Say what you want about Leo Mazzone's ineffectiveness as the Baltimore Orioles' pitching coach thus far this season, but the Braves, who won their division 14 straight times (not counting the strike year of 1995) with Mazzone rockin' in their dugout, are about to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990 when Mazzone was hired mid-season to be the Braves' pitching coach. And the reason the Braves are languishing in dead last place below the mismanaged Nationals and post-fire sale Marlins? Yup. It's the pitching.
The only NL teams to have allowed more runs per game than the Braves are the Brewers and Pirates, while the Atlanta bullpen's 5.06 ERA is essentially tied with the Reds' (5.07) for the worst in the NL and second worst in baseball (the Royals' pen is on a whole other level of suck). What's most dispiriting about the Braves' pitching is that there's not a large range of performances there. Other than failed closer Chris Reitsma's 9.11 ERA (now on the DL), and swing-man Lance Cormier's 6.23 on one end and new closer Ken Ray's 2.80 on the other, everyone on the current roster falls between Chad Paronto's 3.80 and Jorge Sosa's 5.18. Yes, John Smotlz and Tim Hudson fall toward the low end of that spectrum, but neither has been the stopper this team needs. Absent that kind of ace, the Braves have been on a dramatic downward spiral all month. After pulling out of a losing April to finish May three games over .500, the Braves have gone a staggering 4-19 in June, low-lighted by a ten-game losing streak that was snapped by the Devil Rays on Friday. Indeed, before that weekend series in Tampa the Braves were 2-18 in June.
It's the end of an era in Atlanta. John Smoltz, the only man other than manager Bobby Cox and Mazzone to have participated in all fourteen playoff appearances, is a free agent after this season and has said he would accept a trade. Andruw Jones, who has been with the team since he was a teenager in 1996, Cox and GM John Schuerholz are all signed through 2007 only. Could be Chipper Jones, signed through 2008 with a 2009 option that will likely vest itself, will be the last man standing. I for one welcome the release of the Braves' grip on the NL East division, but with the end finally here, the fact that this team only won one Championship and failed to reach the World Series in their last six postseasons leaves even me with an empty feeling.
That said, here's hoping the Yankees party like it's 1999 and sweep the Bravos over the next three games. Robinson Cano is not in the line-up tonight due to the left hamstring injury he suffered yesterday while running out a double, though early reports are that he will not have to go on the DL. Instead, Joe Torre gives Miguel Cairo the start at second, but sullies his lineup by batting Miggy second once again. Jason Giambi, who missed the first game of yesterday's double-header with a bad back played last night and is back in there tonight. Bubba Crosby gets the start in right as Tim Hudson and Randy Johnson give the Yankees their second marquee pitching matchup in as many days.