I've gotten several interesting emails since my article yesterday. Many of them were from Astros' fans, telling me to, among other things, get a life and stop whining about the horrific loss on Sunday. I'd probably say that too if the shoe was on the other foot.
But while Sunday's game still hurts, and probably will for a while, it only clouds some of the true reasons why the Braves were not more in control of the Division Series.
It's funny. Going into the series versus Houston, we were all worried about two things: whether the bottom half of the lineup would be productive and whether the bullpen would be worth a damn. And as we look back, we find that once again we were disappointed by our top hitters.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not backing down off my points from yesterday about Sunday's game. The horrific calls did doom the Braves. But we can't ignore the fact that our hitters did have a chance to win the game, much like Chris Burke did in the eighteenth inning. However, our big hitters just didn't come through. They could have pulled the ball to get one over that short porch as well.
And, unfortunately, that's been part of the problem the last few years in the playoffs. Even though Chipper Jones hit two home runs and drove in six this year in the NLDS, he hit only .167. It was the third year in a row he's hit .200 or worse in the first round of the playoffs. Overall in the last three years, Jones has hit .182 (10 for 55) with 3 home runs and 8 RBI.
We all remember Jones back a few years ago, sitting in the tunnel leading to the Braves' clubhouse after the team had been knocked out of the postseason once again. He had a rough series that year, and he hasn't gotten any better.
Braves' fans should expect more from the best player on the team. He does get paid $15 million dollars, and he wants the pressure of being the one fans depend on. And probably no one more than Chipper would admit that he has not done his share to help this team win once it gets into the postseason.
Then there are the two players at the top of our lineup. Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles have both struggled through the years in the postseason. Furcal was just 3-for-20 this year in the first round, making his overall playoff batting average .232 in 22 games. Giles was only 4-for-20 against the Astros, and he's now hitting .217 in 25 career postseason games for the Braves.
Of course, the one bright light in the first four Atlanta hitters was Andruw Jones, who hit .471 this year. This is the second year in a row he's carried the team offensively in the first round, as he hit .526 last year against the Astros.
The bottom half of the lineup was very productive, which makes it all the more difficult that the team lost. Ryan Langerhans hit .333 in twelve at bats. Adam LaRoche was 4-for-8. And even though Brian McCann had only three hits in seventeen at bats, two of those hits were home runs.
So why can't our best hitters come through in the postseason? They do so well every year in the regular season, helping our team get into the playoffs. But once the bell rings for the postseason, things change for some reason. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does it?
If Jones and Giles and Furcal had all hit better, it's doubtful the Braves would be sitting at home tonight watching Game One of the Championship Series on television. We're not just blaming them, as there were several things that led to the Braves losing the series. But there's no doubt those three have struggled the last few years in the postseason.
And then there's the bullpen. Well, we were all worried about Jim Brower, and he pitched better than anyone. We were all confident that while the relievers behind him were a worry, Kyle Farnsworth was a dependable reliever. Yet his poor performance Sunday led to the loss. There is no doubt that the loss of Blaine Boyer in the last week of the regular season hurt this team tremendously. He was crucial in that middle relief role in the second half of the season, and he would have helped in the playoffs.
This just shows us that the Braves are going to have to improve the bullpen next season to have any chance at getting past the first round. And there's little doubt that's going to happen. Expect Johnny Estrada to be traded for a reliever, and since Estrada is a former All-Star, he should bring back a very solid reliever in return.
And then there's the closer's role. Kyle Farnsworth is a free agent, and he'd be foolish to want to go play somewhere else. But would the Braves prefer to sign Billy Wagner, one of the most dominating relievers in the game? If Rafael Furcal leaves and there is money available, expect Wagner to be the target as long as he‘s still on the market.
Boyer will be back next season, and having him, Macay McBride, and Joey Devine in the bullpen for the entire season will only make the bullpen better. Having those three, along with either Farnsworth or Wagner as the closer, and the reliever will probably get back for Estrada, could make the Atlanta bullpen a strength in 2006.
But unfortunately, it won't help this season. Once again the Braves are looking at areas of their team that did not come through in the playoffs. Now the only thing to do is to go out and get better. The core is there. This team only needs to make a few important decisions this winter that will hopefully lead to another chance at taking on the National League Wildcard winner next season.
And then hopefully, our big bats will finally come through when it counts the most.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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