After losing three of four games to the Dodgers to lose the franchise’s sixth consecutive division series, the Braves and manager Fredi Gonzalez were left to regroup this week. Clad in blue jeans and a black button-down shirt, Gonzalez met with members of the local media in his office to share his thoughts on the highs and lows of the 2013 season and what he envisions for 2014. Here are excerpts from that conversation in the first of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s two-part Q&A.
Part 1 includes Gonzalez’s reflections on the 2013 season, when the Braves won 96 games and their first division title since 2005. Coming Saturday is Part 2, in which Gonzalez looks ahead to 2014.
Q: Is there anything you wished would have gone differently during the season?
A: I think I answered this question in 2011, like “Yeah, I would have done a lot of stuff different.” 2013? I would not have done anything different. I’m sure Game 80 or something, I might have hit-and-run instead of bunt because you always second guess yourself in those situations, but as far as every tough decision that we have to make, I feel we made it with the best interests in mind for the team, for that individual, and you feel good about it. In 2011, I curled up in the basement for two weeks and didn’t want to show my face, but 2013, I think our coaching staff and myself hold our head up, and I think our players should hold their head up because they had a hell of a year. Always at the end of the day, you want to win the World Series, but our goal was to win the division and go to the playoffs and we won the division, and it didn’t go the way we wanted to in the playoffs, but a team that wins 96 games and the division should be proud of themselves. I know I am.
Q: What are some of the high points?
A: (Freddie) Freeman should be considered in the conversation for MVP, Gold Glove. (Jason) Heyward should be considered a Gold Glove again, even though the last 10, 12 days played center field instead of right field and missed five weeks with a broken jaw. (Andrelton) Simmons should win a Gold Glove. What Chris Johnson did at third base, filling the void Chipper (Jones) left. We were all certainly worried about that position. The guy had a chance to win the batting title all the way to the last week of the season. You’ve got to tip your hat to him. (Craig) Kimbrel with 50 saves, and our starting rotation did a nice job.
Q: Do you look back at a game or two in September that might have gotten you the best record and a chance to avoid the Dodgers in the division series?
A: There were a lot of games we walked off the field, going “How did we win this one?” A lot of them. You win 96, you want to win 97. You win 97, you wish you would have won 98.
Q: How shocked were you that B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla didn’t come around at any point?
A: I don’t have an answer for you. I guess if we were firing on all cylinders we would have won 150 games. We still end up winning 96. Sure, nobody wanted to have those seasons those guys had. But I don’t know what else we want from the club. We won 96 games and won the division.
Q: Is there a comfort now that the young pitchers know now they can win here?
A: (Alex Wood) got great experience, and (Julio) Teheran and (Mike) Minor, and even (Kris) Medlen, this is the first time he’s pitched 30-something starts in his career. It’s good. You feel good going into spring training with that core. And (Brandon) Beachy — he should be ready to go at spring training or a little bit after spring training starts — you feel pretty good. But then you just never know about the injuries. I thought those guys had great years. We didn’t have a No. 1, an ace-type guy, after (Tim Hudson) broke his ankle. But we had some strong middle-of-the-rotation guys, lot of 2’s and 3’s.
Q: Did everything unfold the way you wanted with postseason roster?
A: It absolutely did. There was never one spot where you would have said, “If we would have had this guy, it would have been a little bit different.” We always talk about when you try to play defense, you’re not worried about playing extra innings or who’s coming up in the ninth. When we were trying to set up a four-out save (in Game 4), if we would have gotten ourselves into the ninth inning, (Paul) Janish’s spot comes up. That’s the only time in four games that you said, “Maybe if we would have had another hitter.” … And we were prepared to tackle that one, too, if it came up. We were prepared to put (Gerald) Laird at third base and move over Chris Johnson and pinch hit for Janish, if that came up.
Q: Did you think Jason Heyward was almost better in center field than in right?
A: I saw him in places as a center fielder that I’d never seen another center fielder be. And I’m not talking about catching balls. I’m talking about just roaming center field, like you would teach your high school guys. When the ball goes to left field on the ground, you bust your butt over there in case that ball comes on the ground and beats the left fielder. Or balls off the wall and he’s backing up the right fielder in case the ball gets over the head of the right fielder and off the wall. I saw him roaming without him being a part of the play in center field more than I’ve seen any other center fielder in the major leagues. There were a couple of balls (Evan) Gattis caught in L.A. that Jason was about five feet from, and other center fielders would just sit there and watch him catch the ball. That was refreshing. I don’t know if he played better than he did in right field, but he sure didn’t play any worse than any other center fielder in the major leagues.
Q: Do you anticipate all your coaches coming back?
A: I thought our coaching staff did a hell of a job. They sure deserve to. We haven’t spoken to them about that. Hopefully we get that resolved here in the next couple of days. Our guys did a masterful job. Roger (McDowell) was outstanding again. You look at his track record since he’s been here. His pitching staff always finishes in the top two or three in the major leagues, develops young pitchers. Walk and Fletch (hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher) — I’m sure there are people out there hammering them about Uggla and B.J., but what they’ve done with Jason and Chris Johnson and Simmons. … Our coaching staff, I’m really, really proud of them.