The Braves were plowing toward the postseason with teams in their rear view mirror and then September hit. The injury to Jason Heyward was just the beginning of a series of bad luck for Atlanta. Their young pitching, which had been phenomenal, wore down. Their flawless closer has had a few rough games. Their supposedly dynamic outfield never clicked. The bench bats that had been strong for Fredi Gonzalez seemed to all go cold at once. And the bullpen that has survived injuries that would have put any other club in the bottom of the heap from then on, finally showed signs of turmoil.
Two weeks ago, it looked like Atlanta would easily secure the National League record, however now that the Dodgers have clinched the NL West, it now seems likely that the best record (therefore home field advantage in the playoffs) will be held by the NL Central or West winner. The Braves had lost 5 games straight before getting the win Wednesday against the Nats. They have lost 10 of their past 14 games. Unfortunately, the Braves had twin shutout losses over a period of 3 days.
The Braves were slated to begin a 3-game series Monday at Nationals Park when news of the shooting at the Navy Yard broke. Monday afternoon when the Braves and Nats would have been heading to the park, the Navy Yard was still an active scene just blocks from the ballpark. The Nats were asked to stay home until told otherwise and eventually Monday’s game was postponed. The Braves and Nationals scheduled the game to be made up Tuesday as a doubleheader. Prior to the first game of that doubleheader, the Nationals observed an extended moment of silence for those who lost their lives and those whose lives were forever changed by Monday’s tragedy. Nationals’ players all held hats with the Navy emblem over their hearts during the national anthem, hats they wore during team warmups.
The final game of the series, the Braves were able to secure the win, thus dropping their magic number for clinching the NL East to 2. Wednesday’s win also prevented them from being swept while in D.C.
It wouldn’t be a Braves/Nats game without some fireworks. In the final game, Fredi Gonzalez got tossed after he went out to make sure Wood wasn’t tossed for arguing with home plate umpire CB Bucknor. Wood was irritated with a bad call on a 3-2 pitch and voiced his objection loudly. Once Werth, the batter during the scuffle, walked, Alex Wood was removed from the game. While leaving the field, he barked at Bucknor, earning his first career ejection. It wasn’t the best moment for the young rookie, but, in his defense, the call was terrible. As the game carried on, Bucknor warned both benches for no apparent reason after Varvaro hit Rendon. We have seen Bucknor make terrible calls before, but this was an all-time low for the ump.
Homers by Dan Uggla and Justin Upton in the 3-run 6th inning got the Braves in the lead, a lead they held on to. Solid outings from injured Scott Downs and the impressive David Carpenter held the Braves’ lead and Kimbrel entered and ended the game with the 3-run lead in tact.
Kimbrel had a rough outing in the second game of the doubleheader where he did something he had never done in his previous 224 career appearances. He allowed 3 runs. Kimbrel was scored upon in consecutive appearances for the 1st time since the 3 in-a-row catastrophe April 29th through May 4th of last year.
Kimbrel had been given every opportunity to get the Braves the win. Evan Gattis stepped into the box in the 8th inning of that game, securing the lead. Gattis homered off of reliever Tyler Clippard who, in 6 appearances against the Braves in 2013, gave up 9 hits, 7 earned runs, 3 homers, 6 walks (for a 11.12 ERA) in 5 2/3 innings pitched.
A final note on the Nats’ series: Freddy Garcia, despite a brilliant effort, could not secure a win in the doubleheader. Freddy pitched 7 brilliant innings giving up only 7 hits and allowing only 1 run. The veteran surrendered 2 walks and struck out 6 in 84 pitches. Since joining the Braves from the Orioles Triple-A team, Freddy Garcia has pitched 20 2/3 innings, allowed a mere 3 runs, walked 4 and struck out 13. He has a stunning 1.31 ERA with Atlanta.
BRAVES HEAD TO WRIGLEY FIELD…
With their magic number down to 2, it would seem likely that the Braves will clinch the NL East while on the northside of Chicago. That said, it looked like they’d clinch the division while in D.C. and clearly that did not happen. The Braves arrive in Chicago with a 90-62 record. The lovable Cubbies sit in the bottom of their division with a record of 64-89.
One point that the Braves desperately need to improve on in their final games before the playoffs is production off the bench.
Jordan Schafer is 15-for-92 (.163 average) in the 27 games he has played since returning from the disabled list. Over that span, he has a disappointing .238 on-base percentage. Schafer is 1-for-24 with 4 walks and 10 (10!) strikeouts in his past 9 games. The Braves need Schafer to offer production off the bench going forward, especially with the lack of production from B.J. Upton. Also without Heyward and a lack of production from B.J. Upton and Jordan Schafer, the Braves need Reed Johnson to step up in a big way. Reed Johnson has only 2 plate appearances in 2 games since returning from the disabled list on the 17th, but the veteran will need to be the bat he built his reputation on. With Gattis getting more playing time, split between the outfield and catching, there hasn’t been a concern about his offense. However, it would be great to see Gattis out in left field before the next few games taking some pointers from veteran Reed Johnson on positioning and how to best approach various situations. Remembering that he is a catcher, it’s understandable that Gattis has showed some inconsistency on defense while in the outfield.
Jason Heyward has continued to take batting practice while on the road with the team. It is possible that he could return next week, though he’ll need to face live pitching consecutively first.
The Braves/Cubs series gets underway Friday with the former Cubbie Maholm (10-10, 4.35) vs. Baker (0-0, 0.82). Saturday’s game will feature Medlen (14-12, 3.32) vs. Wood (9-11, 3.05). And in their final game before returning to Atlanta, Sunday’s game will pit rookie Teheran (12-8, 3.14) vs. Jackson (8-16, 4.75).
Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.