Regardless of where this playoff run goes — and here’s your public service announcement: The Braves are in a playoff run, but “I Believe” posters are stacking up in the warehouse, like Izzy dolls in 1996 — there are two things we can be fairly certain of moving forward:
♦ 1) The Braves will be legitimate contenders next season. Not the typical, spring time, everybody’s-happy-and-drunk-on-some-overblown-free-agent-pitcher kind of contender, which tends to last until mid-May, when the city’s baseball fans let go with a collective, “Rut-roh.” But the real, legitimate, they-can-play kind of contender. Because guess what? They can play.
♦ 2) Bobby Cox is not a moron.
Some of you already knew that. But for those who’ve been trying to drop-kick Cox into oblivion, I hope you’ll acknowledge that the old guy you believe is clueless and ready for shuffleboard and Green Jello Thursdays at the Daisy Hill Retirement Village is the same old guy who ran things during a 15-2 run that launched the Braves back into the playoff race.
Maybe he just got smarter?
“Maybe,” Cox said, smiling. “I always manage good when we have great pitching. That’s my theory.”
Good theory. By and large, it’s about the players. Always has been. It has been clear for some time that the Braves’ in-season makeover had positioned the team well for the future. It’s just that few expected the future would include this week.
Yes, things went in the wrong direction Tuesday. But they’re still here, and these days they are all channeling the noted philosopher, John Belushi (“Nothing’s over until we say it is!”) A 5-4 loss to Florida dropped them to three games behind Colorado in the wild card race and reduced their elimination number to three, after the Rockies defeated Milwaukee in 11 innings.
It’s probably safe to say the East Division chase is dead. Philadelphia’s win gave it a five-game lead with five to go (margin for error: zero). But everything else is still on the table: playoffs, World Series, I think even the Stanley Cup. I doubt nothing.
A better start from Tim Hudson (four run and two homers in five innings) would’ve helped against the Marlins. Still, the Braves rallied from 4-1 down to tie the score on Matt Diaz’ three-run homer in the sixth, before Kenshin Kawakami allowed the decisive run in the seventh. But these Braves have proved to be a resilient bunch. A team doesn’t win 11 of 12 road games and sweep three straight road series unless it has grown up. It has done so under Cox.
“Bobby didn’t get enough credit early on [in the 1990s] because of the names on the back of the jerseys,” Chipper Jones said. “When the names on the jerseys changed quite a bit and we were toiling at around .500, nobody said anything about that.”
There will be a ripple effect from this late-season run, regardless of where the Braves stand Sunday. They were confident going into spring training, but there’s a difference between confidence and having tangible evidence to back it up.
“If we can go 6-1 or 7-0 on this homestand, and basically do what we’ve been doing on the road, that’s something we can take into the off-season,” Jones said. “We can say, ‘Why not next year? Why not pick it up where we left off? Why not win two out of three against the really good teams and take care of business against the bad teams? Those are things we didn’t do early in the season. I realize a baseball season is full of ups and downs. But regardless of what happens, I think we’re going to have a lot of confidence going into next year.”
The Braves were on a 15-2 run before Tuesday. As even the always-confident Cox said, “The greatest teams in the world don’t do that, but the pitching’s been great, and we’ve had clutch hitting and great plays. We’ve gotten some breaks, too. It’s been an unbelievable run.”
We’ll know soon enough what it means for this season. But it’s OK to feel confident what it means for next year.