Braves skipper Gonzalez not one to find scapegoats for historic swoon

There was a gaping hole in the boat, and it seemed the captain was baling water with a teacup.

The 161st game of season loomed as vital Tuesday night. With two of his front-line pitchers injured, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez sat in the dugout beforehand explaining/defending his decision to start Derek Lowe. The veteran had a 9-16 record overall and a 9.18 ERA over his last four starts.

All Gonzalez had was a hope as flimsy as cardboard. “You got to believe in the [career stats on the] back of the baseball card,” Gonzalez said, taking the long-range view. “You go with experience.”

The Braves lost that one 7-1 to Philadelphia, Lowe lasting but four innings.

Before No. 162, he told his players that there wasn’t another team on this whole baseball-playing planet he’d rather take into a must-win game. “Hopefully in 50 years, it will be considered a Knute Rockne moment,” he said on Wednesday, summoning a smile.

That one took a little longer to lose — 13 innings — as if to draw out this torturous September beyond human endurance.

But by the end of it, the Braves had become a benchmark for blowing it. Their long season — Gonzalez’s first with the Braves in place of all-timer Bobby Cox — was reduced to a debate over whether they or the Boston Red Sox were more historically feckless at the finish.

Wednesday, every flaw took a turn undressing on the main stage. The Braves couldn’t push across a single run in the final 10 innings. Two All- Stars from a season ago — Martin Prado and Brian McCann — were a combined 2-for-11. Their over-taxed rookie closer gave up the lead in the ninth.

Gonzalez possessed encouraging words and good vibrations right to the end. What he really needed was someone to get a hit with runners in scoring position.

Surrendering an 8 1/2-game lead in the wildcard race over the season’s last 23 games, the Braves had perpetrated the biggest National League September swoon since the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. The late Gene Mauch is 12th all-time in victories, eighth in games managed, and still is best known as the guy who lost a 6 1/2-game lead with 13 to play with those Phils. (Coincidentally enough, St. Louis was the beneficiary of that el foldo as well).

Shoulders blame

Collapses of such magnitudes tend to beet-stain a manager’s reputation. Boston’s Terry Francona stepped down following the Red Sox own great fade — and he enjoys the cachet of two World Series titles. Still employed, and still looking to manage in his first postseason game, Gonzalez chose not to hide from certain uncomfortable truths.

“It is what it is. Not like we can close our eyes and it’s going to go away. It’s going to be there forever,” he said in the aftermath of going 9-18 in September.

How much responsibility the manager bears has been a hot topic these past four days. “Right now, I would tell you the whole thing,” Gonzalez said in answer to that question. “I’m the one who makes out the lineups and makes the pitching changes. The whole thing. You fall on the sword.”

The last tidbit learned about Gonzalez at the close of his first season pushing the Braves buttons: He is absolutely awful at scapegoating.

In fact, it fell to Gonzalez’s bosses to find one. Friday’s announcement that hitting coach Larry Parrish had been fired came one day after Gonzalez announced that all his coaches would return next year.

Steady approach

Difficult as it may be, judging the job that Gonzalez did requires looking at the whole of his 2011, not just the final month.

New managers most often come into a turbulent setting, following the firing of their predecessors. When Gonzalez was hired, however, it was with the notion of building on the work of the retired Bobby Cox.

“The thing we were looking for was someone who would have a consistent hand on the team, that’s what we always had with Bobby,” said Braves General Manager Frank Wren. “Fredi very much has had that approach his whole career.

“He’s not one to panic. He’s not one to jump the gun too quickly. In the end, that serves a major league manager well.”

In that regard, the Braves got what they ordered. Gonzalez’s clubhouse personality was calm and constant, following much in the Cox model. This was a grinding campaign. The Braves played a major league high 26 extra-inning games. A third of their games (55) were decided by a single run. Yet Gonzalez never let you see him sweat.

Even with his team’s wildcard lead leaking away, Gonzalez refused any measure as desperate as a paint-peeling rant to the media or a fire and brimstone appeal to his team.

“You can’t play this game with a fourth-and-one-at-the-goal-line mentality,” he said.

