It had been nine years since the Braves played host to the New York Yankees. In that 2000 season, they turned out to be division champions (again) but hit the wall in the playoffs (again). The Yankees won the World Series (again).
When Tuesday arrived, both teams were struggling with identity issues. New York hasn’t won a title since 2000, while nobody in Atlanta has been allowed to complain about little division flags in the past three. But at least one seemed to recall what success felt like.
Looking to the future with, well, their future, the Braves got 5-1/3 innings of shutout ball from rookie Tommy Hanson on Tuesday night. They blanked the Yankees 4-0.
This win follows a shutout of the Chicago Cubs the night before, which followed a competitive series (albeit two losses) in Boston last weekend.
The obvious question: Is this it?
Is this when a team that largely has been mediocre since those bubbly days in Orlando finally makes a move?
“We’re playing good baseball,” catcher Brian McCann said.
And, you know, it really is that simple (Chipper Jones’ drop of a throw for an error, notwithstanding). Effective starting pitching. A shut-down effort by the bullpen. Timely hitting by McCann (run-scoring double and a homer) and Garret Anderson (two-run double).
Remember when it used to come together like that all the time?
This one started with Hanson — a rookie pitcher facing a star-laden lineup on a $201 million roster (a payroll that more than doubles the Braves). Turner Field was mostly packed, but by the sound of it, one-third were from the Bronx. It’s no wonder Hanson got a little overexcited at times. That led to control issues (five walks and a hit batter). He was over 50 pitches by the third inning and at 99 with one out and two on in the sixth, when he was pulled.
But as much as Hanson pitched into problems, he pitched out of them. The Yankees left the bases loaded in the second and fourth. They stranded eight runners in a three-inning span. They left two more on (belonging to Hanson) in the sixth, when Peter Moylan got Derek Jeter to bounce into an inning-ending double play.
“Really, the walks are something I’ve never experienced before,” Hanson said. “I know what I’m doing wrong. I just need to slow myself down. I’m just making it harder on myself than it could be. That being said, none of those guys scored. I got out of there with some zeroes.”
In his first major-league start two weeks ago, he was slammed for three homers and seven runs (six earned) in six innings. But look at what has happened since: Three straight wins, two runs allowed in 17 innings and 14 straight shutout innings.
If an improbable postseason run is coming, what happened Tuesday against the Yankees can’t be an aberration. It has to be closer to the norm.
The season, as described by general manager Frank Wren, has been a grind. The pitching, which has been generally solid, has been negated by the offense, which has been generally anemic. The biggest stories have centered on demotions, trade rumors and outright releases.
This is not just another week for the Braves because a few games under .500 in late June isn’t going to get it done for a team serious about winning the division. They have to send up some sort of flare.
Could this be it?