ATLANTA -- After enduring a painful September collapse during his first season as Bobby Cox's successor in 2011, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez entered '12 determined to prevent his club from being burdened by the previous year's painful conclusion.
Gonzalez's efforts proved beneficial, as the Braves returned to the postseason and suffered a frustrating loss to the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card Game. Consecutive disappointing conclusions could have weighed on the team's psyche. But Gonzalez's steady demeanor and guidance instead helped create the positive atmosphere that surrounded the Braves as they made their surprisingly convincing run toward this year's NL East title.
The Braves once again fell short of their ultimate goal when they were eliminated by the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. But Gonzalez certainly has reason to be proud after guiding his team through the adversity created by significant injuries and the fact that the club's two highest-paid players -- Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton -- both hit below the Mendoza line.
Gonzalez's contributions were appreciated enough that he stands as one of three finalists for the NL Manager of the Year Award, which will be announced Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network.
Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle stands as the favorite after guiding the Pirates to their first winning season and postseason appearance since 1992. But Gonzalez's candidacy is quite impressive, considering all that he had to overcome while keeping Atlanta atop the NL East standings for all but one day this year.
Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly, who led his club past the Braves and into the NLCS, is the third candidate.
When this season began, Atlanta was confident that the offseason additions of the Upton brothers would compensate for the absence of the retired Chipper Jones. But the Braves still entered the season as underdogs in the division race against the Nationals, who were the overwhelming preseason favorites to win the NL East.
As Brian McCann missed the season's first six weeks recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Atlanta got off to a hot start -- winning 13 of its first 15 games -- and never looked back. The Braves led the NL East by at least eight games throughout the season's final two months.
This march proved more impressive considering the many potential pitfalls Gonzalez encountered. Jonny Venters did not throw a pitch this season, and the club's other top setup man, Eric O'Flaherty, underwent Tommy John surgery just a few days after Venters in the middle of May. Still, the relief corps set a franchise record with a Major League-leading 2.46 bullpen ERA.
There was reason to wonder how the Braves would respond when Tim Hudson suffered a season-ending right ankle fracture on July 24. Two days later, they began a 14-game winning streak that was significantly influenced by Gonzalez's decision to put Jason Heyward at the top of the lineup.
Heyward was at the top of his game when his right jaw was fractured on Aug. 21. This injury forced him to endure his second month-long disabled list stint of the season.
Heyward's absence throughout much of September definitely weakened the Braves, who lost their bid for the NL's No. 1 seed on the regular season's final day. But the club persevered, splitting the 26 games he missed during the season's final weeks.
Cox certainly appreciated all that Gonzalez had to overcome on the way to leading Atlanta to its highest win total (96) since 2004.
"It was extreme conditions," Cox said in September. "It was a little hurricane going on for me. Fredi is in the top couple managers in all of baseball. He doesn't miss a beat on anything. I don't know how he did it this year. He, the coaches and the players all held together."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less