When asked recently what he learned most about Gonzalez this season, Wren said, “I think Fredi is more even-keeled than even I remembered. As a minor league manager and as a much younger guy, I think, he was probably a little more up and down.”

In his three-plus seasons managing the Florida Marlins, Gonzalez rarely got him tossed from games. With four ejections this season, Gonzalez’s temper was a little more visible as a Brave, but he was still well behind the pace Cox set toward his career record of 158.

On the field, the biggest issues Gonzalez faced were offensive inconsistency and the wear and tear on the back end of his bullpen.

He showed himself willing to put the lineup in a paint shaker in an attempt stimulate offense. He used 119 different starting batting order combinations (not including pitchers), more than Cox ever did in a season.

Three times, he hit the pitcher eighth — an old Tony LaRussa gimmick — in order to use Jose Constanza ninth and try to set up Michael Bourn at the top of the order. Seven times, he hit Chipper Jones in the No. 2 spot, where he hadn’t hit since 1996 (Jones hit .266 in that spot, with one home run and four RBI).

“I told these guys everything I do, any decision I make is, for the best of 25 guys, for the team, not just one individual,” Gonzalez said. “As long as you’re consistent with that as a manager, I think you’re fine. We don’t make decisions for personal gain, for guys to get and extra five at-bats or an extra couple innings. And I definitely don’t make decisions to stroke my ego.”

Jones, who much prefers hitting in the middle of the order, called Gonzalez’s fiddling with the lineup a “kind of a trial- by-error thing.”

“I think, coming into next year, he’ll have a lot better feel what he wants to do with the lineup,” Jones said.

His handling of right fielder Jason Heyward, whose batting average plummeted from .277 his rookie year to .227 this season, was a delicate issue. Heyward had emerged as the young star last year, the franchise’s face of the future, but gained zero traction this season.

Briefly, Gonzalez benched Heyward in favor of Constanza, who provided a temporary jolt of new energy. Although he started Matt Diaz over Heyward in the season’s final game, Gonzalez had concluded that Heyward needed to play his way out of the slump.

“For us to be successful for years to come, we got to get him going somehow,” Gonzalez said two weeks ago. “He can’t do that sitting next to me on the bench.”

Engages players

Gonzalez’s managerial victory in all that lineup juggling was that it came with very little complaint from the employees. He showed himself capable of dealing with major league egos, largely because besides throwing batting practice and stretching with players, he also engaged them in eye-to-eye conversation.

“Whereas Bobby may have sent a coach to get a message across, Fredi keeps the lines of communications open,” Jones said.

“You give guys heads up about it; you don’t just put the lineup up and let it go,” Gonzalez said.

Some of the most severe second-guessing has centered on Gonzalez’s use of the back-end of his bullpen. No doubt, he rode his relievers hard and put them away wet. Set-up man Jonny Venters led the majors in appearances (85), and closer Craig Kimbrel was third (79). Those numbers are not traditionally sustainable (the Yankees Mariano Rivera, for instance, has averaged 64 appearances a season).

Venters and Kimbrel had a combined ERA of 1.46 over the first five months. In September, it had tripled, to 4.94. They accounted for five blown saves in the final month.

It wasn’t how he used his bullpen during the final couple months of the season that caused problems, Gonzalez said. In retrospect, he added, there were a couple early-season games when it might have been better giving Venters and Kimbrel days off rather than have them pitch with a three or four-run lead.

When a season like this is done — when the postseason is missed for, perhaps, the lack of one more skinny win — the scrutiny of the manager’s work is particularly intense. Those doing the scrutinizing include even the manager himself.

On the day after the Braves collapse was complete, Gonzalez wondered out loud about what he might have done differently.

“What if we had hit the pitcher eighth for two more weeks?” he mused. “Maybe we should have played Constanza more. Maybe we hung with Heyward too long. Should we have left Chipper hitting second?

“Believe me, these next few days there will be a lot of ‘ifs,’ ‘should haves’ and ‘would haves’ from my end.”

Those quandaries have six months to fester before Gonzalez gets to prove himself against a whole new set.