ATLANTA -- There was a basketball court of sorts set up in the Braves' clubhouse on Saturday, with two shopping carts positioned as baskets on opposite sides of the room, about 20 feet apart. The object was to fire the ball into the top part of the cart -- where a toddler would sit -- and with great focus and intensity and laughter, various Atlanta players took turns attempting to successfully drop high-arcing shots into that very small space.
Dan Uggla was consistently good at this; Freddie Freeman got better when he made more athletic moves, rather than standing still as if he was shooting free throws. Craig Kimbrel had his right shoulder wrapped as part of his daily treatment and tried shooting with his left hand, which was unfortunate.
The players laughed with and at each other as this went on, and it was in the midst of that hilarity that one of them raised the subject of last September's collapse with a reporter.
"Hey, it happened," the veteran said. "There's no sense in avoiding the topic."
And they don't. It's just an acknowledged element of their shared history, in the way that an employee remembers the job interview he botched before joining his current company, or how a divorced man jokes about the alimony paid to an ex-wife. The context for the present is provided by the past.
Fredi Gonzalez will tell you flatly that he learned from what happened last September. This September, he's been much less patient with the status quo and much more willing to make changes. Uggla was benched, and the slumping and injured Brian McCann was moved down in the lineup. Ben Sheets pitched well and was in the rotation, but then he struggled and has now been shifted into the bullpen.
Because of the near-complete collapse of what had been one of the best bullpens in the majors last season, Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters each have about 20 fewer appearances than they did a year ago. Last year, those three pitchers had been used so often that they had almost nothing left down the stretch; this September, they are all throwing well.
Kimbrel struck out the side with 10 pitches Friday, with a ferocity that was striking to some of his teammates, and he got three strikeouts again Saturday.
"Everybody in the ballpark knows a fastball is coming," said Uggla, "and it doesn't matter."
Dating back to Aug. 28, Kimbrel has struck out 24 of the 36 batters he has faced, allowing four hits, two walks and one run. He has 104 strikeouts in 55.1 innings this season, with 23 hits and 14 walks. O'Flaherty has an 0.47 ERA in the second half and hasn't allowed an earned run since July 13. Venters struggled earlier this season, raising questions about whether he had recovered from his 2011 workload, but he's allowed runs in only two of his 20 appearances since the All-Star break.
The Braves were swept in Milwaukee earlier this week, raising questions about whether another collapse was in the making. But they beat the Washington Nationals on Friday and again on Saturday. What happened last year will always be a part of the Braves' shared history, but they are working to create something new.
Chipper Jones walked into the room Saturday, aimed a shot at the shopping cart and drilled his first and only attempt, and raised an arm in celebration, the same thing you see when he hits a walk-off. The other players reacted loudly, not all of them generously.
It's the same team, but a different time for all of them.
The Braves rallied in a big way Saturday.
A call went against the Nationals here Saturday, and what followed was a lot of ugliness, Adam Kilgore writes.
In the Nationals' clubhouse, a thick skin is required.
McCann is day-to-day with knee tendinitis.
• A week ago, Clayton Kershaw arrived at the ballpark in San Francisco determined to show that he could pitch that night, that the discomfort he felt in his hip area wouldn't stop him. He played catch and jogged, but Don Mattingly decided to give Kershaw a couple of extra days, and the pitcher was furious about this. He wanted to pitch against the Giants that night.
But it turns out that his injury is much more serious than he thought. Kershaw could be out for the rest of the season after being scratched from his Saturday start. Kershaw is going to see a hip expert.
From Joe Strauss' story:
- Instead of taking a two-game lead over the Dodgers, the Cardinals find themselves tied for the NL's second wild-card berth entering the final game of a 1-5 road trip. Saturday's outcome also assured the Dodgers of winning the teams' season series, meaning any playoff for the berth will require the Cardinals returning here for an October 4 play-in.
- "It gets pretty simple now: We have to win. We need to come out and win tomorrow," said left fielder Matt Holliday. "They beat us tonight. It's not fun. There's not a lot else to say."
- [Daniel] Descalso called it "a must win." Several players questioned umpire Doug Eddings' safe call at second base when [Dee] Gordon stole his way into scoring position after replacing Andre Ethier at first base.