The Red Sox collapse, and the Braves, too

There’s seven days left in this year’s regular season, seven days left for one of baseball’s storied franchises, its rotation wracked by injuries, its bullpen overworked, its offense underproducing, its manager second-guessed, its fan base delivered to the height of talk-show delirium, to save its season.

No Red Sox fans, we’re not talking about you. Yet. Instead we’re talking about the Sox’s former roommates in baseball in Boston, the Atlanta Braves.

While it’s become fashionable to project the Sox’s collapse — from nine games ahead in the American League wild-card race on Sept. 1 to two and a half today– as the greatest of all time, it may not even be the greatest of 2011.

The Atlanta Braves, who were eight-and-half games ahead of St. Louis in the NL wild-card race on Sept. 5, and 10-and-a-half games ahead on Aug. 25, lead by just one-and-a-half games entering play today.

(For the record, we still vote for the ’64 Phillies, who were six-and-a-half up with 12 to play. It’s one thing to falter with a month to go; another when you’re so close to the finish line).

What went wrong? Everything. The Braves  have lost 13 of 20 in September, 15 of 22 since Aug. 26. They were swept by the Phillies, which ended the race for the NL East, and swept by the Cardinals, which began the race for the wild card.

Jair Jurjens, 13-6 with a 2.96 ERA, hasn’t pitched since the Nats routed him on Aug. 30; he won’t return. Tommy Hanson, 32-22 with a 3.28 ERA in his brief career, hasn’t pitched since the Mets routed him on Aug. 6.

The Braves’ rotation consists of two veterans (Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe) and a 25-year-old with 27 career starts (Brandon Beachy), a 23-year-old with 22 career starts (Mike Minor) and a 21-year-old who started the season in AA (Randall Delgado).

Their bullpen saved the Braves for five months, but is worn down like a miler who went out too fast on the first three laps of a four-lap race. Jonny Venters (85), Craig Kimbrel (75.1) and Eric O’Flaherty (70.1) all are 26 years old or younger, and all have surpassed career highs in innings pitched.

It’s easy to throw the choke word around for the Braves and Red Sox, like an outfielder throwing a foul ball into the stands. Normally, though, collapses don’t reveal a lack of character so much as a lack of talent or depth.

The Braves are young, hurting, their bullpen eroded, their outfield awful. Centerfielder Michael Bourn, who came from Houston by trade, hasn’t helped much: he’s on-basing just .320 in 47 games. Martin Prado (.310) is worse, Jason Heyward is hitting but .228 and Jose Costanza’s 311 average may look good, but is defaced by just four extra-base hits and six walks in 106 at-bats.

Criticize manager Fredi Gonzalez for not pacing the bullpen better, if you want. And credit the Cardinals for winning — they’re 17-5 since Aug. 28, they lead the NL in runs scored and the trade of Colby Rasmus might hurt in the years ahead, but it’s built a bullpen in 2011.

The Red Sox are older but just as pained. They have no left-handed reliever they trust, Mike Aviles is their everyday third baseman, Darnell McDonald their fourth outfielder and John Lackey starts every fifth day. Does that sound like a playoff team? Do the Braves? Not even in winter ball.

September hasn’t been about integrity, but ability.

Here’s some good news for Sox and Braves fans: they won’t lose Thursday. They’re both idle, which is the best chance they have to gain ground in their wild-card races.

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