Gonzalez rallies Braves back from collapse

sports@macon.comOctober 2, 2012 

Major League Baseball managers are probably the most scrutinized workers in this country. There are only 30 of them, of course. And not many people have every single decision they make second-guessed and questioned by thousands -- if not millions -- of people on a daily basis.

Just think of the number of decisions a manager makes in each of the 162 games of the season. From the lineup to what to do with runners on base to pitches called for the pitcher to pitching changes, the manager makes the call on so many things that may or may not work.

It’s why we have columns and talk shows, so that we as fans can talk about what went right and what went wrong. And if a manager makes the wrong decision, his name is usually mud, especially if it’s an important game.

A year ago, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez’s name might not exactly have been mud, but it was getting dirty. He had taken over for a legend, and then he watched as his first team choked with a big lead in the wild-card race. It didn’t exactly create an emotional tie between the fans and the new manager, as Gonzalez was easily one to blame for the collapse.

But, this year, it’s time to give Gonzalez credit. Sure, there are still things we’ve wondered about and even blamed him for this season. But the Braves are going to win 94 or 95 games, and not many predicted that back in March.

The Braves could have easily panicked, broke up last year’s team and had a disaster. It happened in Boston. The Red Sox had the same tragic fall as Atlanta did a year ago. They fired a manager who won two World Series for them, replacing Terry Francona with Bobby Valentine, who was just a bad fit from the start.

Boston is having its worst season since 1966. It could have easily happened to the Braves, considering how awful the September swoon was a year ago.

But Gonzalez steadied the course with consistency and a calm environment. He learned that from Bobby Cox, his predecessor and mentor. There’s plenty to criticize Cox for in his career, but you always had to give him credit for creating the best environment possible for a team to be successful during a six-month stretch in the regular season.

The Braves really didn’t make many changes last offseason, which meant they went with basically the same crew that blew the big lead last September. Gonzalez had to simply do better with a similar roster.

There were challenges. Jair Jurrjens fell off -- again. Brandon Beachy, the best starter in the rotation, hurt his elbow. Dan Uggla went into another offensive funk. Brian McCann suffered through an injury-plagued season. There was a revolving door at shortstop.

It was logical to believe Atlanta would struggle to just get above .500. But Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm stabilized the rotation. Craig Kimbrel became baseball’s best closer. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman became dependable sluggers. Martin Prado became a team MVP again.

While those players deserve the most credit, you can’t ignore Gonzalez’s ability to hold the ship together. He was the captain. He kept it going.

Gonzalez learned from last season, like how to better use his bullpen. Last year, he overworked Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters. The three averaged 80.6 appearances a year ago, but this season they have combined to average 63.3 games pitched. They were worn out last season, but this year the bullpen is a strength.

This Friday, Gonzalez will perhaps face an even bigger challenge, when the Braves play the ridiculous do-or-die game to decide who gets into the division series. That will put the pressure right back on Gonzalez’s shoulders to make the right calls, to not let his decisions become the story if the Braves lose.

And there’s no doubt, when a team is in that situation, every single move a manager makes will be huge. Even with all of Cox’s success, it’s easy to remember important decisions he made during the run that were questionable. He sometimes over-managed in the playoffs, and that can be as memorable as a bad play.

How will Gonzalez do in the postseason? Who knows, since we’ve never seen him in this situation. If the Braves don’t advance, particularly after Friday’s game, Gonzalez could get most of the blame. But it shouldn’t diminish what he did to get the Braves there in the first place.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.

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