wasn't even on the postseason roster. He's signed through 2014, and it would seem prudent to see if the Lasik surgery he underwent in August can somehow resurrect his career. But they may just pay him not to play. Like they did this month.

Lastly, there needs to be an attitude adjustment about the postseason.

After Monday's loss, Justin Upton said something that's become Excuse No. 1 around the organization for too many years: "We ran into a team that got hot, and it didn't go our way."

But why do the Braves never seem to get hot in October? Just asking.

Yet for all that went wrong against the Dodgers, this must also be considered: Had you told any Braves fan in April that starting pitchers Brandon Beachy and Hudson would barely pitch this season, that McCann and Jason Heyward would spend significant time on the disabled list, that Venters and O'Flaherty would be lost for the whole season yet Atlanta would win the East by 10 games, winning 96 games total, he would gladly have said, "I'll take it."

And perhaps that's how this season should be remembered. Especially if the Braves can finally get hot a year from now when the weather cools and the Big Peach again needs something to take its mind off the fallen Falcons.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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