Mandel’s Musings: Cox Finding Fulfillment As Career Winds Down

Published on: 30th September, 2009

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Mandel's Musings: Cox Finding Fulfillment As Career Winds Down  | read this item

New York – One of the great stories in baseball this year is unfolding down in Hot ‘Lanta where the 69-year old Bobby Cox is managing in the next to last year of his Hall of Fame career and having the time of his life. His young Braves, with a pitching staff of rookie unknowns mixed-in with a couple of veteran retreads may not have the cache of his teams of the 1990s but Cox has helmed these 2009 Braves to within two games of the Colorado Rockies for the wild card slot in the National League playoffs using the same formula he used over the course of his illustrious career on the bench during which Cox guided Atlanta to 14 consecutive postseason appearances (1991-2005) and the 1995 World Series title.

Cox’ mantra, always about pitching, pitching, and more pitching mixed in with a little timely hitting has, once again, led the Braves to what could be a shocking entry into the post-season tournament at a time his Braves have been viewed as a non-contender for anything other than the bottom the East Division standings.

The Braves have won 15 out of their last 18 games, and had won seven straight (before last night’s loss) and they’ve been doing it on outstanding starting pitching.

Instead of names like Maddox, Glavine, and Smoltz, all certain Hall of Famers, the Braves now offer a starting staff of young stars Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens along with veterans Javier Vasquez, Derek Lowe, and Tim Hudson. Perhaps the stars are all aligned for Cox this year because nobody in the baseball world would have predicted the production he’s getting from this group of pitchers would have been at the level it has been this season, particularly over the course of the stretch drive.

Start with those two 23-year-olds: the second-year pitcher Jurrjens has won 14 games and ranks fourth in the National League with a 2.61 ERA. while rookie right-hander Hanson is 11-4 with a 2.98 ERA, which would rank among the Top 10 if he had enough innings to qualify.

Throw in 33-year-old Javier Vazquez, a pitcher who was supposed to be fragile in big games but has nearly been unhittable down the stretch. He’s thrown a pair of complete games in September and improved to 15-9 with the NL’s sixth-best ERA (2.83). Derek Lowe was supposed to be the ace and does have 15 wins, but he’s probably no better than the fourth-best pitcher on this staff. And former ace Tim Hudson has pitched well since a yearlong recovery from major elbow surgery.

During this run, the starters have gone 12-2 with a 2.87 ERA. In 12 of those 17 games, they lasted at least six innings. Overall, the Braves have the league’s second-best ERA (3.59).

“We’re finally capitalizing on the pitching we’ve had all year,” outfielder Matt Diaz said. “Our pitching had us in every game. We just had not been able to get the hits when it mattered most. It seems like we’re getting those hits lately, and hopefully it doesn’t stop.”

While this is undoubtedly a pitching-centric team, general manager Frank Wren pulled off a couple of deals that bolstered the offense just enough to make a difference in the final month. Center fielder Nate McLouth was acquired from Pittsburgh, but the bigger splash was created by the trade-deadline move that brought Adam LaRoche back to Atlanta. The slugging first baseman is hitting .351 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 51 games for the Braves.

Imagine where Atlanta might be if Jones wasn’t having one of the worst seasons of his career. Last year’s NL batting champ has been mired in a 3 1/2 -month slump that knocked his average all the way down to .273 and left him still two homers shy of his 15th straight 20-homer season.

But even Jones is showing signs of perking up over this final week. He hit a towering homer off the right-field foul pole in the latest win, Atlanta’s seventh in a row.

“There hasn’t been any one person that we’ve had to ride,” Hudson said. “We’ve won as a team. We’ve put ourselves in position to make a run at it as a team. I think if we can get in there, I like our chances.”

Indeed, the Braves could be a handful if they do make it to the postseason, if for no other reason than having three hard-throwing pitchers with dominating stuff at the top of their rotation.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if we were to make it, people would have to take us very seriously because of our pitching,” Jones said. “We have the ability to shut a team down, and we have just enough offense to scare people.”

Compared to Colorado, Atlanta appears to have the more favorable schedule with its last six games at home, four of them against the 103-loss Washington Nationals. Colorado hosts Milwaukee for three games starting Tuesday, then hits the road for its final series against the NL-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Weirder things have happened,” Hudson said.

If this team does make the playoffs, they will be a very tough out. Nobody will want to face a three-man rotation of Hanson, Jurrjens, and Vazquez in the NLDS, a best three out of five series. Plus, should the series go to games four or five, Lowe and Hudson, each solid veterans with playoff success will be waiting in the wings.

But, it’s more than just their starting pitching that has turned around this season. The bullpen has been one of the best in the majors with long-man Kris Medlen, set-up Mike Gonzalez, and closer Rafeal Soriano. It’s teams like these that find themselves battling late October.

Oddly, the town is not picking up the beat on this exciting last week of pennant fever. At the game last night, in a beautiful, new stadium that was finally erected to replace decrepit Fulton- County Stadium, the Braves played in front of a half-empty ballpark. Seating capacity is 50,000. There were only 25,000 fannies in the seats to cheer these miracle Braves on.

Maybe Atlanta fans, who were weaned on baseball in the sixties when the Milwaukee Braves moved the franchise to the south along with baseball greats such as Henry Aaron, Ed Matthews, and Warren Spahn are not sold on this team of exciting youngsters. As I recall attendance figures from those good old sixties, fans of this great southern town weren’t so hot for baseball then, either. Tough crowd to please.

As Cox said at his press conference announcing his retirement after the 2010 season, “There’s no turning back now — win, lose or draw,” he said. “Whatever happens next year is going to be it.”

The same can be said about his 2009 team. There is no turning back for these Braves, it’s all in front of them, now.

 


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