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All-Star appearance highlight of McCann's rough season

Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann sits on the bench in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Braves' baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. Philadelphia won 7-1. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) 

Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann sits on the bench in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Braves' baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. Philadelphia won 7-1. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) 

Despite playing in the All-Star Game for the sixth time in as many full major league seasons, Brian McCann will hardly remember his baseball year fondly.

Who could blame him, in fact, if he wants to forget it all together?

It nearly started tragically, McCann's foul liner striking minor league manager Luis Salazar in the face during spring training.

It ended with the slumping catcher as part of one of baseball's greatest September collapses, with the Braves blowing an 8 -1/2-game wild-card lead and missing the playoffs.

"This is one of the worst feelings I've ever had coming off a baseball field," the Duluth graduate and Gwinnett resident said following the Braves' 4-3 loss to the Phillies in 13 innings on Wednesday night.

Buses were waiting outside Turner Field to take the Braves to the airport for a trip to St. Louis. But with their 16th loss in the final 23 games, the team didn't even get a chance at a one-game play-in.

It was a hard pill to swallow. Few took the loss harder than McCann. He knew he had been part of the late-season swoon.

"I feel like I let everybody down," McCann said. "I hit in the middle of the lineup. I'm supposed to drive in runs. I didn't do my job."

The Braves still appeared to be in good shape until Labor Day. But things had already gone bad for McCann.

The 27-year-old strained an oblique muscle on a throw to second base in early August. He returned to the lineup after spending just the minimum 15 days on the disabled list, but he was never really the same.

In his final 37 games, the left-handed batter hit just .180 and struck out every 4.2 at-bats. That isn't the McCann everyone knows.

"I've never seen him like that," manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

Did McCann come back too soon?

"I don't know. You could always sit back (and second guess)," he said.

McCann spent time on the disabled list early in 2010 because of eye problems and sprained his ankle in 2006. But this injury seemed different.

"I learned a lot," he said. "I want to be out there and I want to play. I just didn't get it done. It was just a bad month of baseball for me. I feel terrible about that."

McCann's final stats were actually better in some ways than 2010. He had 24 homers compared to 21 and his average was .270 after a career-low .269 the year prior. But his RBIs dropped from 77 to 71 and he struggled with runners in scoring position after the injury.

Still, McCann could win his fifth Silver Slugger Award as the National League's best hitting catcher. His OPS was .817 thanks to an on-base percentage of .351 and a slugging mark of .466.

That won't take away the sting of the season, though.

After tailing off late last season, McCann was determined to come into this season in better shape and he did just that. He lost about 25 pounds and was able to keep most of the weight off.

But the wear and tear of catching coupled with the injury took its toll anyway. Late in the season, he struggled behind the plate as well as at it.

"You don the tools of ignorance and you're going to have nicks and bumps," veteran third baseman Chipper Jones said when asked about McCann. "How bad he was hurting, I don't know."

McCann batted .333 in his first full season and .301 his third full year despite the rigors of catching. He came into this season with a .289 career average.

"Catching is a day in and day out grind and I've got to figure out a way to be at my best in September," he said. "I'm going to go back to work and come back better than I've ever been (next season).

"This is a year that I'll have to sit back and evaluate what went on. I've taken something different each year home with me, and I've come back and got better at it. So I plan on doing the same thing this year."

That, of course, will mean plenty of time in the batting cage. Right now, he appears lost for an answer to what happened to him at the plate.

Asked if he had been over-swinging trying to get himself and the team out of funks, he said, "No, I don't. ... I just couldn't really figure it out."

That goes for the Braves as a whole. They are still trying to grasp just what happened.

"With where we were in the standings and with the team we had, this is tough to take," McCann said. "Hopefully we'll learn from this and never have to go through a feeling like this again."