For the first time in almost two decades, the Atlanta Braves were facing a legitimate rebuild.
The 2008 squad finished the season 72-90, the first 90-loss season for the club since 1990. The optimism of the “Baby Braves” from 2005 had faded, and the franchise was really lacking direction in a division that now featured the world champion Philadelphia Phillies.
General Manager Frank Wren decided to go the veteran route to patch the holes in the roster. His big signing was Derek Lowe from the Dodgers, who joined the club on a four-year/$60 million deal. He also signed Kenshin Kawakami from Japan, and brought in a pair of experienced position players in David Ross and Garret Anderson.
A trade that would ironically send future Brave Tyler Flowers and three others to the White Sox for Javier Vazquez and Boone Logan added even more experience to the team, and just like that the Braves were ready to go for the 2009 campaign.
The season started off with a bang as the Braves beat the Phillies 4-1 in front of a national audience behind eight innings of two-hit baseball from Derek Lowe and a trio of homers from Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Jordan Schafer.
Despite that brief moment of optimism, the team really struggled out of the gate, especially at Turner Field. Bobby Cox’s club went 6-11 in its first 17 home games of the season, and that theme continued all summer. The Braves got an All-Star season from McCann behind the plate; the budding star hit .281 with 21 home runs and 94 RBIs. Chipper Jones didn’t match the heights of his 2008 batting title, but he still hit .264 with an on base percentage of .388.
The veteran pitching experiment returned mostly positive returns. Vazquez in particular joined Jair Jurrjens as the co-staff ace; the former finished the season with a 2.87 ERA and the latter clocked in at 2.60. Both starters ate up over 200 innings as part of a rotation that stayed mostly healthy all season. Kawakami had a 3.86 ERA in his first season in the league, but was snake bitten by bad offense and finished with just a 7-12 record. Lowe on the other hand had a 4.67 ERA, but got the benefit of some timely offense and finished with a 15-10 mark.
But the story of the rotation had to be Tommy Hanson. The former 22nd round draft pick made his MLB debut on Jun. 7 against Milwaukee. He allowed six earned runs in as many innings, but he was given another opportunity. And that’s when he took off. Hanson pitched 23 more innings in June, allowing only two runs and leading the Braves to a 4-0 record in those starts. From there he was entrenched in the rotation, going on to finish the season with a 2.89 ERA.
But even with all of the individual success and positive momentum, the team spend most of the season treading around the .500 line. They were never fully out of contention, but a lack of consistency prevented any serious charge up the standings. It looked like the Braves were finally putting a run together when they closed August with a 16-8 spurt, but a five-game losing streak in early September halted the momentum from that.
But the Braves weren’t done. A pair of seven-game winning streaks bookended a 15-2 run in September, bringing the season record to 86-70 and drawing them within just two games of the wild card in the final week of the season. This team without any expectations going into the season was somehow still alive after 156 games, and that alone made the year a success.
But that was the high-water mark.
That trademark inconsistency came back up at the worst possible time, as the Braves lost six consecutive games to close the season. The Colorado Rockies finished six games ahead of the Braves after that, so Atlanta would’ve needed to win out in the final week even to force a tiebreaker.
It was a disappointing end to the year, but the September push and positive developments helped lay the groundwork for the next successful run of Braves baseball. 2009 would be the last season before 2014 where the Braves weren’t either in the playoffs or still alive for a spot on the final day of the regular season.
If 2008 was a low point for the post-streak Braves, 2009 marked the beginning of the climb back up.