ATLANTA – The worries of a manager riding a double-digit winning streak admittedly are minor. Relative mosquito bites for a guy working in a shark tank.
Meeting his wife for lunch after returning home from last week’s sweep-sweep road trip, Fredi Gonzalez was greeted at a suburban restaurant by a couple of revved-up Braves fans.
“Hey, coach,” piped up one, using the Southern idiom for baseball manager. “Hope we’re not peaking too soon.”
“Like you have a control when you can peak?” Gonzalez said later, recapping his thoughts.
“I kind of laughed. But to myself I’m saying, do you really think we have a switch we can turn on like that? You just got to play the games.”
In just two-plus seasons since taking command of the Braves dugout from Bobby Cox, Gonzalez already has sampled a rich variety of experience.
There was the collapse of 2011.
And the wild-card, infield-fly-rule symposium of 2012.
And, now, the runaway of 2013.
While the Washington Nationals were supposed to set the standard for the division this season, the Braves entered the second weekend of August at 15 1⁄2 games above the Nat line.
In terms of sheer comfort, these Braves have more leg room than Danny DeVito in a Winnebago. Thus it is now Gonzalez’s turn to try something entirely different -- managing prosperity.
Gonzalez’s predecessor is a man so admired that there are as many photos of him in the Turner Field manager’s office today as of the current tenant. Rightfully so, reasons Gonzalez.
“It’s still his office to me. He’ll occupy that job longer than anybody else ever will. That’s his office,” he said.
And how did Cox handle his share of big late-summer leads? Well, in none of those cases did baseball’s fourth-winningest manager feel so secure that he worked a game in slippers and a robe.
“You worry yourself to death every game, it doesn’t matter what the lead is,” Cox said last week, while on a Florida getaway.
“If you have a five-game lead, you always want it to be six. If you have a nine-game lead, you want it to be 10. Tony Kubek (former Yankee and broadcaster) told me that once, and he was right,” Cox said.
Gonzalez is approaching this yawning gap with a similar type of obsessive caution.
“You worry all the time,” he said. “You worry about injuries. You worry about a stretch of not playing well.
“You’re always ready for someone to touch you on the shoulder and say we’re getting ready to lose so-and-so for two weeks.”
Take, for instance, the last road game in Washington on Wednesday. A 6-3 victory, a fairly low-stress addition to a streak that as of Saturday afternoon had included four one-run games. Yet on the flight back to Atlanta, this is what cluttered Gonzalez’s thoughts:
“Yeah, (Craig) Kimbrel saved the game, but he threw around 30 pitches (36 to be exact). And all the way back you’re worried, hoping Kimbrel doesn’t come up with a sore arm, sore back, sore leg.”
With the huge cushion presented to Gonzalez, there already are questions popping up about how he might change his handling of the team to have it in one piece October.
First, let’s quickly review his work to date. Cox calls his guy “a miracle worker” for how he managed around the injuries to the back end of his bullpen as well as to front-line starter Tim Hudson. His move of Jason Heyward to leadoff and Justin Upton to No. 2 in the lineup has paid significant dividends. His biggest challenge in this season of plenty has been “knowing our offense is better than it had shown,” he said.
“But I’d rather live it that way than live it the other way with our pitching staff (not going well),” Gonzalez added. “Our pitching has balanced out the offense. I’d rather do it the way we have been doing, pitch your butt off, hit not quite as consistently as you want to until a couple weeks ago. If it was the other way, you’d be a little more worried. Because if you pitch, you win.”
Expect few startling departures from what has worked so far. As a team shifts from win-the-division to win-home-field-advantage mode, it expects to keep playing as if every game counts.
Third baseman Chris Johnson came up with Houston, thus “the last six weeks you were just looking forward to going home.
“This is new to me, coming every day to the ballpark with something to play for has been rejuvenating.”
“We’re not going to take our foot off the gas pedal,” Upton said. “We want to win as many baseball games as we can.”
Gonzalez is not going to swaddle the bullpen arms in bubble wrap until the postseason. He is convinced that since the September swoon of 2011, he has been far more judicious about the use of his key arms. No need for further adjustments, he reasons.
A man who preaches, “You never know when you’re around the corner from a five-game losing streak,” is not likely to send any of his starters off on a spa weekend the next two months.
The analogies Gonzalez employs when describing a manager’s job -- he variously evoked the images of a man trying to plug holes in a leaky dam and of a juggler with a dinnerware setting for six in the air -- speak to the creative discomfort he will bring to the park every day.
Because Gonzalez considers himself so close to Cox -- “There have been three men in my life who have made a big difference: My dad, obviously, Bobby and Carlos (Tosca, Braves bench coach)” -- the transition of Braves leadership has been fairly seamless. Safe to assume that Gonzalez will talk up the importance of winning -- no matter the lead -- as did the fellow before him.
This team is on pace to win 99 games, up from 89 in Gonzalez’s first season with the Braves and 94 the following one. There is a trend line there that Gonzalez would like to keep feeding.
The current manager gets almost poetic when talking about playing out these two months with a predator’s mindset.
“These guys are athletes. They compete. That’s what they love to do,” he said.
“There is nothing better to come out of a major league game, shaking hands, knowing you have won a game. There is no drug that can give you a better feeling.
“So just keep winning.”