09/30/11 — Stevens: Braves endure historic collapse

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Stevens: Braves endure historic collapse

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on September 30, 2011 1:48 PM

An e-mail from the Atlanta Braves, who were advertising pre-sale tickets for the National League Division Series, popped up in my e-mail inbox several weeks ago.

I found the timing of this e-mail somewhat curious despite the fact that the Braves were comfortably 101/2 games ahead of St. Louis in the NL wild-card race.

Unfortunately, my premonitions about that e-mail proved to be all too true after Atlanta completed a collapse of historical proportions on Wednesday night.

The Braves lost 4-3 to Philadelphia in 13 innings and the Cardinals' 8-0 win over Houston gave St. Louis the wild card and sent Atlanta home to contemplate a miserable end to a forgettable season.

The Braves led the Phillies 3-2 in the ninth inning Wednesday night with rookie closer Craig Kimbrel on the mound. Kimbrel allowed three walks, a hit and Chase Utley's game-tying sacrifice fly for his second blown save in his past three appearances.

Kimbrel finished tied for the NL lead in saves with 46, but he wasted three of his last six save opportunities and showed signs of fatigue from his season-long heavy workload. Only Atlanta's set-up man Johnny Venters' league-high 85 appearances were more than Kimbrel's 79.

Eric O'Flaherty finished tied for fifth with 78 appearances.

Atlanta led St. Louis by 101/2 games on Aug. 24 and became the first team in NL history to blow a lead of that size this late in the season. Up by 81/2 games on Sept. 5, the Braves lost their final five games and 20 of their last 30 overall to finish 89-73.

The Braves won back-to-back games just twice during September and half of their final 18 losses came against teams that also missed the playoffs.

Injuries and a lack of production from heavily-relied upon players haunted Atlanta. Starting pitchers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens were both unavailable down the stretch. Catcher Brain McCann battled through an oblique injury, and was never the same after his return. Martin Prado, an All-Star in 2010, finished this season with just a .260 batting average and four hits in his final 27 at-bats.

Jason Heyward, an All-Star as a rookie a year ago, struggled throughout this season and batted just .227 with 42 RBI. He found himself on the bench a majority of the time after the All-Star break.

Veteran third baseman Chipper Jones began to show signs of age as the 39-year-old played on two creaky knees during the final month. Jones had an MRI done on the next to last day of regular-season play.

When it mattered most, fellow veteran Derek Lowe was a ghost of the guy who had once earned a reputation as a big-game pitcher. The 38-year-old Lowe went 4-11 with a 6.19 ERA in his last 15 starts in the third season of a four-year, $60 million contract. He is owed $15 million next season.

Atlanta was in this position a year ago and needed to beat Philadelphia on the final day to earn the wild-card berth. The Braves came through.

This season, though, I didn't have to decide whether or not to buy playoff tickets. The Braves choked away a 101/2 game lead and reminded me why it's important to think twice before sending out certain e-mails.