The Atlanta Braves are 20 games away from pulling off something never quite seen before, and you can ask the 2012 Boston Red Sox about the difficulty of it: making the playoffs in the year after an epic September collapse. With essentially the same roster and management team, the Braves are killing the ghosts of that 9-18 September in which they blew a nine-game lead on the Cardinals for the wild card.
In a year in which the Nationals, Pirates, Orioles and Athletics have a shot at the postseason -- and the Red Sox never recovered from last September -- the story of how the Braves stayed the course and somehow became ghostbusters is one of the most overlooked of the season. Atlanta has clinched nothing just yet, and after a fold like last year, even a 4-1 giveaway loss in Milwaukee Monday night can appear ominous.
But Atlanta appears in much better position this time. For one, the Braves have the cushion of a second wild card this September. Holding a 6 ½-game lead on the Dodgers (the closest team out of playoff position) with 20 to play looks secure as long as lackluster Los Angeles looks nothing like the 2011 Cardinals.
Moreover, there are two key reasons the Braves themselves look different: They have their own version of Stephen Strasburg still pitching, and they have a bullpen that isn't running on fumes.
A quick history lesson is first in order about the damaging effects of September collapses. The 2011 Braves and 2011 Red Sox suffered two of the worst September collapses in history. We're not talking about teams that blew big leads by playing decent baseball (i.e., 1951 Dodgers, 1978 Red Sox) while red-hot teams passed them. We're talking about major tank jobs.
Also in this group, in chronological order: the 1921 Pirates, 1964 Phillies, 1969 Cubs, 1983 Braves, 1995 Angels, 2005 Indians, 2007 Mets, 2009 Tigers and 2010 Padres.
Here's what they all have in common: none made the playoffs the next year. Even worse, each had a worse record in the year after their collapse except the 2007 Mets, who managed to win one more game in 2008. At 63-78, the 2012 Red Sox are playing to form of such damaged teams. But the Braves? It's the rare epic comeback from an epic failure.
The Braves are 7-3 this month, including a five-game winning streak that ended Monday night. Last September they could not manage anything better than a two-game winning streak.
One big reason Atlanta looks so different this September is Kris Medlen, who is 7-0 with a 0.81 ERA since the Braves put him into the rotation July 31.
Medlen, 26, and Strasburg, 23, underwent Tommy John surgery just 16 days apart late in the 2010 season. Both returned to the mound to pitch late in the 2011 season. Both entered this year with one-season career highs in innings that were virtually identical (120 1/3 for Medlen; 123 1/3 for Strasburg). Both entered this season with an innings limit of right around 160.
Here is where their stories diverge: The Braves put Medlen in the bullpen to start the season and did not face national inquiry about his innings limit. Today Strasburg is a starter shut down and Medlen is a shutdown starter.
"It really had nothing to do with Tommy John surgery," said Braves general manager Frank Wren. "It was really about not giving a young pitcher a big innings jump in one year. Even if he had not had the surgery, we would have done this with him. So our plan was to keep him at no more than about 160 innings. We kept him in the bullpen and knew all along he could be an option for the rotation in the second half."
You must remember, though, that Medlen was drafted and developed as a relief pitcher and since has comfortably shuttled between starts and relief appearances. They were able to send him to the minors this year for three starts "to get stretched out" and nobody noticed.
Strasburg did start his college career as a closer, but he's been your typical routine-oriented starting pitcher ever since. The Nationals weren't about to put a governor on his innings by suddenly morphing him into a first-half reliever and they weren't about to invent a new training system for him -- don't pitch until May! -- on the chance he would be needed for postseason starts.
Truth be told, the Braves didn't really know what was in store for Medlen. They lost Brandon Beachy from their rotation due to Tommy John surgery and Ben Sheets to shoulder soreness, as well as Jair Jurrjens, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran to ineffectiveness. They even traded for another starter, Paul Maholm, on the day they put Medlen in the rotation. Scoffed one NL manager, "Don't anybody believe it was planned to turn out like this."
Wren, while admitting Medlen's numbers are off-the-charts surprisingly good, said the club did have starting in mind for him and resisted the urge to start him earlier this year. Medlen is so nasty on lefthanders (with a killer changeup) that when a fan asked at one offseason function about Braves lefthanded pitchers, the GM rattled off the name of Medlen, a righthander.
With Medlen, the Braves now have one of the deepest rotations in baseball, with three nasty righthanders (Medlen, Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson) and two lefthanders on hot streaks (Maholm and Mike Minor). The Braves have the lowest ERA in the league since the All-Star break.
Thanks to the rotation pitching deep into games -- and not nearly the number of nailbiters as last year -- manager Fredi Gonzalez has been able to find plenty of rest for his bullpen, which trails only the Cincinnati 'pen as the best in the league. Atlanta has the best record in baseball when leading after six innings (67-3).
The Braves played 55 one-run games last year and 26 extra-inning games, forcing Gonzalez to call often on late-game relievers Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. This year Atlanta has played only 32 one-run games and 10 extra-inning games.
"I feel great," Kimbrel said. "It feels totally different from last year. And it's not just because of innings or appearances. Check the pitches. Last year I had a lot of pitches, a lot of stress innings, a lot of walks, a lot of jams . . . I had to throw a lot more pitches. This year I've been much better, especially with fastball command to where I don't have to throw as many pitches. I feel a lot fresher."
Through the team's 142-game mark last year, Kimbrel had thrown 68 2/3 innings and 1,152 pitches over 70 appearances. This year through the same point, Kimbrel has thrown 53 1/3 innings and 801 pitches over 53 games. Essentially, he has enjoyed a 30 percent reduction in workload and pitched well enough to get Cy Young Award consideration (he strikes out about 50 percent of the hitters he faces).
A worn Kimbrel was a major player in the collapse last September. He blew three saves in his final six chances: games 145, 154 and 162. For the Braves, this September, just like Kimbrel's arm, feels totally different.