Atlanta Braves catcher and Duluth graduate Brian McCann smiles before the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros in Kissimmee, Fla.
ATLANTA — Fredi Gonzalez is sitting in the Braves dugout at spring training, musing with a small group of reporters about the upcoming season, when the subject turns to something he'd rather forget.
So, how is the team coping with what happened six months ago?
"It leaves a bad taste in your mouth," the Atlanta manager keeps saying, with a bit of resignation in his voice. "But now it's over with."
Not so fast.
Atlanta's historic September collapse loomed over the winter like a bad hangover, and the questions didn't let up just because the team is heading into a new season. Until the Braves start carving out a different path — one that, for their sake, better end with a trip to the playoffs — they're going to be queried about what happened a year ago.
How they seemingly had the NL wild card locked up with a month to go, only to throw it away by winning just nine of their last 27 games. How a gut-wrenching, 13-inning loss on the final day of the season finished them off. How the St. Louis Cardinals stormed back to edge the Braves by a single game, then carried that momentum all the way to a World Series championship.
As much as Gonzalez and the Braves are determined to turn the page, they can't get away from the constant rehashing of 2011. Every time a new reporter showed up at spring training, there were the familiar questions, the ones they've answered over and over again. Look for more of the same once the games begin counting, especially if the team gets off to a slow start.
"It's gonna be like this," Gonzalez said. "I understand the whole process."
The impending retirement of Chipper Jones only adds to the sense of urgency.
Approaching his 40th birthday and plagued by injuries, Atlanta's longtime third baseman announced in spring training that this will be his final season. He won a World Series ring as a rookie in 1995, and the Braves would love to send him out with a second championship.
"He's had 18 remarkable years," team president John Schuerholz said, "and I hope his 19th is his most remarkable
One thing the Braves didn't do was rip apart their team. Quite the opposite, in fact. Other than a new shortstop (most likely rookie Tyler Pastornicky) and a new starter at the end of the rotation, this will be largely the same team that played so well for such a long period — a .626 clip from the beginning of May until the end of August — only to fritter it away with that ugly final month.
While plenty of fans grumbled about the lack of offseason activity, longing for another hitter to bolster the lineup, Gonzalez was pleased to have largely the same roster as he did during his first season taking over for longtime Braves manager Bobby Cox.
"We've got a pretty good club," Gonzalez said. "Going into the last month, we had the third- or fourth-best record in the major leagues. We've got a good club. We've got a good young club. There was really no reason to make any changes."
Instead, Atlanta is counting on comeback years from several players who fell off dramatically last season due to injuries or more mysterious circumstances.
Start with Jason Heyward, seemingly baseball's next big thing after he homered in his first career at-bat, made the All-Star team and was runner-up for NL rookie of the year in 2010. His sophomore season was the exact opposite, a brutally poor campaign that Heyward blames on an ailing shoulder but left plenty of people wondering if he was destined to be another Jeff Francoeur-like flash in the pan.
"The big thing is being healthy and being able to make the adjustments," insisted Heyward, who hit .227 with just 14 homers and 42 RBIs, a falloff so dramatic that he wasn't even a full-time starter coming down the stretch, sharing time with career backup Matt Diaz and career minor leaguer Jose Constanza. "Right now, that's all I'm doing. No different than any other spring."
Heyward wasn't the only one to blame for an inconsistent offense that plagued the Braves all year.
Slugging second baseman Dan Uggla, the big acquisition from the previous winter, apparently got mixed up about when the season started and didn't show up until July. He then ripped off a 33-game hitting streak and finished with a career-high 36 homers, but was so pathetic the first three months he still finished with a career-worst .233 average.
Brian McCann was the flip side of Uggla. Hitting above .300 in mid-August, the perennial All-Star catcher closed with a miserable slump: 19 of 110 (.173) with four homes and 13 RBIs over his final 31 games.
Martin Prado, who hit over .300 the previous three years, was slowed by a staph infection in his right leg, slumped to .260 and was mentioned frequently in trade talks over the winter.
The Braves also will keep their fingers crossed about Jones, who had arthroscopic knee surgery last season, battled plenty of aches and pains in spring training, and turns 40 in April. He's still a force at the plate — when he's able to play. Last season, he batted .275 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs.
"I am not ready to say goodbye because I still have six months with him," Gonzalez said. "If he can give me six months like last year I will take it. I just don't want to say goodbye yet."
Other than 17-game loser Derek Lowe, who was traded to Cleveland for roughly the equivalent of a bag of balls, the pitching staff performed admirably much of the season. But there, too, problems cropped up coming down the stretch.
All-Star Jair Jurrjens was one of the most effective starters in baseball before the break (12-3, 1.87 ERA). But he went 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA in the second half, making only seven starts because of an ailing right knee.
Like Prado, the right-hander spent most of the offseason hearing his name tossed about in trade rumors, then struggled mightily in spring training even though his knee was supposedly healthy. Over his first four starts, Jurrjens was battered for 25 hits and walked 10 in 13 1-3 innings, leaving him with a 10.13 ERA. Sure, those numbers don't count, but it was a troubling sign for a pitcher who had the look of an ace not so long ago.
Gonzalez also must do a better job of managing a dominant bullpen that clearly wore down in September. Closer Craig Kimbrel, a unanimous choice for rookie of the year, had 46 saves and was downright unhittable at times with his 100 mph fastball (127 strikeouts in 77 innings). But he squandered a lead in St. Louis when the Braves had a chance to bury the Cardinals, then gave up a ninth-inning run on the final day with Atlanta positioned to at least force a one-game playoff for the wild card.
"There's no reason to dwell over it," Kimbrel said. "There's nothing we can do about it now. All we can do is get ready for this season."
Of course, it's not so easy to escape a collapse of that magnitude.
The Braves played poorly through much of spring training, which normally wouldn't be a cause of concern. In this case, everyone wondered if this team was still struggling to forget. Even Gonzalez conceded the Braves need to get off to a strong start, if for no other reason than to turn the focus away from last September.
"Obviously, if go out and start 5-11 in April," the manager said, "that's all gonna come back."