1. Atlanta Works to Save Its Season

Not that the Atlanta Braves offense has gone quiet, but the library just called asking them to please make a little more noise.

A team that has spent a total of 86 days atop the NL East this summer suddenly is in a three-team scramble for one playoff slot. What’s that, you say? There are two NL wild-card slots? True enough. But you can award one of those to the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers, whichever team fails to win the NL West.   

That leaves one slot for the taking among one team (Pittsburgh) close to getting its mojo back thanks to MVP Andrew McCutchen, one club (Milwaukee) that appears to have a serious death wish and one (Atlanta) that right now couldn’t find its bats if you spotted it a GPS and a limo ride to the Louisville Slugger plant. Meantime, a Marlins club that just dusted the Braves lurks on the wild-card fringes.

Click Ahead to Other Topics

• Can Tony La Russa protect D-Backs from themselves?
• Personal matter deprives game of one of its best men
• Freddie Freeman comes up empty again vs. the Fish
• Exam time awaiting surprising Royals in playoffs 
• Price has not been right since trade to the Tigers
• The inherent unfairness of handling umpire warnings
• One reason for Mets fans to not give up on season yet
• The Captain flashes his defensive skills off the field

The Braves have been shut out in four of their past nine games and five times total during a 6-9 stumble over their past 15. The epitome of a streaky offense during the past couple of summers, Atlanta’s next hot stretch with the bats will be its first in a long while: Since Aug. 15, the Braves rank 22nd in the majors in runs per game (3.64).

“It’s been a challenge, it really has,” Braves hitting coach Greg Walker tells Bleacher Report. “When we’re hitting, you fall in love with us. But when we’re not…”

When they’re not, lost weekends like the one just spent losing two out of three in Miami pile up more harshly than B.J. Upton’s critics.

Clearly, it doesn’t take ol’ Captain Outrageous himself, former owner Ted Turner, to ascertain that the Atlanta lineup as presently constituted is fatally flawed: There are simply too many free swingers and not enough on-base guys. It takes a brave man to watch these Braves fan: Only the Cubs (1,291 whiffs) and Marlins (1,270) have struck out more than Atlanta (1,221) in the NL this summer.

Upton (163 strikeouts) ranks fifth in the NL, brother Justin Upton (146) is seventh, Chris Johnson (145) eighth and Freddie Freeman (129) tied for 12th. That makes for a lot of empty swings through the heart of manager Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup.

The diminishing returns are obvious: While the Braves have spun their wheels offensively since mid-August, their pitchers have produced a 2.88 ERA (second in the majors) and limited opponents to a .218 batting average (tied for first in the majors).

This was a team that was supposed to have issues on the mound when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down for the season during spring training.

Instead, the Braves have pitched well all summer, but their 13 shutouts overall is tied for second-most in the NL with the Giants, Phillies and Reds. The woeful Padres lead the pack at 18.

Looking for production anywhere he can find it, Gonzalez promises to “ride” four-hole hitter Evan Gattis the rest of the way. Gattis, the popular El Oso Blanco (The White Bear), has swatted a career-high 22 homers, making him only the second catcher in franchise history to club 20 or more in each of his first two full seasons. Catcher Earl Williams (1971 and ’72) was the first.

So expect to see Gattis log plenty of innings behind the plate as the Braves scramble to keep what once was an inspirational season from turning bitterly disappointing.

It is not going to be an easy task. But it won’t be as difficult as fixing this flawed roster, which is how general manager Frank Wren will be spending his winter. B.J. Upton has three years left on his disastrous five-year, $75.25 million deal. Working to dispatch that contract alone likely will keep Wren dialing his telephone through the holidays.


2. Tony La Russa’s Chief Task: Boxing Out the Owner

Firing general manager Kevin Towers was the easy part for Tony La Russa, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ chief baseball officer.

Now comes the difficult part.

For La Russa to completely change the culture in Arizona and put the Diamondbacks on a winning path, his biggest challenge is going to be the construction of a firewall between owner Ken Kendrick and the D-Backs’ baseball operations folks.

Kendrick’s meddling and over-involvement in personnel decisions has been an open secret for years. And as those years pass, the names change in the GM’s office (Josh Byrnes, Kevin Towers, TBA) and in the manager’s seat (Bob Melvin, A.J. Hinch, Kirk Gibson), but one common link remains.

Outfielder Cody Ross and starter Brandon McCarthy signed with Arizona as free agents in December of 2012, and according to Bleacher Report sources (and first reported by Sports On Earth’s John Perotto), both signings were pure Kendrick over Towers’ objections.

Kendrick also was publicly critical of both outfielder Justin Upton and shortstop Stephen Drew before they were traded, damaging the D-Backs’ leverage by telegraphing that both players were short-timers who were not going to be brought back to Arizona.

One source within the Diamondbacks’ organization describes the owner as someone who always has been quicker to second-guess than offer many positive solutions up front.

La Russa already has mentioned nine people as potential GM candidates: Larry Beinfest (former Marlins GM and president), Allard Baird (Red Sox executive, former Royals GM), Gary LaRocque (Cardinals director of player development), Billy Eppler (Yankees assistant GM), Ray Montgomery (D-Backs scouting director), Hal Morris (Angels director of pro scouting), Tim Purpura (former Astros GM), Dave Stewart (Matt Kemp’s agent and former ace on La Russa’s Oakland clubs) and DeJon Watson (Dodgers assistant GM).

Yes, he is a key hire, but La Russa now faces many of the same challenges former Orioles GM Andy MacPhail faced in Baltimore with Orioles owner Peter Angelos: Keep the owner’s role a positive one, and convince him to hire smart baseball folks and let them do their jobs.

