Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez Shuffled the Lineup again and the result was a Braves loss. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Absent Offense and Leadership Sinking Braves

The Braves needed to make a statement on their west coast swing but mostly good pitching couldn’t make up for a mentally absent offense that produced just 56 runs in 17 games and hit a depressing .169 (10-59) with RISP. They did make a statement but the statement was we’re done.

Absent offense

I’ve said in the past that I don’t like but do understand being beaten by a better team. What I and most Braves fans can’t stand is seeing players go through the motions and lose without a fight. Losing one game is bad but when it happens six games in a row it’s a frustrating, maddening, and frankly unacceptable situation. This is  particularly true when starters go six plus innings and allow only a couple of runs. The Dodgers are a more balanced roster and while the sweep stung might have been acceptable had the the Braves played well.  They didn’t. Their absent offense had a chance to atone in San Diego. Instead it remained lost and with all due respect to the Padres organization, the current Padres roster should never sweep this Braves team; never.

Symptom 1

The Padres gave us a mental pounding worse than the actual score line and the Braves let them do it. Heck they almost begged them to do it. For a while I thought I was watching 50 Shades of Grey.

From the time Mike Minor surrendered Tommy Medica’s first home run the Braves’ player’s heads dropped. In his third at bat Medica who homered in his second AB too, singled, went to second  on a ground out. Then as Minor walked head down back to the mound and Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons contemplated their navels or something other than baseball, Medica trotted to third with out a throw.  That’s little league baseball and probably an insult to well coached little league teams. Remember how we crowed when Yunel Escobar took second as a Diamondback pitcher tied his show?

In between innings Terry Pendleton  stood the three of them at a brace and explained his feelings in such detail Fox Sports South couldn’t show the footage. Why was first base coach administering the butt chewing; where was Fredi Gonzalez?

This is not a comparison of management styles unless you consider winning a style but I assure you neither Bobby Cox, Joe Torre or Tony La Russa would have delegated that to a base coach. I suspect Bobby would have snatched at least one of them out of the game immediately.  The game circled the drain for another three and a half innings before mercifully ending.

The Braves had men in scoring position 12 times in that game and the absent offense scored once.

Symptom 2

Ervin Santana gave the Braves 6 2/3 innings of six hit one run pitching and clearly tired turned it over to Jordan Walden. Walden promptly threw a wild pitch and allowed the second run charged to Santana to score. When the camera caught him on the bench he had to be thinking he could have done at least that well.

Yet somehow the formerly absent offense managed to tie it in the eighth. We might have had more had not Simmons tried to do his Crash Davis impression and conduct a safety squeeze. Tha . . .innovative idea(?) . . .caught Evan Gattis – yes our big lumbering catcher, that Gattis – by surprise and he was easily out trying to score. The offense then left the buildingthen but reappeared in the 12th  to load the bases with no one out. Then they left again and managed to score no one.finishing the night 3- 16 with RISP.

Fredi Gonzalez seemed determined not to let this game go  and shocked most folks when he brought Craig Kimbrel in for the eleventh.  It was doubly shocking to see him leave Kimbrel back out for the 12th because while a four out save is possible Kimbrel hasn’t been as Kimbrel-Like in two inning stints. Fans watched and Gonzalez twiddled his thumbs as Kimbrel walked four batters and finished the night with 38 pitches – just 19 strikes-  making him unavailable for the last game of the series. Not that it mattered much in the end.

Symptom 3

Sunday saw Crash Davis Simmons having  a day off. According to Gonzalez this wasn’t related to the bunting debacle from the night before.  Usually however when you’re about to be swept in a series by the worst scoring team in the league and start your road trip 0-6, managers start star players. More shocking was his choice of lumbering his absent offense with Ramiro Pena – .214/.277/.330/.607 – instead of Bonifacio -.280/.323/.373/.696. The least Fredi could have done was add a bat instead of subtracting one.  Pena hasn’t had enough at bats to be at his best this year and contrary to the Skippers Friday assertion, Bonifacio has been an almost everyday player this year. He’s not a regular starting caliber shortstop but then neither is Pena.

The surprise pitcher of 2014 – Aaron Harang – turned in another stellar performance and a real quality start – six innings, two runs or less – and left with the Braves with a chance to win the game.

