The Atlanta Braves had their 2013 season end sooner than they had hoped, as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ come-from-behind 4-3 victory in Game 4 ended the Braves’ chances at advancing past the National League Division Series, something the organization has not accomplished since 2001.
Although the end of a season is always disappointing, the Atlanta Braves did in fact have a very impressive season, one that saw a team overlooked by the likes of the Washington Nationals post an overall record of 97-68. With that in mind, it is time to take a look at what Braves Country experienced over the last six months, both good and not so good:
Full Throttle Through the East – Chosen by most to finish second in the NL East behinds Bryce Harper and the Nats, the Braves hit the ground running to start the season, going off on a 12-1 start and for the most part never looking back. Indeed, Atlanta led the NL East every day of the season except for on April 4th, reeling off winning streaks of ten games and fourteen games at two different points in the season in a year that saw the team completely dominate their division rivals and win the East by 10 games, their biggest margin of victory since 2004.
Freeman & Simmons Dominate on Defense – As good as the Braves’ home run hitters could be throughout the season, the highlight of each game seemed to be either an outstanding play at shortstop by Simmons or an amazing stretch at first base by Freeman. Indeed, these two young men showed that they both are pivotal in the future of the Braves, as Simmons ranked second in MLB behind the Orioles’ Manny Machado as far as defensive value according to FanGraphs.com and Freeman rode his propensity to makes plays and hug his teammates to his first All-Star appearance. Defense was not both of these players’ only strengths in the season, as the two also combined for a .284 average with 40 home runs and 168 RBIs. Without the all-around play of Simmons and Freeman, there is no way Atlanta would have gotten as far as they did.
El Oso Blanco Emerges – Evan Gattis made a splash in spring training with his excellent play, but no one would have ever imagined the twenty-seven year old would have make the kind of impact he did throughout the season. Gattis made a name for himself early on, hitting home runs off the likes of Stephen Strasburg and igniting the Braves’ fan base simultaneously, who immediately picked up his nickname of “El Oso Blanco” (Spanish for “The White Bear”) and turned him into a bit of a living legend in his first season with the team. Gattis did have his fair share of struggles, but with a .243 average with 21 home runs and 65 RBIs and an impressive .357 average in the NLDS, it is clear that 2013 was just the start of what promises to be an unforgettable career, which seems to be pretty good for a man who not so long ago found himself making his paychecks as a janitor.
Injury Bug Bites Braves – Atlanta was no stranger to major injuries in 2013, and it started early on when relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty were both lost for the season due to Tommy John’s surgery and a torn UCL, respectively. Fortunately, the bullpen, led by Luis Avilan and Anthony Varvaro, picked up the slack that Venters and O’Flaherty’s injuries created, which helped propel this year’s group of relievers to be among the best in Major League Baseball. Along the way, the Braves also saw Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman, and Evan Gattis miss a considerable amount of time due to injury and even lost veteran Tim Hudson for the season due to a broken ankle that is still hard to watch. However, Atlanta refused to let these significant injuries get in their way, which helped the team post their most wins in a regular season in nine years.
Jones Gets Gipped – This is a new development in the Braves’ season, but it is definitely a notable one. Legendary Braves third baseman Chipper Jones returned to Turner Field to throw out the first pitch for Game 1 for the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but a peculiar thing happened once Jones reached the mound: it was not a player standing behind the plate, but rather Homer, the Braves’ Mr. Met look-alike mascot. Why didn’t a player like Brian McCann or Jason Heyward catch Chipper’s pitch? It appears the reason is simple: Chipper picked the Dodgers to defeat the Braves, so the team decided to boycott one of the best players in team history. If this is indeed true, this is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of in sports. Jones simply used his expert opinion to pick who he thought would win, not who he wanted to win; and besides, he wound up being right, didn’t he? This is an absolutely embarrassing act by the Braves, and one that frankly is so selfish and thoughtless that I wonder if Chipper will ever come back to Atlanta and coach or manage like all of the Braves’ fans want him to.