More and more it is becoming clear that it is no mere coincidence the Diamondbacks were a part of October in three of seven seasons under old owner Jerry Colangelo but in only two of 10 years under Kendrick.


3. Ron Washington: Godspeed

On Ron Washington’s baseball tombstone will be the story of how Eric Chavez, in 2004, presented the then-Athletics infield coach with his just-earned Gold Glove award in appreciation for Washington’s expert tutelage.

It is the fervent hope here, however, that Washington’s baseball tombstone is nowhere close to being erected. He is one of a kind—kind, genuine, old-school, passionate, funny and caring—and there is little to say right now except a prayer that whatever the issue that caused Washington’s sudden and stunning resignation last week, he’s able to handle it deftly and return to the game.

Naturally, the knee-jerk reaction was to wonder whether he had a relapse after testing positive for cocaine a few years ago. Rangers GM Jon Daniels adamantly said this was not a drug issue at Friday’s press conference.

No further details have emerged, and Washington, 62, disappeared just as quickly as the Rangers’ stunning announcement appeared. Here’s wishing him all the best, and wishing baseball the good fortune to see him again soon.


4. Freddie Freeman Smells Like Fish Against Marlins

Longtime Marlins advance scout Joe Moeller has been at it since 2002 for the club, contributing greatly to the team’s ’03 World Series title.

Nothing short of another championship will compare to that, of course. But the partnership of Moeller and the Marlins produced this phenomenon this summer: Braves All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman batted .135 (10-for-74) against them over 19 games, the worst average ever in a season against the Marlins (minimum 60 at-bats), according to STATS, LLC. Freeman cracked two homers and struck out 21 times.


5. The Kansas City Times Are Changing: Just Ask Steve Busby and Paul Splittorff

Be careful if you’re expecting the Kansas City Royals to fold down the stretch, as many apparently are, because of their inexperience.

One important aspect of this club is that young, core members such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow and others have won together at nearly every level of the minors.

This is a throwback team that has grown up together, learned together and knows it again will win together.

Manager Ned Yost told B/R a fascinating story about all of these prospects three years ago, in Kansas City in June of 2011. The story comes from when he attended his first Royals organizational meetings in January of 2010.

“I’ll never forget those meetings,” Yost told me then. “I wanted to know from our minor-league staff which kids are impact kids. They gave me name after name—Moustakas, [Mike] Montgomery, Salvador Perez—and finally I said, ‘Wait a minute. Are these impact kids, or kids you like?'”

The answer came back: impact kids.

Yost said that in all of his years in the game, he’s only seen a farm system that rich twice: in 1991, when he was in Atlanta’s organization and the Braves were poised for that run of 14 consecutive division titles, and when he managed Milwaukee from 2003 to 2008.

Part of the intrigue of watching how the Royals handle themselves down the stretch also will be watching Yost, whom the Brewers unceremoniously dumped with just 12 games left in the ’08 season because they thought he was wound too tightly as they were slumping and nearly blew a sure playoff slot (they wound up winning the NL wild card).

He made a colossal misstep by ripping the Royals’ own fans a couple of weeks ago. Hey, as much as they’ve put up with from an organization that hasn’t played a postseason game since 1985, they deserve a break.

The Royals are in the midst of an enormous series in Detroit this week after a one-for-the-ages weekend series in Yankee Stadium: In taking two of three, they finished off their first winning season against the Yankees since 1999. And in defeating the Yanks 1-0 and 2-0 during the series, it marked the first pair of shutouts the Royals have completed against the Yankees in the same season for the first time since 1975.

Granted, the Yankees aren’t what they once were.

But neither are the Royals. And for that, it’s about time.


6. And in Detroit…

The Tigers now have lost four of the seven games David Price has started for them.

Count ’em.

It’s still difficult to judge whether Detroit or Oakland has been more disappointing since July 31. But clearly, the Tigers are missing something without Austin Jackson, and the Athletics are missing something without Yoenis Cespedes.

Nominations are open.


7. The Problem with Umpire Warnings

Even giving the benefit of the doubt to the umpires and assenting that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and ace Clayton Kershaw (who was not pitching; he was watching from the dugout) should have been ejected on a hot Sunday afternoon in Dodger Stadium, things never should have gotten to that point.

Yes, Oliver Perez hit Andre Ethier with a pitch immediately after Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp had clubbed back-to-back homers.

Yes, there is hella bad blood between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks.

But Perez hit Ethier with a soft, 79 mph curveball.

Plate umpire Scott Barry was the man who immediately leaped to warn both benches, and if you thought Perez was headhunting in that situation, well, then…you, too, can be a major league umpire.

The problem with warnings is that, invariably, the other team is placed at a severe handicap because it can no longer pitch inside. Even if the pitcher accidentally hits someone, it’s an automatic ejection at that point.

There are times when things absolutely get heated and dicey. But there are other times when umpires need to do a far better job of reading a situation than they do. Sunday was one of those for Barry.


8. Juan Lagares Rocks

This guy gives Mets fans something to watch down the stretch. He is one sensational outfielder and a terror on the bases.

Beep, beep…


9. “Hello? Derek? Do You Have Prince Albert in a Can?”

Now this is how you handle unwanted calls…


9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week

Sending this one out to the Athletics and Tigers…

“We had a thing 
“We had a vibe 
“I made it like 
“A nine to five 
“Planned the wrong future through 
“I lost the job of loving you”

— Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale, “I Lost My Job of Loving You”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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