As if to reward him, the absent offense returned briefly when Jason Heyward – the only player to even act like he wanted to be there every time he was needed – tripled to drive in Justin Upton who started the inning with a walk. Gattis who seemed to be getting his timing bat a little more with each at bat, doubled Heyward home. Gattis was at second with no one one and neither he nor anyone else sniffed the plate after that.

The ever dependable Tommy La Stella didn’t take a leave of absence at any time and started the eighth with a single but the rest of Braves offense managed to kill the inning in spite of his best efforts.

The Padres challenged a force play at second that inning and everyone knew they would win the challenge. Then inexplicably Gonzalez challenged something else about the same play. I say inexplicably because it was clear there was nothing to challenge. .

After the annoying Tommy Media hit his third homer of the series (seventh of the year) to give the Padres the lead, Heyward once again tried to call the absent offense back from their hiatus. An errant throw from the Padre closer allowed us to tie it up but two strikeouts and soft fly to left later the inning was over.

What’s the problem?

I don’t visit the clubhouse or talk to the players so I can only tell you what I see and what I see is a rudderless ship.  The absent offense has done this before this year but generally the defense remained solid.  Now however some of them might have trouble hearing if they sat down.

Offensively and defensively the team seems lethargic.  Defensive plays like Medica almost walking to third without anyone noticing Friday night and another steal where Johnson never moved to cover third until the runner was safely on the bag seemed to indicate their heads just aren’t in the game.  When Freddie Freeman isn’t playing well along with either Heyward , Justin Upton or both, the Braves have an absent offense.

During Saturday night’s game Joe Simpson commented that it was odd the Padre leadoff man was also the team’s leader in strikeouts. This struck me as hilarious considering that while B.J. Upton is hitting better than he was at the start of the season, he’s also leading the major leagues in strikeouts. The lineup separates the only players we could count on this series just far enough to make it almost impossible to build an extended rally. B.J. arguing a strikeout isn’t news but I was surprised when the Skipper complained to David O’Brien after Saturdays game that a couple of players weren’t holding themselves accountable after a game.

. . . “when (a media relations official) tells me a couple of guys don’t want to talk (after a game), that’s not right. That’s something that we need to – that I need to —address. And I will.”

I have two thoughts on this. First this is not something that should come up after spring training. The first order of business should be going over the rules and being available after a game – win or lose, playing well or playing badly- barring injury should be one of those rules.  The second is, why do we know this? This is an internal matter to be dealt with inside the clubhouse, not something to be publicly dropped on the players.

Added to this out of character fro Gonzalez statement are his more circular than usual reasons fro keeping BJ in the leadoff spot, replacing Simba with a hitter worse than him when a better one was available, challenging a call when their was no hope of success and burning Kimbrel  for no good reason and it’s pretty easy to see Gonzalez is frustrated and stumped.  He appears to that he’s losing or lost control and is out of ideas about regaining it.

That’s A Wrap

In the past I’ve pointed out that as much as I doubt Gonzalez’ managerial talents, he’s been hampered by the rosters he’s been given. Now however it is down to him. He doesn’t pitch or play the field but it is his job to keep the players moving forward and believing in themselves. The players with one or two exceptions have let it get to them mentally. They’re frustrated, angry and looking for leadership and finding none. Even RBI machine Freddie Freeman is letting the teams overall malaise affect his at bats.

Heyward is hot and when he’s playing like this he usually carries the team. Hitting behind him are Gattis’ who is finally getting his timing back, strike out machine Johnson and fall down in the opposing batter’s box Simmons. Simba  doesn’t strike out much but also isn’t hitting much  – .148/.233/.204/.437 since the break. So unless Heyward or Gattis homer or the other team does something silly, the rally ends with them.

The team as presently constructed is not a post season team. It hasn’t been for years but being the least bad in an awful decision made them look better than they were. The truth was apparent in their brief post season appearances but many refused to see it. That has to be fixed this off season and it will mean unpopular decisions have to be made. For now the team needs leadership.

The fans are entitled to the best baseball the team can play. That means giving everything every game no matter how bad it is. Those traits were evident on the Padres and when we played the Astros but visibly lacking in the jerseys with a Tomahawk  on front. Gonzalez has to make a few unpopular decisions of his own (if he’s allowed to) and he has to motivate the lethargic, flat and uninspiring Braves to play as hard as the Padres played us; as if each game would take us to the championship.

Gonzalez’ strength we’re told is clubhouse leadership. It’s time we see him demonstrate some of that.

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