Bossman Junior Clocks Out – The Braves and their fans entered the 2013 season excited about the arrival of Justin Upton, who the team acquired in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks that also brought in third baseman Chris Johnson, and B.J. Upton, who the team signed in the offseason to a 5-year, $75 million deal. With hopes that the Uptons would serve the role of literal Bash Brothers for the team, only one of the pair delivered, as B.J. had his worst season in his career and was among one of the worst batters in all of MLB, ending the season with a paltry .184 batting average along with 9 home runs, 26 RBIs, 12 stolen bases, and 151 strikeouts; just let it sink in that BJ struck out in 39% of his at-bats. Atlanta has had its fair share of bad signings (Raul Mondesi & Kenshin Kawakami) and trades (Derek Lee & Nate McClouth) over the years, but none of these trump Melvin Upton at this point. There is still hope that BJ’s 2013 was just an awful season and that he will bounce back this upcoming spring, but it is apparent that Fredi Gonzalez’s leash with the elder Upton will be quite tight.
Uggla is Unofficially Awful – Speaking of trades that have not worked out for the Braves, former Florida Marlin Dan Uggla had another terrible season for the Braves. Despite hitting his fair share of home runs (22, third most for Atlanta), this was truly all Uggla was capable of doing this season, ending the regular season with an MLB-low .179 batting average–Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran had a better average–with 55 RBIs and 171 strikeouts, setting a new Atlanta record for strikeouts in a season. Things were so bad down the stretch for Uggla that Fredi Gonzalez opted to leave one his power hitters completely off of the postseason roster, meaning all that Uggla could do during the NLDS was watch the Dodgers defeat the Braves in four games. The future appears unclear for Uggla, but considering the team thought he was more of an asset on the bench than on the field of play, it is very possible that we have seen “Struggla” play his last game as an Atlanta Brave.
Best Victory of 2013
April 6th: Braves Defeat Cubs 6-5. It is certainly not easy to go through a 162-game season and specifically chose one game that stands out as the best or the worst, but this one is definitely the most memorable in my eyes. This early season matchup between the Braves and the Cubs looked to be Chicago’s for the taking; that is, until the bottom of the eighth when Atlanta scored three runs to cut the Cubbies’ advantage to 5-4. Fast-forward to the bottom of the ninth inning, where Chicago sent out closer Carlos Marmol, who attempted to shut down B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, and Justin Upton to earn the save. However, the Upton brothers had other things in mind, as B.J. opened the inning with a 421 foot home run to center field, tying the game 5-5. A flyout by Heyward left the door open for Justin, who promptly belted a dinger 419 feet to center field to give Atlanta the come-from-behind 6-5 victory. This win was big because not only did it give the team their second straight win in a streak that would ultimately reach ten games, but it also showed very early on how potent B.J. and Justin were capable of being, igniting Braves’ fans everywhere and leading to a good amount of praise for general manager Frank Wren’s cunning offseason maneuvers.
Worst Defeat of 2013
September 17th: Nationals Defeat Braves 6-5.It is no secret that the Braves and the Nats are not very fond of each other, so it is obvious that any win over the other is cherished by the victors and their fans. Already up 8 ½ games in the NL East, it was beginning to look like Atlanta had the division under their control, but that did not take any value away from winning over Washington and extinguishing any of the “Natitude” that still remained intact. Up 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth in the first game of a double header, the Braves looked set to get the victory, especially considering closer Craig Kimbrel was now on the mound. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as the Nats loaded the bases thanks to two walks and an infield single, which was then followed by an RBI groundout by Chad Tracy that cut the Braves’ lead to 5-4. Desperate to end the Nationals’ hopes, it looked as if the Braves would have some luck when Denard Span hit the ball towards Andrelton Simmons; however, the sure-handed Simmons misplayed the ball, leading to an error, two more runs, and a Washington victory. This game was disappointing in the fact that two of Atlanta’s best players struggled in crunch time, leaving most to begin contemplating but what the playoffs held in store.
Check in next week when we peek ahead to 2014 and what it may hold in store for Atlanta Braves’ baseball