Up until recently, the consensus among higher baseball minds (read: Neyer and Stark ) was that the Braves were primed for a surge up the standings and that the team’s ho-hum record was mostly a product of bad luck. How else do you explain a 2-15 record in one-run games?
Here’s what Stark had to say about the Braves’ chances of making a run:
They have a better run differential (plus-48) than six of the eight teams that would make the playoffs if the postseason started today. They rank first or second in the league in batting average, ERA and rotation ERA. And the biggest reason for their .500-ish record (28-25) is their 2-14 record in one-run games. But that’s a record that figures to improve dramatically once they add John Smoltz , Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez to their bullpen.
Frankly, as a Phillies fan, I feared the Braves as well. If they were a good team despite injuries to Smoltz, Glavine, Hampton, Soriano and Gonzalez, there was no telling how good they’d be in July and August with a healthy pitching staff. Especially if Chipper keeps hitting .400. And especially if Mark Teixeira goes on his usual second-half tear.
But this week the tide is turning. No longer is there talk of a Braves resurgence. Now those same experts are singing a new refrain: the Braves are done.
Neyer has changed his tune:
The Braves are finished. Tim Hudson’s a good pitcher but he can’t pitch any better than he’s pitched. Chipper Jones is a great hitter, but can’t hit as well as he’s been hitting. Even as the Braves’ luck evens out, as it almost has to, it’s hard to see them doing any better than they’re already doing.
The fans, too, feel the Braves are lost. Just yesterday I got an email from infrequent Umpbump commenter Zvee, entitled "Holy Balls," that lamented the state of the Atlanta team. And Zvee isn’t the only Braves fan questioning the team these days. AJC blogger Chop Chick thinks the team has lost its chemistry:
Maybe I’m making too much out of it, but if they’ve lost the camaraderie and support that makes them a team, they’re in serious trouble. And while I can stomach losing if the guys hang together and keep laying it out on the field, it’s getting difficult to keep watching when it looks like they’re putting up minimal resistance. Those of us in Atlanta may soon envy those of you outside Peachtree TV range.
So what’s changed? How have the Braves gone from "poised for a breakout" to "poised for a bellyflop"?
Quite simply, it’s Smoltz. Or, rather, the loss of Smoltz. He was the glue. He was the guy who was going to make this team’s starting staff great. Then he was the guy who was going to make the bullpen a strength. Now he’s neither.
Here’s what Chipper Jones had to say about the loss of Smoltz:
"Coming into this season, I said we wouldn’t have a chance of competing in this division if he wasn’t starting for us every fifth day," Chipper Jones said. "We’ve managed to keep our heads above water without him. But now, to not have him at all this season is just devastating, flat-out devastating."
When you’ve lost six games in a row, 17 of 20 road games, have a 3-18 record in one-run games, when four of your top five starting pitchers are hurt, your bullpen is a patchwork and your best hitter is feeling "devestated" it’s hard not to think the season is slipping away.
Also, it’s not just that the Braves are losing. It’s how they’re losing. Kelly Johnson drops an infield pop-up with two outs in the ninth, allowing the Phillies to tie the game (and eventually win). Jeff Ridgeway hits a batter with the bases loaded in the 11th inning, giving the Cubs the win and the series sweep.
Things are bad in Atlanta.
And it’s getting harder to find people who think the situation will improve anytime soon.