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Stonewalled: Collapse doesn’t change Braves ways

Flashback to Sept. 28, 2011. There I was sitting on the couch, tense, waiting; it was the top of the 9th. September had been a rough month for the Braves, but there was still a chance to secure a coveted wild card spot in the postseason. All we needed was a ground ball and the game would be over, but instead the Braves suffered one of the worst collapses in the history of America’s pastime leaving fans and players slack-jawed and speechless.

So I, like any good Braves fan, moved on. I have been a diehard for 20 years now, and I have seen all the fantastic seasons followed by postseason collapses, but this past year planted a sapling of doubt in the back of my mind that is slowly growing into an indestructible tree of hopelessness as I watch the Braves returning to spring training after a stagnant offseason that saw little change to the Braves while the rest of their division got much stronger (aside from the Mets; sorry guys).

There are some positives of course. The pitching staff is looking pretty strong with Jair Jurrgens and Tommy Hanson returning after being injured for the majority of last year.

It’s great to see these two healthy again alongside Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor because they are going to have to step up and fill in for Tim Hudson for the first month as “Huddy” recovers from offseason back surgery.

Derek Lowe is gone after a very disappointing season that saw him go 9-17 in 34 starts with a 5.05 ERA. The Braves have too much young talent that need as much play time as possible to hone their skills, so keeping a lackluster oldie like Lowe around was counterproductive.

The biggest problem that I have, and something that has been an issue for the Braves in the past few years, is offensive production. The bats are so inconsistent, and no one is stepping up and filling that clutch power hitting position.

Chipper Jones, 39, isn’t getting any younger and holy crap he’s looking a little rough at spring training. Did anyone see the picture on ESPN.com of Mr. Jones, pudge edition? Chipper, easily one of my top 5 favorite Braves past and present, needs to stay healthy and keep his bat hot this year, but if that doesn’t happen (which isn’t likely given his track record) then I think it might be time to hang up the jersey and hit the cages training the young guns on how to be an all-star hitter like he was in the past.

Another x-factor is right-fielder, Jason Heyward. His bat really cooled off last year after a pretty great rookie season. He was dealing with an ongoing shoulder injury and difficulties hitting balls on the inside of the plate (which opposing pitchers exploited like any smart team would), but if he doesn’t start to show improvement then it may be time for the Braves to start looking elsewhere.

I know it seems like I am really ripping into my favorite team of all time in any sport, but after the dismal performance at the end of last year, it is hard not to question the lack of activity and just attribute it to having a young team that will somehow just do better this year in a division that got a lot stronger during the offseason.

The Miami Marlins (it’s going to be hard to not call them Florida anymore) made major moves to acquire big names including starting pitchers Mark Buehrle and Carlos “Big Z” Zambrano, shortstop Jose Reyes, and closer Heath Bell who had 43 saves last season. These major additions along with the bat of right fielder Mike Stanton could provide some major problems for the Braves.

One team that looks lackluster on paper but seems to hand the Braves all sorts of trouble every year are the Washington Nationals. With a healthy Stephen Strasburg and a one-year deal for closer Brad Lidge the Braves could be scratching their heads once again.

And now we move on to the opponent that ultimately decided the Braves’ fate on those dark September days; those damned Philadelphia Phillies. Out of 18 games in 2011, the Phillies beat the Braves 12 times including being undefeated 6-0 in the second half of the season. They may have lost one of their star pitchers in Roy Oswalt, but they added the big bat of Jim Thome at first base and allstar closer Johnathan Papelbon.

Even the New York Mets are pretty good at being a thorn in the Braves side splitting the games in 2011 9-9, but the chances of them being a greater threat in the NL East is slim.

Braves fans may have to settle on the fact that this season may be a lesson in patience for both the players and fans, but one thing is for sure, good or bad, there is always next season.

The beauty of all sports is the prospect of a next season however bad the last one was.

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