Friday, September 14, 2012

Asleep At The Switch

On June 9th, I got to Turner Field very, very early.  This wasn't just some random day game, after all.  You can meander down to The Ted any home-game afternoon and have a fine time marinating in Budweiser and peanut shells and scorching Georgia sunshine.  This day was different, special.  This was Sid Bream Bobblehead Giveaway Day, and I'd be damned if I wasn't one of the first 20,000 through the gates fortunate enough to claim one.  Just look at that majestic representation of one of the most iconic moments in Atlanta sports history.  It's a thing of beauty.

"The Slide" took place 20 years ago this October, when the National League's power structure looked an awful lot like it does now.  By record, the five best NL Teams in 1992 were the Braves, Pirates, Reds, Cardinals, and Expos.  If you take the Nationals to be a metaphysical continuation of the 'Spos,which to a degree they are, then things haven't changed much.  (Or rather, they've changed a great deal and then changed back.)  Granted, it's not a perfect analogy.  The following things are different than they were in 1992: the Dodgers and Giants are also formidable contenders this season, which was not at all the case back then.  The advent of the Central Division and subsequent team realignment has resolved the cartographic farce of the Braves somehow belonging to the NL West.  Oh, and none of the '92 players are still active.  (I checked, Jamie Moyer didn't pitch a single game in the majors during the '92 season.) 

Not only did I get that sweet bobblehead on that Saturday back in June, I got the rosy feeling that comes from watching your team play excellent baseball.  That was back when Atlanta was only a game back of the Nats in the NL East; when Michael Bourn was raking; when Brandon Beachy and Jair Jurrjens were in the rotation; when the Braves looked great.  Things look a little less rosy today.  After muddling through a mini-swoon through the second half of August, the Braves came out smoking like a Craig Kimbrel fastball in September ... or so the record said.  The team took 9 of its first 11 games this month including five straight, and everyone in the ATL breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Maybe we wouldn't catch Washington in the divisional race, but we were going to the postseason without a hitch.  There would be no repeat of the long, precipitous decline that capped last year's campaign in agonizing fashion.  Not this year, not this team.  This team had an identity.  This team had a deep and healthy bullpen.  This team had a shot at a lengthy October run.  The problem is that the swoon never really ended.

Atlanta's offense can also be added to the list of things that are different than they were in 1992.

 From the 1st to the 13th of September that season, the Braves scored 76 runs and allowed 48.  In that same date span this year, they've scored 37 runs and allowed 41.  This month, Atlanta has been collectively outscored by a pair of teams struggling to remain relevant in the wild card race (Phils, Brewers) and a pair of teams who barely qualify as big-league clubs at all (Rockies, Mets).  Aside from an 11-run outburst against New York on the 8th, the Braves have failed to put up more than three runs in a game for ten days, and that against some of the lowliest pitching in baseball, no less.  On the year, the team OPS has been a very respectable .718.  This month it's .643.  And I don't even want to contemplate our Stranded RISP rate, which has been truly atrocious since the proverbial calender page turned. Calling the recent offensive production anemic is doing a disservice to anemia.  The Braves don't lack red blood cells, they lack blood period.  They lack life.  This team is sleepwalking through the deep stretch drive, and the situation will become untenable if they don't wake up soon.

It's not that we're headed for another closing-day loss meltdown.  I hope.  It would be almost impossible to drop out of both wild card spots with so few games left.  I hope.  (Although we said much the same last year at the beginning of the month.)  It goes back to the well-worn concept of being hot at the right time.  Two weeks ago, the Braves were scorching and looked ready to roll into the playoffs firing on all cylinders.  Now, the bats are doing a convincing rendition of John Cage's "4:33" and the pitching is coughing up five-run innings every other game.  Staggering into the postseason in a collective torpor is rarely the recipe for success.

For that reason, tonight feels big.  Back in the Ted after a discouraging road trip.  Against the upstart Nationals, a team we'll likely have to battle again in the postseason.  Against Ross Detwiler, who has semi-owned some of Atlanta's premier players this season, to the extent that Fredi Gonzalez is sitting Michael Bourn and Brian McCann tonight because they just can't seem to hit the guy.  And against the tide of inertia and entropy that has enveloped the team of late.  If we can't swim (or at least doggy paddle with gusto) in this game and the ensuing series, it's going to be sink, undertow, and out to harsher waters right quick.

This is it, boys.  Time to flip the switch.  Play ball.  


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