Understand: The manager isn’t criticizing upper management. “If we hadn’t (plunged into rebuilding), we’d have lost the opportunity to rebuild the farm system,” he said. “It’s hard to ride the fence.”
Then: “I commend our leadership team.”
Simply put, the Braves’ approach to this season was that management would do what it could to give the club a reasonable chance — the tweaking of the bullpen, which continues apace, is evidence of that — but wouldn’t sacrifice any part of the future in the attempt to win 83 games, as opposed to 79.
Said Gonzalez: “You can’t just chase it, chase it, chase it. You have to say, ‘This is the plan. We’re sticking with it. ’”
Here’s the thing, though: As of Monday, the division-leading Mets were on pace to win 86 games. A mediocre team might well have entered the season’s final week with a chance to steal this division.
At the moment, the Braves aren’t even mediocre. Through Sunday’s game, they were 11 games under .500, on pace to finish 73-89. But that was after losing 14 of 22 since July 24, which was the night of the K. Johnson/Uribe trade, which was the Give Up moment. Had they won 14 of those 22, they’d have been 59-58, which would have put them 3 1/2 games behind the Mets and a game ahead of the supposedly mighty Nationals
Surely Washington’s conspicuous talent played some part in the Braves believing the East was unwinnable. (Can’t you hear John Hart saying to John Coppolella, “Do we have Bryce Harper? No. Do we have Max Scherzer? No.”) But the Nats have lost 20 of 29 games since July 17. They led the division by 4 1/2 games on the Fourth of July; they now trail by that much.
Had the Mets — a team with great young pitching but not much else — been the front-runner a month ago, might Braves management have been less inclined to sell at the deadline? Might it actually have done some buying? Possibly. But probably not. Gonzalez points to the series in Colorado just before the All-Star break: “(Freddie) Freeman was out, we lost all four games and we lost (closer Jason) Grilli, too.”
The Braves landed in Denver having just blown a 4-0 lead in Milwaukee as they were poised to climb above .500 for the first time in five weeks and draw within 3 1/2 games of Washington. They hit the break at 42-47, seven games back. That’s when Gonzalez believes management said, to use his words, “OK, boys. We’ve got to get on or get off.”
To management’s credit, it extended the contracts of Gonzalez and his coaches over the All-Star break, a nice way of saying that what was to come wouldn’t be held against them. And management couldn’t have known that a team as gifted as Washington would plunge below .500 by mid-August. Force to choose between diving deeper into rebuilding or trying to prop up a sub.-500 club, the Braves chose the only way that made sense.
Still, you wonder. Braves relievers have absorbed 24 losses, most among National League bullpens. Cut that number to 14 and they’d have led the East by a half-game. And this was the team that traded Craig Kimbrel the night before Opening Day.