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#Braves brickbats

The Braves lost their 40th game today. The ’98 Braves, which won 106, didn’t lose their 40th until August 11. Snitker’s scrubs have, after 56 games, four less wins than the lowly ’88 squad and one less than the 1935 Boston Braves, who finished a franchise-worst 38-115. The 2016 Braves have the same record as the ’62 Mets: 16-40.

We knew the first half would suck but expected  an infusion of prospects would at least make the second half interesting. But that looks unlikely now. Lucas Sims has pitched atrociously at Gwinnett, where his ERA ballooned to 7.40 after giving up 8 runs, all earned, in 2-1/3 IP. He’s walked 31 in 41 Triple-A innings. Meanwhile, Ozzie Albies is hitting .230 with 12 errors in 34 games at Gwinnett and Rio Ruiz is batting a soft .250, with just 3 HR and 54 strikeouts in 49 games. There is some bullpen help on the horizon, with Shae Simmons rehabbing and Tyrell Jenkins, moved from the rotation, primed for promotions. One rung down, Sean Newcomb has pitched better of late but still has 33 walks in 57 IP. Chris Ellis has pitched well but is not a difference-maker. Thank God for Dansby, but I don’t see the need to rush him.

So the results of the rebuild are decidedly mixed, making the next two drafts among the biggest in franchise history. In the late 1980s Bobby Cox’s drafts yielded Steve Avery, Mike Stanton, Ken Mercker, Mark Wohlers, Ryan Klesko and Chipper Jones. Last year’s top pick, Kolby Allard, has yet to pitch this year, though second pick Mike Soroka has pitched impressively at Rome, with a 2.66 ERA, 56 Ks and just 13 walks in 61 IP. This year, the choice appears to be between a high school pitcher (Jason Groome or Riley Pint) and a college bat (Corey Ray, Kyle Lewis or Nick Senzel).

Of the pitchers, I’d opt for Pint. There are some concerns about Groome’s command, and the Braves already have enough talented arms who struggle to throw strikes.

The 6’4” Pint is a featured player in Jeff Passan’s compelling new book, The Arm. He emerged as a top amateur prospect in the summer 2013, before his 16th birthday, and hit 100 miles per hour with his fastball two years later as a junior in high school. According to Passan, Pint’s father prevented his son from participating in the sort of year-round youth competition that has increasingly been associated with Tommy John surgery early in a pitchers’ professional career.

That could help soothe the concerns of teams who might read Law’s description of Pint as “one of the hardest-throwing prep arms of all time” as a red flag rather than a selling point. Passan also portrays Pint as an excellent student who considers soda a problematic beverage, giving him high marks for character that, in combination with his big frame and impressive stuff (he also throws a changeup and slider), make him a likely top-five pick in June.

Still, I’d prefer the Braves draft a bat. Ray has the highest ceiling, Lewis, the most power (though he’s faced inferior competition playing for Mercer). Senzel, a right-handed hitting third baseman, fills a big need, is the most polished bat and, according to scouts, the surest bet. But few expect the Braves to draft him, even if he’s still available. Bet on Groome.

I’m sure all three would welcome some face time with Chipper. Great players may not make good managers, but, as Edgar Martinez and Barry Bonds have demonstrated, they make pretty good batting instructors. No reason to think Chipper, a student of hitting, would be any different. Clearly the Braves need a different voice — name one hitter who’s improved under Kevin Seitzer’s watch.

I’m not sure anyone can reach Hector Olivera, but it now appears management is going to hang onto their worst mistake. It’ll be fun cheering for a guy who beat the shit out of a woman, won’t it?

Next year’s free agent class is not as feeble as it once appeared. Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond, Martin Prado and Wilson Ramos are among the names who would look good in a Braves uniform.

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The ghosts of 1988

Game 17 of the ’88 season was played in Atlanta, against the Mets, just like Saturday night. Braves batters managed 10 hits but left 8 runners on base, just like Saturday. As for the bullpens, think of Ryan Weber as the white Gary Eave.

The 2016 Braves have won but one game at home, just like Chuck Tanner’s boys. This year’s team does have one more win after 17 games but trails the division leader by a half-game more.

If tomorrow proceeds like  Game 18 in ’88 we should expect a tough loss for Aaron Blair. Twenty-eight years ago, the Braves wasted seven shutout innings by Zane Smith, blowing a 2-0 lead in the 9th.

Keith Hernandez hit a 2-run homer, giving him 9 RBI for the series, off Paul Assenmacher to tie it. Then, with two outs and a runner on third, Charlie Puleo was brought in to walk Howard Johnson intentionally. He proceeded to walk Dave Magadan and Lenny Dykstra unintentionally, scoring the winning run.

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell might remember that night. He pitched a scoreless ninth to record his first save of the year.

 

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Rock bottom revisited

Seems like a good time to revisit our series on the ’88 Braves. Go here for the complete diary.

When you finish 27 games behind the 5th place team in a 6-team division, you suck. Hard. And no Atlanta sports team — Falcons, Hawks, Flames, Thrashers, Dream, Chiefs, Knights, Crackers — sucked harder than the ’88 Braves.

Despite a 92-loss season in ’87 the front office stood pat, trading for Terry Blocker (lifetime OPS: .509) and signing Juan Tyone Eichelberger and Lonnie Smith off the scrap heap.

Even perennially optimistic manager Chuck Tanner struck a realistic tone.

“It may be a long season, but it has to be done and I can do it. I’m going to do it,” Tanner told Furman Bisher. He was fired after 39 games.

After losing 15 of their last 18 spring games the Braves played host to the Cubs for the season opener at Fulco, where the bad omens outnumbered the fans.

Rick Mahler, who had not allowed a run in four previous Opening Day starts, surrendered four in 5 IP. Despite that the Braves still entered the 9th with a 2-run lead, which was promptly squandered by Bruce Sutter, pitching in his first game since May 1986.

Chicago won in 13, 10-9. The Braves would lose nine more before notching the first of 54 wins.

andrest

The nadir

No matter how depressing this offseason has been, it could be worse, as this walk down memory lane reminds us.

The Braves. losers of three straight, were 38-74 entering play on Aug. 10, 1988. A crowd of 6,070 turned out on one crazy summer night to watch Rick Mahler battle Andy Hawkins.

A three-run homer by Murph gave the Braves a 3-1 advantage in the 3rd. The lead held until the 9th when, as you’d expect, the roof caved in. After a Tony Gwynn single, Andres Thomas booted a grounder by Keith Moreland to put the tying runner on base. Marvell Wynne bunted the runners over to 2nd and 3rd with one out. Mahler then coaxed a grounder from Benito Santiago but unfortunately it was hit to Thomas, who committed his second error of the inning.

The Braves still led by 1 and, following a strikeout of Randy Ready, were just one out away from victory. Mahler did his part, getting Garry Templeton to ground softly to first. Guess what happened next.

The third error of the inning, by Gerald Perry, tied the game at three.

It would stay that way for six innings. German Jimenez allowed two runs in the top of the 16th but the Braves battled back, scoring one and putting the tying run on third with Thomas coming to bat. Appropriately, he recorded the final out, dropping the Braves 25.5 games out of first.

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The silver anniversary of rock bottom: Coda

The rebuilding project began in June, when the Braves drafted Steve Avery, Jimmy Kremers (traded in ’91 for Otis), Turk Wendell (sent to Chicago for Damon Berryhill and Mike Bielecki, who had a 3.09 ERA in 242 IP as a Brave), Mark Wohlers and Tony Tarasco (part of the package that brought Marquis Grissom to Atlanta).

A few months later I jumped — literally — when I heard that Ken Oberkfell had been traded to Pittsburgh. It didn’t matter who they got in return (Tommy Gregg); Obie, more than anyone, represented the malaise of the mid-80s and he had to go. Soon after the Bravos cut bait with Ozzie Virgil, Rick Mahler and Jerry Royster.

Unfortunately, their replacements, in some cases, were worse.

Yes, Ozzie Virgil sucked, but Jody Davis, acquired for Kevin Coffman (terrible in his own right) and Kevin Blankenship, was Dan Uggla without power, batting .161 in 267 AB’s as a Brave. Otherwise, Bobby’s biggest acquisitions that winter were 41-year-old Darrell Evans, Mark Eichhorn,  Dwayne Henry and Jeff Treadway.

The team’s 63-97 finish in ’89 was no surprise.

 

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The silver anniversary of rock bottom: Streaking to the finish

You’d think a season that began with 10 consecutive losses wouldn’t get any worse, but the ’88 Braves showed fans no mercy.

They entered Game 140 with a 49-90 record after fighting back from a 4-1 deficit the night before to defeat to the Friars. It was their third win in 4 games, which is as good as it got that season. A losing streak would inevitably follow.

Their 91st loss featured the anemic offense (3 hits, including a trademark solo HR from Ozzie Virgil) and porous defense (a crucial error by 3B Ron Gant loaded the bases in the 4th, setting the table for a two-run single) we’d come to expect from the ’88 Bravos. The Padres coasted to a series win the next day behind a 7-run 2nd inning off Charlie Puleo.

On to L.A., where the eventual World Champions would knock Tom Glavine out in the 3rd inning of Game 142. The Braves fought back, scoring 4 in the 4th, but it wasn’t enough. It would be 23 innings, and two more losses, before they’d score again.

