ST. LOUIS – Among the five National League playoff contenders, there are three teams surging and two sputtering a bit in the stretch drive. The Braves, as you’re probably aware, are not one of those surging.
They are 3-7 with a 4.40 ERA and 33 runs scored in their past 10 games, including six games with three runs or fewer. They are 2-5 on this eight-game trip, and need a win this afternoon or be swept in a three-game series for the second time in seven days, which is something the Braves had avoided altogether for their first 139 games.
But for those many Braves followers who are concerned, worried, angry or all of the above, and those wondering if there is similar panic or consternation in the clubhouse, or any other sort of negative vibe, I really don’t sense that there is. At least not much.
Sure, I heard someone mention today that he wished some players got as worked up over there recent losses as they were over the Eagles-Rams game that was playing on the clubhouse television today at noon. But for the most part, the overwhelming mood seems to be, the Braves are still in control and their season and goals are not slipping away.
“There has been some good baseball games, there really have,” Gonzalez said of the Braves’ recent stretch. “We just haven’t come out on the plus side of many of them.”
Then he was asked about Braves still being in the proverbial driver’s seat in the wild-card race, leading the Cardinals by 5-1/2 games and the Giants by 8-1/2 with 16 games left on the schedule.
Here, Gonzalez cringed a little. As he does everytime anyone has implied for the past few weeks that the Braves would have to totally collapse not to make the playoffs. He’s superstitious about this stuff, would prefer not to talk about magic numbers and games ahead, just as he didn’t like talking about relief pitchers having scoreless-innings streaks.
“You’d rather be up than down,” Gonzalez allowed. But, he quickly added, “You just want to win ballgames and start winning series. Seems like we haven’t had a series win in at least three now, because you can’t really count the doubleheader [Thursday’s twinbill sweep of the Mets]. We lost two out of three against the Dodgers, three against Philly and at least two out of three here. We’ve got to get back to winning series.”
But then he got back to his point about the Braves, in his view, not playing badly despite results that indicate otherwise.
“You talk to the coaches after a game and say, we’re playing good baseball games,” he said. “It’s not like we’re playing bad baseball. It’s just how it goes sometimes. I’m happy with the effort the guys are giving. You feel like it’s just at any given time, if somebody breaks a bat and scores two runs, it’s going to get everybody going.”
I mentioned to him that the Braves have wasted countless opportunities in recent weeks to move runners over or get them in from third base with less than two outs. If they’d done those kinds of things well, the 4-3 outcomes in each of the first two games of this Cardinals series might have been reversed.
On this point, he agreed.
“Those end up being big runs in a nine-inning game,” he said. “You look back and go, we could have had a run there. Or something else here, a wild pitch, something.”
Then, the seemingly inevitable caveat: “Looking at our team, I’m not concerned because we’re playing some solid baseball. Just rather be winning those games.”
I mentioned the same thing to Brian McCann after Saturday’s loss, how the Braves have not done “the little things” well like advancing runners and getting a guy in from third.
“Yeah, you’re right, 100 percent,” he said. “We haven’t done that well with guys on third base and less than two outs. Little things. But at the same time, we all know that. We’re working on it every day.”
Since anyone looking at the situation mathematically realizes the Braves are still very likely to win the wild card, I asked Gonzalez if the point wasn’t so much getting into the postseason, but rather going in with some sort of good feeling rather than sputtering to the finish line and then hoping to flip a switch and turn things around in a best-of-five division series.
“You want to go in with momentum, obviously,” he said. “But for us to stay in the driver’s seat and win the wild card, we’re going to have to go in with momentum.”
He meant that, they’re going to have to play better between now and the end of the season to clinch, so the point would be moot. But that’s necessarily true. Because the Braves could go, say, 6-10 the rest of the way and still clinch if the Cardinals go 11-6 or worse. That’s provided the Cardinals don’t pass the Brewers, in which case the magic number would revert to the Brewers and we don’t have time to get into that math right now before this 1:15 p.m. start.
The Braves will tell you that they grinded and fought through injuries and picked each other up during the course of a long season, that they played well to put themselves in position to make the playoffs, and that struggling for a few weeks hasn’t changed how they view themselves or how they see their chances.
“With two weeks left we’ve built ourselves [a lead], we’re up 5-1/2 games with two weeks left,” McCann said. “We know what’s ahead of us. We know we need to start winning some games. We’re fine. We’ve just got to keep playing.”
Whether they all believe that, deep down inside, is not something any of us would know.
But here’s the simple fact: The Braves could go 6-10 the rest of the way, giving them a 9-17 record in their final 26 games, and still win the wild card if the Cardinals go 11-6 or worse (which seems fairly likely given that the Cards still have a four-game series at Philly).
Going into the postseason with 17 losses in your final 26 games would probably not be the best thing for confidence and morale, right?
Then again, the 2006 Cardinals lost 14 of their last 22 regular-season games, then won the World Series. So who knows?
“Once you’re in, for me it’s a whole new season,” Gonzalez said of the playoffs. “It’s like the analogy of a hockey goalie, when they get in [the playoffs] and they get hot….”
The stretch drive: You know how the Braves have done. Here’s how the other four NL playoff teams or contenders have done recently.
– The Brewers have fared much as the Braves recently, going 4-8 in their past 12. They’ve scored two runs or fewer four times during a five-game losing skid before today.
– The Diamondbacks are the hottest team in baseball, even hotter than the Phillies. Yes, they’re beating up on mostly substandard teams, but nevertheless they have a 16-2 record .286 avg and 2.42 ERA in past 18 games, while scoring 90 runs (average five per) with 20 homers in that span. They are 16-3 since being swept in three games at Turner Field Aug. 19-21
– The Phillies are the Phillies, going 11-2 with a 2.37 ERA, 67 runs and 15 homers in past 13 games. They keep plowing through teams, showing no signs of coasting to the finish.
– The Cardinals are 11-4 with .281 avg, 3.22 ERA and 69 runs and 17 homers in past 15 games.
Speaking of the Cardinals, the Braves are just 3-10 with a 5.35 ERA against them in the past two seasons. The Cardinals have hit .280 and outscored the Braves 73-49 in those games.
And there’s this: The Braves are 0-6 with 18 runs scored in six games at Busch over the past two seasons.
♣ OK, I need to get this up before the game starts. I’ve got a couple of 9/11 stories to relate, from Chipper and Derek Lowe (who was with Boston at the time, and the Red Sox were rained out at Yankee Stadium the night before 9/11 and flew out of New York about eight hours before the attacks). I’ll try to post those later. For now, enjoy this tune from The Man In Black, which you can hear by clicking here.
“I STILL MISS SOMEONE” by Johnny Cash
At my door the leaves are falling
A cold wild wind has come
Sweethearts walk by together
And I still miss someone
I go out on a party
And look for a little fun
But I find a darkened corner
because I still miss someone
Oh, no I never got over those blues eyes
I see them every where
I miss those arms that held me
When all the love was there
I wonder if she’s sorry
For leavin’ what we’d begun
There’s someone for me somewhere
And I still miss someone
by David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog