• Exclusives

    What went wrong… no peace I find

    Editor’s Note: BravesWire.com contributor, former sports writer and lifelong Braves fan Bud L. Ellis has seen it all since attending his first Braves’ game in 1979 … but nothing like the collapse that cost the Braves the 2011 NL Wild Card. At Turner Field for the final game of the season Wednesday, Ellis shares his thoughts on what happened, and how things went terribly wrong.

    By Bud L. Ellis
    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The ball slammed into the first baseman’s mitt at 11:42 p.m., and Freddie Freeman reached for his batting helmet. The Atlanta Braves’ rookie, out by at step on the final play of a season turned upside down, slammed his headgear toward the Turner Field baseline.

    Freeman dropped into a crouch behind the bag, as a roaring crowd of 45,350 turned deathly quiet. An hour earlier, the Braves stood two outs away from extending their season to a 163rd game, a one-game playoff against the white-hot St. Louis Cardinals for the National League wild card, the playoff spot the Braves firmly gripped with both hands just four short weeks earlier.

    Braves first baseman, Freddie Freeman

    At 18 minutes before midnight, the final bell rang on the Braves’ 2011 season, ending a collapse never experienced before in the sometimes-proud, sometimes-putrid 130-year history of the franchise. Ahead in the NL wild-card standings by 8 1/2 games on Labor Day, the Braves finished one game behind St. Louis, an epic fall that shook every nook and cranny of Braves Nation to its very core.

    Seated in the front row of the terrace level at Turner Field, I sat quietly for close to five minutes before accepting the fact my offseason had started. As I slowly made my way toward the parking lot, toward a winter of discontent, the baritone sounds of Ray Charles, “Georgia On My Mind” played over the loudspeakers.

    As a Braves fan for the past 32 years, and as a sports writer for more than a decade, the baseball season defines my year. And this year crashed around me, the final piece landing with a thud right in front of my dazed eyes. Some 23 hours later, I sat in my home office, a room adorned with Braves’ items of all shapes, sizes and creation. It’s the room where I watch close to 150 games a year. The ones I don’t see from here, I see with my own two eyes in person.

    Trying to comprehend the most difficult month of my baseball life, I turned to the only therapy this Scribe knows.

    I started to write …

    Winds of Change

    As the Braves flew out of Chicago on Aug. 25 toward New York City, Atlanta sat 26 games over .500 at 79-53, and led the NL wild-card race by 9 ½ games over defending World Series champion San Francisco. The day’s 8-3 victory certainly was noteworthy, Atlanta’s seventh victory in eight games. But while the Braves worked their way toward The City That Never Sleeps, hundreds of thousands fled in the opposite direction.

    Hurricane Irene was working its way north along the Southeast Coast. The Big Apple sat squarely in the monster storm’s sights. Several Major League games for the weekend already had been postponed by the time many of the Braves left their Manhattan hotel for Citi Field and Friday’s series opener with the Mets. Upon arriving, they learned the final two games of the series were being moved to Sept. 8, an off day for both teams.

    Atlanta never looked interested in that night’s 6-0 loss, and one certainly could understand. The Braves jumped on their charter and flew safely home while the nation held its breath. As it turned out, Irene weakened considerably before lashing its way ashore in New England. The feared flooding of America’s largest city didn’t happen; the devastation instead reserved for areas farther inland where torrential rains spilled rivers into houses and businesses throughout the Northeast.

    In the grand scheme of things, in things that really matter, a hurricane outweighs the championship pursuit of a baseball team. But with a sudden August weekend away from the diamond, coupled with a scheduled off day Monday, the hottest team in baseball found itself with what amounted to a second All-Star break in as many months.

    In hindsight, the Braves never were the same. The team that flew into the storm’s path was on a 96-win pace.

    It would win just 10 more times the rest of the season.

    A Stacked Deck

    Any Braves fan who peeked at the 2011 schedule when it was published last September circled the first full week of the season’s final month as one worth watching. A difficult six-game road trip loomed, with three games in Philadelphia and three in St. Louis. At least an off day on Thursday, Sept. 8, broke up the stretch.

    But that date would be filled with baseball, a double-dip, the two makeup games from Irene. Atlanta had lost six of nine after the break, arriving in New York for the doubleheader after being swept by Philly. But with 20 games to go, Atlanta led the Cardinals by 6 ½ games in the wild-card race, and a doubleheader sweep of the Mets calmed any jitters Braves Nation felt entering a weekend set under the Gateway Arch.

    Then came the game that many will point to for years to come as the one that triggered the slide toward early winter. Michael Bourn, the speedy center fielder whose acquisition at the trade deadline vaulted the Braves into the conversation as a serious World Series contender, tripled in the top of the ninth (his fourth hit of the night) to drive in a run, giving Atlanta a 3-1 lead.

    On came Craig Kimbrel, the rookie closer who had converted 43-of-47 save opportunities. The flame-throwing righty had not allowed an earned run in 37 2/3 innings, locking down 25 consecutive save chances. But not on this night. Kimbrel couldn’t hold a two-run lead, allowing a pair of runs in a game the Braves eventually lost in extra innings.

    Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel

    The Cardinals took advantage, sweeping the series to pull within 4 ½ games. While it’s unfair to pin the entire month of September on a player who set a major-league record for saves by a rookie, the fact remains if the Cardinals don’t push across two runs in that fateful bottom of the ninth, Atlanta would have left St. Louis with no worse than a 6 ½ game lead. With their boot on the Cardinals’ neck, the Braves couldn’t deliver the crushing knockout blow.

    The failure to do so would prove fatal to Atlanta in the end.

    Pressure Cooker

    As disturbing as the St. Louis series was, in immediate review it wasn’t cause for full-fledged panic. The math dictated the Braves still were fine. With 15 games left, Atlanta had a magic number of 12 to clinch its second consecutive wild-card berth. With the Marlins and Mets waiting at Turner Field, the Braves left the Midwest with plenty of reason to be optimistic.

    And yet, chinks in the armor had started to show. The once-unshakable bullpen showed signs of wear. Atlanta would lead all of the majors in extra-inning games. More than one-third of its games would end up being decided by one run. All those phone calls from first-year Braves’ skipper Fredi Gonzalez to the big three of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Kimbrel were starting to resonate.

    As the Cardinals refused to go away – St. Louis would finish September 18-8 and win 11 of its final 15 – and the close games and pressure continued to mount, the Braves drew tighter. Eight of Atlanta’s final 17 games were decided by two runs or less. The team’s average with runners in scoring position plummeted. The players who helped carry Atlanta into the NL Division Series last season – a tense four-game loss to the eventual champion Giants that featured four games decided by one run – were unable to do what they had done all summer.

    The Braves went 17-9 in June and in August, 16-11 in July. September was a horror show that played out amid an unfathomable barrage of shaky relief, short outings from the starting rotation and the inability to drive in runners on base. All of a sudden, the Braves looked like an also-ran, not a playoff powerhouse. Atlanta would win just nine of 27 games in the season’s final month. The Braves split that six-game homestand against Florida and New York, then dropped two out of three in Florida.

    At the most critical time of the season, the Braves had played their worst baseball of the season. Panic started to set in among Braves Nation.

    Extra Agony

    As the sun rose on Sept. 22, the Braves’ once unconquerable wild-card lead stood at a shaky 1 ½ games. With a day off before opening a three-game set in Washington, Atlanta and its fans stood in awe as the Cardinals’ momentum imploded. Leading 6-2 after eight innings at home, St. Louis allowed six runs in the top of the ninth to the Mets. Now two games ahead, the Braves took full advantage the next night, jumping on Washington in the series opener for a 7-4 victory while the Cardinals fell to the Cubs 5-1.

    The lead stood at three games. The magic number to clinch also stood at three. Order had been restored, and Braves Nation breathed a sigh of relief. But baseball is a cruel mistress, one that will turn her back on you at the drop of a hat. Atlanta dropped the final two games in Washington, then returned home and lost two in a row to Philadelphia. At the same time St. Louis won three of its next four, drawing even in the standings with one game to go.

