Friday, June 23, 2006

Meltdowns

Yesterday, the United States was eliminated from World Cup play. This was finally going to be the U.S.'s chance to shine in soccer; they entered the tournament ranked fifth in the world. Some opening game jitters and a 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic. Some soul searching and a rejuvenated Team USA fights Italy to a 1-1 draw. A must-win game, a meltdown, and a 2-1 loss to Ghana (Ghana?) sends them packing.

In the NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks had a two games to none lead over the Miami Heat. About halfway through Game Three, the Mavs had a 13 point lead and appeared to be well on their way to wrapping the series up. Miami rallied and Dallas faltered and the Heat squeaked out a Game Three win. Well, before you know it, those rallies and falters continued and Miami ended up winning four straight games to win the series 4-2.

Even though Team USA's and Dallas's meltdowns were on bigger stages, they are nothing compared to the meltdown the Atlanta Braves are going through now. Look at the standings in the National League East and you'll find Atlanta in a very unaccustomed spot -- the cellar. When June began, the Braves were in pretty good shape. They were in second place with a 28-25 record, just 4.5 games behind the Mets. Then the trouble started. On June 6 the Braves beat the Washington Nationals 5-3, and on June 10 they beat the Houston Astros 4-2 -- the only two wins thus far for the entire month! Yikes! The Braves have lost ten straight, 20 of their last 23, and trail even the lowly Nationals and Marlins.

Pitching, usually a Braves forte, has been their downfall. Braves General Manager John Schuerholz has been going crazy moving pitchers back and forth from the bullpen to the minors to the starting rotation, trying to plug holes and stop the hemmoraging. They began the year a man down in the rotation without Mike Hampton, who had major elbow surgery in September of 2005. He won't be back until 2007. Then Horacio Ramirez was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Lance Berkman on June 11. He spent some time on the DL and returned yesterday. He pitched well, but failed to win.

The biggest problem has been the bullpen. No lead has been big enough that the bullpen couldn't give it away. They haven't had an effective closer, and no one else in the bullpen has been especially reliable. Chris Reitsma has had the job but hasn't been getting it done, and now he too is on the disabled list. Turns out he's been going out there with numbness in his pitching hand (ulnar neuritis.) He hasn't complained because there was no pain, but he had no feel for the ball. That's not good for a pitcher. With no closer you can count on, the entire bullpen suffers because you build a bullpen around the closer, then work backwards from there. You get some other guys you can count on to work the seventh and eighth innings, setting up the closer. Then you have some other guys to come in earlier or work lopsided games. With no closer, no one knows their role and everyone's work suffers.

This is a time of hard choices. With over three months of the season left, do you just write off this year and start making plans for next year, or do you trade away some good prospects in the hopes of getting a star that will come in and give you a shot in the arm (a la Fred McGriff in 1993.) They probably won't give me a vote, but I'd choose to hang on to what we've got and try to build for next year. I'd rather have one bad year than have this turn back into another bad Atlanta decade or two. I had enough of that in the 70's and 80's.

By the way, as I post this, the Braves are locked in a 3-3 extra-inning nailbiter against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays...and John Smoltz left early with an injury. My, how the mighty have fallen.

Update: The Braves defeated the Devil Rays 4-3 in eleven innings. The latest losing streak ends at 10, but the month of June continues.

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