MINNEAPOLIS — After they wrap up their three-game series against the Twins today, the Braves are headed to … what’s that? Home? What a concept.
Or, as Bobby Cox put it this morning: “Where we headed? I don’t know, where’s home anymore?”
That’d be Atlanta, where the Braves will get to sleep in their own beds tonight and spend a day off at home tomorrow before opening a three-game series with Tampa Bay on Tuesday, the start of a six-game homestand.
What’s made the Braves’ recent run more impressive is the fact that they’ve played on the road more than any other team in the majors, including their season-long 11-game trip that ends this afternoon.
After today they’ll have played 39 of their 64 games on the road, and after today the Braves will still be in first place regardless of the outcome of the outcome of this series finale against the Twins.
Then they’ll head home, where their .760 home winning percentage (19-6) is the best in baseball. That’s fewest home games, best home winning percentage.
Anyone can see where that’d be reason for optimism, since having the fewest home games today means the Braves have the most home games the rest of the way.
They are 14-2 in their past 16 home games and take a nine-game home winning streak into Tuesday’s game against the Rays, when Kenshin Kawakami will try again to get his first win.
By the way, I bet you all can guess who Kawakami faces on Tuesday, right? Of course it’s David Price, the lefty with the 9-2 record and 2.23 ERA.
The rest of the matchups for that series: Tommy Hanson (6-3) against righty Wade Davis (5-6, 4.91) on Wednesday, and Tim Hudson (6-2) against righty James Shields (5-5, 4.55) on Thursday.
♣ Wrapping it up today: If I eat Mexican good today, I will have had it for 12 consecutive days on this trip (I went out to L.A. the day before the road-trip opener). For the sake of continuity, I might have to do it, though it’s a little easier to find great Mexican food in L.A. and Phoenix than in Minneapolis.
As for the Braves, if they win today they’ll have a winning trip (6-5) and extend their streak of series without a loss to 11. The Braves haven’t lost a series since dropping two of three against Philly at Turner Field May 7-9.
After that, the last-place Braves trailed first-place Philly by six games. As you know, the two teams have gone in opposite directions since.
The Braves are 23-9 since that series, while the Phillies are 12-17 and have been overtaken by the Mets, who are 17-14 in that same period.
The Mets have won eight of 10 and are only 1-1/2 games behind the Braves entering Sunday’s games.
“They can’t lose,” Cox said of the Mets. “They’ve got a lot better team [than given credit for]. In New York they [media, fans] like to rip, rip, rip.”
The Braves are certainly a lot better than most of us thought in late April, when they were in a nine-game skid and the bandwagon was emptying quickly.
They’re playing now the way quite a few people predicted in the spring. Remember, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale picked them to win the World Series.
“This is the Braves’ year,” Bob said before Opening Day. “They have all of the ingredients to make this a special season, and come trade deadline, will do everything possible to make sure Bobby Cox’s final season is one that he’ll never forget.”
Well, I don’t know about winning the World Series or how much the Braves will do at the trade deadline. I do know they’re playing as well as any team in baseball, and have the feel of a special team, with players who believe in one another, pull for one another, and refuse to point fingers after a loss.
They’ve got good pitching, an excellent bullpen, the best bench they’ve had in many years, and a few hitters who tend to produce best with games on the line.
All ingredients that can turn a good team into a championship team.
Among NL teams, the Braves have the second-best average and best OBP in close-and-late situations (.273, .385). With runners in scoring position, they rank fourth in average (.277) and first in OBP (.390).
The rank fourth in bullpen ERA (3.29) and have the fifth-lowest opponents’ average in close-and-late situations (.232).
When you hit .273 to your oppoents’ .232 in the late innings of close games, you’re obviously going to win a lot of them.
One more thing: The Braves have turned it around on the road, where their futility in the early season was epic.
The Braves were 5-14 in their first 19 road games, with a .217 batting average, eight homers and a 5.02 ERA. In 19 since, they are 12-7 with a .275 average, 15 homers and a 3.11 ERA.
♣ Chipper’s finger: In recent years, the situation with Chipper Jones’ finger would be a huge story and major impediment to the Braves’ plans.
Not this season.
The veteran third baseman was scratched from the lineup Saturday and won’t play today, making it seven games he missed on the 11-game trip because of soreness in his right ring finger.
The Brave are 2-2 in the games he’s played on the trip, and 3-3 in the games he hasn’t (before today).
Chipper said this morning that they’ll see how he feels after another couple of days rest today and the off day, then might need to do an MRI or something else if he’s not better.
He took a cortisone injection June 5 that brought relief for a couple of days in the middle series in Arizona, but soon it was painful again.
“It’s acting up again. Not much else to say. The guys are stepping up, you know, in my absence. Doing a great job. So hopefully Omar’s OK and it’ll just be a couple of days for him. His foot’s pretty messed up right now, but it doesn’t look like something that’ll keep him out of the lineup for too very long.”
The Braves played extremely short-handed Saturday and will today, since utility man Omar Infante (foot) and Chipper are not available to play, and Brandon Hicks is with the team primarily in case they need a backup shortstop, not to hit unless they have to use him.
They do have, however, the not-so-secret weapon. The man who’s become this team’s Mark Lemke, with more pop. Yes, we speak of budding cult hero, Brooks “Dirt” Conrad.
He was a hero again Saturday with his RBI double and his well-executed squeeze bunt to bring home the last run in the Braves’ 3-2 win.
Here’s what Conrad has done in 20 games and a mere 30 at-bats since May 11: Hit .367 (11-for-30) with three doubles, three homers and 12 RBIs. He’s got a .767 slugging percentage in that stretch.
Conrad is filling in for Chipper today for the second day in a row. He found out less than an hour before yesterday’s first pitch that Jones was scratched and he’d be starting.
No worries, Conrad said. Then he came up big, with two hits, two RBIs and two sensational defensive plays.
“I don’t think that anybody in here has any less confidence with those other guys in the lineup than they do with me,” Jones said. “I think they’ve proven themselves more than worthy of stepping in and compensating for my absence.”
♣ OK, I had some other stuff but going to have to cut it off, since the game’s starting.
We’ll close with another classic from a mighty Minneapolis band, Husker Du. Damn, they really were great. And check out this video to the song.
“THESE IMPORTANT YEARS” by Husker Du
Well, you get up every morning
And you see, it’s still the same
All the floors and all the walls
And all the rest remains
Nothing changes fast enough
The hurry, worry days
It makes you want to give it up
And drift into a haze
Revelations seems to be another way
To make the days go faster anyways
We’re all exchanging pleasantries
No matter how we feel
And no one knows the difference
‘Cause it all seems so unreal
You’d better grab a hold of something
Simple but it’s true
If you don’t stop to smell the roses now
They might end up on you
Expectations only mean you really think you know
What’s coming next, and you don’t
Yearbooks with their autographs
From friends you might have had
These are your important years
You’d better make them last
Falling in and out of love just like…
These are your important years, your life
Once you’ve seen the light, you finally
Realize it might end up all right
It might end up all right now