    Lowe's struggles played a large role in Braves collapse

    Game No. 162 arrived, and the faithful denizens of Braves Nation filled Turner Field, shaking the stadium the way the original Tomahawk Choppers made Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium one of pro sports’ most intimidating venues two decades earlier. Atlanta jumped to a 3-1 lead on Dan Uggla’s homer in the third. When the Cardinals batted around in Houston in the first inning, it appeared the two teams were on a collision course for a one-game playoff the next night.

    But the final game of the regular season turned out to be a perfect microcosm of Atlanta’s September stumble. The Braves would not score again after Uggla’s third-inning blast. The Phillies drew within one on Jack Wilson’s error in the seventh. And while Venters escaped a mess in the eighth, Kimbrel could not do so in the ninth. Two outs from heading to St. Louis, the Braves gave up the tying run.

    When the 13th inning dawned, the end felt near. Atlanta had spent the past 10 innings swinging for the fences, coming up empty. Sure enough, a bleeder to right by Hunter Pence plated the eventual winning run. Uggla reached with one out in the home half, but Freeman’s shot to first was corralled, starting the season-ending double play that slapped Braves Nation across the face like a cold shot of wind from the north.

    Winter arrived far too soon. And in the front row of Section 223, a 38-year-old father of two who thought he’d seen it all the past 32 years bowed his head in agony.

    “No Peace I Find”

    Had you descended from some distant planet in the fall of 1999 and landed next to me in the overflow press seating in the left-field stands of Turner Field, you might think it always was like this. Covering the World Series for a suburban Atlanta newspaper that October, I still remember thinking just how surreal it seemed to be watching the Braves – a team I grew up cheering for despite multiple 90-loss seasons, last-place finishes and just two playoff appearances from 1966-1990 – play for baseball’s biggest prize.

    Atlanta reached the Fall Classic five times in the 1990s. I was blessed to see the Braves win it all in person in 1995. I was cursed to see the final three games at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the next October, three losses to the Yankees after the Braves escaped from New York with a 2-0 Series lead. By 1999, playing for it all seemed old hat to many.

    But not to me. I remember 1983, the year the Braves led the NL West by 6 ½ games in mid-August only to lost 27 of its final 44 games to finish two games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. I remember the brutal years of the mid and late 1980s, when Atlanta finished last five times in six years in the West while Bobby Cox rebuilt the farm system. I remember the feeling of watching a second consecutive World Series title slip away in 1996.

    And yet, nothing seems to fit what I’ve watched the past month. The Braves’ collapse of 2011 was simultaneously slow and sudden. A jarring hit, followed by the reassurance the lead was big enough, the calendar was short enough, to keep the unthinkable from happening. But the Cardinals kept winning, the Braves kept losing, and just enough time remained on the stopwatch for the door to slam on the fingers of the Braves and its saddened, stunned fan base.

    Similar circumstances would wreck some franchises. There would be knee-jerk reactions, firings and trades driven by pure, raw emotion. One point of solace to take from this is the Braves will not engage in such behavior. Certainly, there are hard questions to ask and, yes, fingers to point, after 2011 turned so sour after such a sweet summer.

    But the team that finds itself packing up its lockers and heading home is a good squad, with a good mix of veterans and youngsters primed for future success. One can only hope the lessons learned will resonate from this lost opportunity will resonate throughout 2012 and beyond. But that doesn’t heal the gaping wound that festers and oozes at the moment.

    The worst part of this didn’t come with the final out, or the 50-mile drive home in silence, or 90 minutes of far from restful sleep. It came with dawn’s early light, in telling two young boys their favorite baseball team couldn’t come through when we needed it most. And as I hugged my two sons and tried to explain what happened, I thought back to the lyrics Ray Charles sang as Braves Nation trudged out of Turner Field a few hours earlier:

    “No peace, no peace I find.”

    —30—

    Follow Bud L. Ellis on Twitter: @bud006