WASHINGTON – It’s a rainy, dreary day in D.C., but something tells me Braves players and staff weren’t about to let it get them down. Not after the day they had Thursday, when they were off and nonetheless moved a step closer to a playoff berth.
The Mets’ amazin’ six-run ninth inning – with huge contributions from ex-Braves Rafael Furcal (error) and Willie Harris (leadoff walk and two-run go-ahead single) – lifted them to an 8-6 win over the Cardinals and reduced the Braves’ magic number to five to clinch the NL wild-card berth.
With six games left, any combination of Braves wins and Cardinals losses totaling five gives the Braves their second consecutive wild card.
“I guess those guys over there [the Braves] are pretty excited about it,” said Harris, a Cairo, Ga., native who played for Atlanta in 2007. “But we come here to win no matter what the situation is, and fortunately we were able to come through and get that win.”
So five is the new magic number, and two games is the Braves’ lead over the Cardinals.
A total of four Braves wins and Cardinals losses would force a one-game tiebreaker that would be played in St. Louis, which would host based on its 5-1 record against the Braves. (Coin flips aren’t used anymore for these purposes.)
Acerbic scribe Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said it might have been the worst Cardinals loss in the 10 years that he’s covered the team. I’m sure the Braves know the feeling, having experienced something similar just last weekend in Atlanta.
It was only the third loss in 15 games for the Cardinals, who looked devastated in postgame interviews. Meanwhile, the Braves and their followers let out a collective sigh of relief, and plenty also did some whoopin’ and hollerin’ during that ninth inning if they were following the game.
One female Braves fan on Twitter wrote that she shouted, with her windows down, when Harris got his hit to put the Mets ahead.
So now where are we? Well, the Braves are in a better position, without question. It was only a half-game in the standings, but at this point that’s not as important as the full game knocked off the magic number and the schedule.
The Braves six games left against the Nationals here in rainy Washington and against the Phillies in Atlanta beginning Monday. The Cardinals have the easier remaining schedule, no doubt, with three against the Cubs in St. Louis and three at Houston against the 102-loss Astros.
That means the Braves finish the season against the team with the best record in baseball, while the Cardinals finish against the team with the worst record.
So you can see where knocking a game off the magic number yesterday was doubly important for the Braves.
It means if they could muster four wins in their remaining six games, the Cardinals would have to run the table to just to force a one-game tiebreaker. If the Braves went 4-2 and the Cardinals 5-1, the Braves win the wild card.
If the Braves go 3-3 and the Cardinals go 4-2, the Braves win the wild card.
And so on.
Not that it’s going to be easy. At all. (Has anything come easy this season?)
After going 40-20 with a 3.49 ERA and 4.5-run scoring average from June 19 to Aug. 25, have a 9-15 record with a 4.34 ERA and 3.25-run scoring average since then.
They are 4-8 in past 12, including 1-4 in one-run games. The Braves scored three runs or fewer in six of those 12 games.
It might make you all feel a little better to know the Phillies are banged up and playing their worst ball of the year. They are 4-10 with a puny .210 batting average and only 34 runs scored in their past 14 games, and have a 4.42 ERA during their current six-game losing skid.
But before they worry about the Phillies, the Braves must take care of business against a Washington team that’s playing its best ball of the season.
The Nationals are 10-2 with a 1.99 ERA in their past 12 games, includig a three-game sweep of the Phillies that ended Thursday.
In tonight’s series opener, weather permitting, the Braves will send ace Tim Hudson up against Nats phenom Stephen Strasburg, in his fourth start since returning from Tommy John elbow surgery.
The Braves have struggled to an inexplicable degree against the Nationals in past seasons, but have done better this season – 8-7 overall and 3-3 at Nationals Park.
♣ Facing Strasburg, Pt. II: The Nationals’ celebrated rookie has no decisions with a 1.29 ERA and .188 opponents’ average in three starts since coming off the DL, allowing nine hits, two runs, no walks and 11 strikeouts in 14 innings.
They’re being careful with Strasburg and his three starts have lasted five innings (56 pitches), three innings (57 pitches) and six innings (61 pitches).
That longest start was Saturday against Florida, when he gave up four hits and one run with three strikeouts. Nothing eye-popping so far since he’s been back, but it’s worth noting that left-handed hitters are only 3-for-21 with seven strikeouts against him.
The Braves faced Strasburg once last season, when they got six hits and four runs (three earned) in 6-1/3 innings against the flamethrower in a June 28 game at Turner Field. It was his sixth major league start, and until then he hadn’t allowed more than two runs.
Dan Uggla is 3-for-4 with a homer and four RBIs against Strasburg when Uggla was with the Marlins. Brian McCann is 2-for-3 against him.
For the Braves, Hudson snapped out of his recent funk with eight dominant innings of a win against the Mets on Saturday. He had 10 strikeouts and allowed only four hits and two walks.
Hudson had been 1-3 with a 5.55 ERA and .323 opponents’ average in his previous four starts, following a sizzling two-month stretch in which he was 8-1 with a 1.91 ERA.
The veteran right-hander has excelled against the Expos/Nationals throughout his career, going 13-3 with a 1.95 ERA in 22 starts, including 3-1 with a 2.16 ERA in four this season.
Laynce Nix is 7-for-19 with a homer against him, and Jayson Werth is 11-for-30 with three homers and 10 RBIs.
Werth hasn’t played since injuring his right elbow Tuesday’s doubleheader, but could return in this series. I’m sure the Braves would just as soon he doesn’t, because he’s hurt them even as his overall 2011 numbers have been disappointing.
Against the Braves, Werth 20-for-64 (.313) with six homers, 13 RBIs and 1.092 OPS in his past 18 games, including four homers and eight RBIs in 14 games this season.
♣ Where are seven-inning starts? Veteran pitcher Derek Lowe has become such a lightning rod for criticism that he was the focus of most fan ire after Wednesday’s 4-0 loss, even though he had what is considered a “quality start” while Braves hitters mustered just two hits.
(Personally, I think the quality-start definition – six innings or more with three earned runs or fewer — should be changed to make it a little more difficult. Make it seven innings of three earned runs or fewer, or six innings with two earned runs or fewer.)
Going through my scorebook over games of the past few weeks, I came upon a startling stat that says something for why the bullpen is so overworked: Lowe’s 6-2/3 innings on Wednesday marked just the second time in 23 starts that a Braves pitcher worked more than six innings. The other was Hudson last weekend against the Mets.
Think about that. Just twice in 23 starts over more than a three-week span.
Seems that “five-and-flys” have become the norm with their rookie-infused rotation during that span, and Fredi Gonzalez has not hesitated to pull a young guy if his pitch count gets up around 90 or he’s showing any sign of getting hit harder before or as he’s starting to go through the third time in the batting order.
Only Pittsburgh and Washington have pitched more relief innings than Atlanta (498). Braves starters have pitched more innings than only four NL teams – Nationals, Pirates, Cubs, Rockies — and have pitched 104 innings fewer than Phillies starters.
Philly has 18 complete games to the Braves’ three, and Phillies relievers have pitched 107 fewer innings than the Braves, or 21 percent fewer.
Here’s another stat that’s a bit startling: The Braves have used four or more pitchers (at least three relievers) in 34 of 45 games since Aug. 3.
The Phillies used four or more in only 18 out of 47 games in that same span, and four of those games came in the past week after they’d already clinched a playoff spot.
♣McCann’s worst slump: Brian McCann led the Braves in most major offensive categories before the All-Star break, including average (.310), homers (15, tied with Uggla), RBIs (50), slugging (.514) and OPS (.895) in 80 games.
Since the All-Star break, McCann has hit .197 (ahead of only Eric Hinske among current Braves) with nine homers, 19 RBIs, a .388 slugging percentage and .695 OPS in 47 games.
In 32 games since returning from the DL for an oblique strain, McCann is 19-for-113 (.168) with 14 RBIs, 27 strikeouts and a .299 OBP and .345 slugging percentage.
♣ OK, let’s post this and get over to the rainy ballpark. Did went mention there’s a 90 percent chance of rain the rest of the day and late into the night? And that tomorrow’s forecast is just as bad. Sunday, it’s about 70 percent chance of rain in last forecast I saw. Don’t know what they’ll do if they don’t get the games in, because they have to play them for playoff implications, obviously. It’ll be a long night before they’d postpone it, I have a feeling.
Oh, and before I forget, you’ve got to check out the latest video from Batting Stance Guy, which he sent to me this morning. Click here to see it. It’s him impersonating players who made Sports Illustrated “meanest players” list in a poll of major leaguers. He also reprises his hilarious impersonation of ESPN’s Pedro Gomez.
Let’s close with a great country tune that would never get played on today’s mostly awful country stations. You can hear it by clicking here.
“RIDIN’ MY THUMB TO MEXICO” by Johnny Rodriguez
This old highway seems so lonesome when you’re going where you’ve been
And the lonesome song will make you cry time and time again
If I had listened to a friend of mine ten years ago today
I’d have a better job than what I’ve got today
But the billboards on the highway and the brake-lights on the cars
Make me jump out on the highway with my bag and my guitar
If she comes or if she goes it doesn’t matter anymore
’cause I’m ridin’ my thumb to Mexico
Chorus: Ridin’ my thumb to Mexico
Well it don’t matter when or how I go
I’ll ride this thumb till I see her again
So I’m ridin’ my thumb to Mexico
Well the reason why she left me’s not the reason that I’m here
I’m a travellin’ kind of man just need a change of atmosphere
If there’s any place I haven’t been at all that’s where I’ll go
So I’m ridin’ my thumb to Mexico
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog