It was a good season, the best of the four since we last made the playoffs. But it was a horrible end: the Braves followed an incredible seven-game winning streak (the final six on the road), which got them within a hair's breadth of the playoffs, with a disspiriting six-game home losing streak, which first killed their playoff hopes and then killed any chance of ending the season on a high note. It's understandable that the players experienced a letdown once their mathematical chances went from slim to none, but you couldn't have picked a worse way to go out if you tried -- getting swept at home by the Washington Nationals, including two straight extra-inning losses in games 161 and 162. Ouch.
The last month of the season, the Braves went from a fairly even-keel team to an incredibly streaky one. A team that had just three five-game streaks in its first five months (five-game winning streaks in July and August, a five-game losing streak in March) suddenly had three in its last month, two separate seven-game winning streaks and then the six-game losing streak to end the season.
The team that ended the season was clearly, obviously better than the opening day roster: adding Nate McLouth, Tommy Hanson, and Adam LaRoche, and subtracting Jordan Schafer, Jeff Francoeur and Casey Kotchman made the team an immediate playoff contender. But as has been so often the case in the last few years, the team just couldn't quite get over the hump: the Braves underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by five games, as their 735-641 run differential suggested a 91-win team. (From 2006-2009, the Braves are 22 games under their Pythagorean expectation.)
When I remember the 2009 Braves, I'll have a lot more fun remembering the September 28 team, 85-70, two games out of the Wild Card, riding a 7-game win streak. It was their longest winning streak since 2006, the most games over .500 since 2005, the closest we'd been to the playoffs since 2005. For the first time since the Golden Era, we had inarguably the best rotation in baseball, with a $60 million #5 starter and twin babyfaced assassins. Shed of Francoeur's dead weight, we averaged 4.9 runs a game, after averaging just 4.2 runs a game with him on the team.
In short, we were a good baseball team, no matter what the final six games might have suggested. We knew our flaws -- we didn't have a real home run threat, Chipper was slumping, and Derek Lowe was mediocre -- but the team we had on September 28 was a team that you wouldn't mind seeing on Opening Day. Not one you'd take all the way to the Series, maybe, but you'd feel pretty good about it.
But the September 28 Braves did lose their last six games. They scored 17 runs in six games -- they had exactly 52 hits, and left exactly 52 men on base. The pitching was heartbreakingly good, allowing just 23 earned runs in 62 innings, just 16 by the starters. After going 11-30 in one-run games last year and 48-88 overall from 2006-2008, the September 28 Braves were 27-21 in one-run games, thanks in large part to a mostly healthy Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez. After September 28, four of the Braves' six losses were by exactly one run.
It's hard to watch a team that seems to be too emotionally exhausted to try. In 2006, we watched the Braves lose 21 games in June and seemingly give up on the season at the beginning of the summer. This year, we watched a near-playoff team spit out the bit a few lengths before the finish line. It's heartening that they got as close as they did -- but demoralizing to see how they handled losing out.
Still, I'd much rather see them lose meaningless games than meaningful games. If they had to have a six-game losing streak, I'm glad that it came after mathematical elimination. I just wish it hadn't happened at all.