The Braves are losing their grip on the lead in the wildcard race.
Well, the grip is more like a slippery slope that is falling through their fingers.
Atlanta leads the Cardinals by one game with three games remaining in the 2011 regular season. The Braves host the Phillies beginning Monday, while St. Louis heads to Houston to end the season.
The last few weeks have been a nightmare. After a pretty good history of seeing the Braves bounce back in races when they have been behind, Atlanta has squandered an 8.5 lead they had on September 5.
That's three weeks and 7.5 games they've lost in the standings. Atlanta has gone 7-12 since then, while the Cardinals have gone 14-4.
Give St. Louis credit. They have played like they're in a pennant race. The Braves have played like they are in the Grapefruit League. It's just been a lifeless team that has not appeared to be striving – or even preparing – for the playoffs.
Atlanta has scored only 49 runs in their last 15 games. So now, after seeing a resurgence in the offense, it's back to where it was in the first half of the season when we were never really sure if the Braves would score on any given night.
They've played 24 games in September, winning only nine times. The team batting average in September is .240, which is the second worst in the National League (behind San Diego) and sixth-worst in baseball.
It's easy to simply peak at the batting averages for the month for some of the key players to understand the troubles:
Brian McCann: .192
Dan Uggla: .236
Martin Prado: .240
Freddie Freeman: .250
Jason Heyward: .262
Michael Bourn: .264
Only Alex Gonzalez (.368) and Chipper Jones (.284) have had productive months in September. You can't have one-quarter of your offense do well in a pennant race.
But then again, you just wonder if the Braves have truly believed they were in a pennant race this month. At times watching them, you could easily think otherwise.
It's sad that Fredi Gonzalez is bound to get serious blame if this team does not make the postseason. He's the manager. It's going to be on him. Sure, the team hasn't hit very well, and 40% of a great rotation from the first half has been MIA in the second half. But Gonzalez is still going to have to shoulder the blame if this collapse keeps the team on the outside looking in.
What's sad about it, you might ask? Well, for this to happen in Gonzalez's first year, after taking over for the legendary Bobby Cox will be sad. You just hate that the storyline that occasionally looked like it could have a storybook ending is crashing and burning.
So the Phillies come to Atlanta Monday to start a three-game series that will dictate this season. Sure, St. Louis is a game back. Atlanta is still in the driver's seat. But the Braves must play like they are the ones a game back. That's evidently helped the Cardinals this month. And with the way the Braves have played, they've looked scared and vulnerable. Now they are being caught, and they have to change that immediately or they will be saying their goodbyes on Wednesday night.
This inconsistent and at times morbid offense will now have to face the Phillies. And while it's easy to assume Charlie Manuel will simply cruise this week to prepare for his team going to the postseason, don't. The Phillies had lost eight in a row before winning their last two, and Manuel probably knows the value in having his team playing well as they enter October.
And you just have to hope the Astros, the worst team in baseball, don't fall over and cash it in against St. Louis.
But the Cardinals have been playing like a team possessed recently. Even after the nightmare they had on Thursday, they've stuck with it. Give them credit for that. They've smelled the Braves' blood in the water, and they've kept coming after them.
If Atlanta does win the wildcard, are we even going to feel like this was a good season? It looked so promising at times, but the last month has left a very bad taste in the mouths of Braves fans. The fans in St. Louis are probably pumped up, while I imagine most Braves fans are so disappointed with the collapse that it's just a very different feeling.
Let's forget about that for a few days and just hope the Braves can have a little luck, play well, and get a little help. This is a pennant race, and if the Braves didn't realize it, they probably do now.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA and WCOH Fox Sports 1400 in Newnan, GA. Shanks is a columnist for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
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