Their 6th loss in a row came at home, vs. the Padres before 4,224 at Fulco in the first game of a doubleheader. The Braves would snap their losing streak in the nightcap, committing 6 errors in a 6-3 win

Three days later, they started another winless streak. This one would last 7 games.

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The silver anniversary of rock bottom: At least they weren’t streaky

At this point in the 1988 season the Braves were already 20 games under .500 and 15 games behind the division leaders.

But they were about to begin what would be their longest winning streak of the season — 3 games. That’s right, the ’88 Braves never won more than 3 in a row. They did it twice in June, sandwiched, of course by a 4-game losing streak.

The second of those streaks started in Los Angeles, against one Don Sutton. Braves ace Rick Mahler did most of the work, collecting two hits, driving in two and going the distance for his 8th victory. He had accounted for 1/3 of the team’s wins at that point, but he would win just 2 more games in a Braves uniform.

The first came nine starts later, an ugly 8-5 defeat of the Giants.  His final win came three years later, in the second game of a doubleheader sweep vs. Pittsburgh. Mahler, signed off the scrap heap after he was released by Montreal, held the mighty Pirates to two runs in 6 IP — a most unlikely victory that moved the Braves to within 4.5 of the division lead.

Francisco Cabrera made a rare start at catcher that night, and in the 8th inning he provided a preview of the greatest moment in franchise history, homering to left for what turned out to be the game-winning run. On the mound for the Bucs: Stan Belinda.

dion

The silver anniversary of rock bottom: Even the wins were ugly

Part of a recurring series “celebrating” the 25th anniversary of the worst season in Atlanta Braves history 

Through 25 games the Braves were 16-9 with a comfortable 3.5 game lead in the NL East. Through 25 games in 1988 the 6-19 Braves were already 10 games out of first.

Game 26 came at home vs. the woeful Phils, managed by Lee Elia and featuring past-their-prime stars like Mike Schmidt, Lance Parrish and Von Hayes. Kevin Gross, the Steve Trachsel of his day, faced off against Zane Smith, who would somehow win 15 games that year.

You can call me Al

Dion James, at .243, had the highest BA in the line-up for the Bravos. Murph stood at .234; Oberkfell, .219; Virgil, .197; Gant, .160. Against all odds, they jumped out to a 5-0 lead after 7.

And then blew it.

Smith loaded the bases with walks to Juan Samuel and Schmidt and a single by Parrish. He got Hayes to ground out to first, scoring one, then left the game after Mike Young hit an infield single.

Enter Bruce Sutter, with two on, one out and a 5-2 lead. After Milt Thompson walked, Chris James singled to close the lead to 5-3. Greg Gross popped to short, bringing (then-)light hitting catcher Darren Daulton to the plate with two outs and the tying runs aboard. Daulton, who would hit .208 that year with one homer, singled to left.

5-5, after 8.

Forty-one-year-old Kent Tekulve retired the Braves in order in the bottom of the 8th, and Paul Assenmacher did the same in the 9th, striking out Schmidt, Parrish and Hayes.

With two one and one out in the bottom half of the inning, Albert Hall stepped up to face Tekulve. Hall, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner for Ken Griffey Sr., singled to right, scoring Andres Thomas with the winning run.

Predictably, the Braves lost the following game. It would be two weeks before they’d put together consecutive wins, beating the Pirates and Cubs. Chuck Tanner would manage only one of those games. The local nine were 12-27 when they fired Tanner, who had a .424 winning percentage as Braves manager.

Good times.

LONNIE SMITH BRAVES

The silver anniversary of rock bottom

When you finish 27 games behind the 5th place team in a 6-team division, you suck. Hard. And no Atlanta sports team — Falcons, Hawks, Flames, Thrashers, Dream, Chiefs, Knights, Crackers — sucked harder than the ’88 Braves.

Despite a 92-loss season in ’87 the front office stood pat, trading for Terry Blocker (lifetime OPS: .509) and signing Juan Tyone Eichelberger and Lonnie Smith off the scrap heap.

Even perennially optimistic manager Chuck Tanner struck a realistic tone.

“It may be a long season, but it has to be done and I can do it. I’m going to do it,” Tanner told Furman Bisher. He was fired after 39 games.

After losing 15 of their last 18 spring games the Braves played host to the Cubs for the season opener at Fulco, where the bad omens outnumbered the fans.

Rick Mahler, who had not allowed a run in four previous Opening Day starts, surrendered four in 5 IP. Despite that the Braves still entered the 9th with a 2-run lead, which was promptly squandered by Bruce Sutter, pitching in his first game since May 1986.

Chicago won in 13, 10-9. The Braves would lose nine more before notching the first of 54 wins.

More memories of the worst season that ever was to come.