17
Nov
11

Braves face uncertain future after 2011 collapse

They say acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process. After one’s been in denial, gotten angry, spiraled into the depths of depression comes the “epiphany” — the moment when one must accept a harrowing loss so the healing process can begin.

For the most loyal of fans, the 2011 Atlanta Braves’ late season collapse very much mirrors the loss of a relationship that one holds dear. Many diehard Bravos’ supporters find themselves struggling to cope with what was such a bitter, excruciating, downright cruel end to what appeared to be such a promising season.

For the majority of the year, the Braves held one of the four best records in all of baseball. At the All-Star break, their sparkling starting rotation was led by All-Star Jair Jurrjens and All-Star snub Tommy Hanson — who helped lessen the load on an offense that struggled mightily all season and never quite found its stride.

Still, the infamous baseball adage claims that good pitching always beats good hitting. And, Atlanta’s hurlers were second to none.

The 2011 Braves started strong with Jurrjens and Hanson at the helm of a rotation that was also comprised of the ever consistent Tim Hudson, veteran Derek Lowe and one of the team’s biggest surprises — rookie Brandon Beachy. They also rolled out one of the most feared and vaunted bullpens in all of baseball. Atlanta’s relief corps were led by a three-headed monster, which was affectionately coined, “O’Ventbrel”. The talented trio of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny “Everyday” Venters and rookie baby-faced closer Craig Kimbrel set the Braves apart from the rest of the league and seemed destined to shine their brightest in October.

But, destiny and fate can often offer up cold, hard dishes of reality and that’s exactly what occurred in late-August and September for Atlanta.

The Braves held what looked to be an insurmountable lead in the NL Wild Card — a 10 1/2 game cushion over the St. Louis Cardinals on August 25. It would take a miraculous comeback by the Cardinals and an unforeseen, epic meltdown by Atlanta for these Bravos to not play postseason baseball.

The Red Birds went on to win 23 of their last 31 games and the Braves, well, you know the rest.

They returned from three idle days off following Hurricane Irene only to go 10-19 the rest of the way. But that’s only one scenario in which you’d drive yourself crazy asking, “what if”?

What if there was no hurricane?

What if Atlanta had won at least ONE game and avoided a sweep against St. Louis in early September?

What if Chipper Jones didn’t lose a ground ball in the lights at Florida?

But, alas, I digress.

The Braves could stew over all the unfortunate mishaps about the end of their 2011 season or they could use the embarrassing finish as fuel to come back better and with more heart, determination and resiliency than ever in 2012.

All excuses aside, the Braves did see their team besieged by injuries after the All-Star break.

The aforementioned Jurrjens and Hanson, who both factored so heavily into the team’s early success, were sidelined by injuries late in the season and remained out of commission for the club’s ill-fated stretch drive.

“O’Ventbrel” proved to be overworked, overused and overexposed by Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves coaching staff. The threesome showed signs of exhaustion from a heavy workload throughout the early portion of the season and faded down the stretch.

Venters led the NL with 85 appearances, Kimbrel was tied for third with 79, just ahead of his teammate O’Flaherty’s 78. To make matters worse — Kimbrel, the eventual and well-deserved 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, also surrendered the save in Game 162 — one the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff with St. Louis to keep postseason dreams alive.

As for the Braves bats, well, they too went deadly silent.

Martin Prado, who was given the nickname “MVP-RADO” by the Atlanta faithful due to his knack for clutch hitting, couldn’t  find his stride after a staph infection that many believed was the culprit for his career-worst slump.

Brian McCann, often one of the team’s most clutch and dependable sluggers, suffered the ill effects of an oblique injury and his numbers slid when it counted the most. B-Mac hit a mere .180 when he returned to the Braves lineup  in mid-August.

A Braves offense that was picked up all year long by superb pitching couldn’t rise to the occasion when the injury bug struck its hurlers. Instead, the Braves coiled and crumbled — along with the hearts of Braves Nation.

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