The Atlanta Braves, winners of the National League East, continued their history of poor post-season play Monday night with a decisive 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. In many ways, it was the end most long-suffering Braves fans expected but were afraid to discuss. So many bright spots peppered the season that the Braves just couldn’t choke again. Could they? A division title, 96 wins, an MVP candidate, and a terrific young nucleus of pitchers proved not enough to overcome the one decision that will haunt Braves Nation into Spring Training 2014. When the season was on the line, when there was no tomorrow, and when the chill of October started to blow, the Atlanta Braves broke our hearts again – this time with their best player standing in the cool, unfriendly shadows of the visitors’ bullpen.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez’s decision not to bring All-World closer Craig Kimbrel into the game to pitch the 8th and 9th innings for a possible 6-out save likely won’t win him any popularity contests down here in Georgia. It also won’t endear him to a fan base that is tired of losing when it counts. All it really did was write another hard luck chapter in the book that has defined the Braves for more than two decades: when championships are on the line, the Atlanta Braves will crumble.
Kimbrel was lights-out for the season. He saved 50 ball games. Very few hitters in the league could catch up to his fastball. He was Rivera-esque in the way he closed hitters down during the regular season. Yet his manager didn’t think he was the guy to save their season. Kimbrel averaged in the neighborhood of 15 pitches a night during the 2013 campaign, most of them coming in 9th inning save situations. If Gonzalez was looking to take the series back to Atlanta for a possible Game Five, could he not ask his horse to maybe do the *gasp* unthinkable, and go two innings? Make 30 pitches? Surely the season, teammates, fans, even the game of baseball deserved that, right? The baseball gods will agree, of course, that you still might lose. But don’t you want to go down with your best possible option on the mound?
Second-guessing professional coaches and managers is what we as fans and writers do. But as sports fans, we deserve to see the best vs. the best when it matters. The beauty that is competitive sports certainly depends on that matchup. We want the guy who saved 50 to come in and carry the team and his city to victory with his rocket right arm. What we got this October, instead, was a bazooka loaded with Rawlings baseballs propped up in the corner. Silent. Your best weapon standing idle while old Vin Scully celebrates Juan Uribe’s 8th inning go-ahead and series-winning moon shot. Obviously, there is always next year. But as fans of what used to be called America’s Team look at a 12th straight year without winning a post-season series, next year may just involve more of the same.