The sudden wake-up call in July, the mind-numbing 15-2 run in September, the otherworldly creature that seemingly once inhabited the body of Martin Prado — this is what happens when everything catches up to a team in one night.
The Braves didn’t lose a game Wednesday night. They suffered the mother of all market corrections. You figured maybe this would happen in December. You know, like maybe Yunel Escobar turns an ankle while hanging Christmas lights. Instead it hit during the final spasms of a playoff race.
What’s more unpredictable? That the Braves extended their postseason hopes this long, or that they probably were ended by Ricky Nolasco and a bizarre base-running mistake by maybe their best base runner, Matt Diaz?
The Braves’ wild-card hopes were badly bruised Tuesday night when they lost to the Marlins and Colorado won in extra innings. This one dropped them to the canvas. They lost again to Florida on Wednesday, 5-4, dropping them four games behind the Rockies in the wild-card race with four games to go. Their postseason extinction number: one. It will be a short countdown.
“We know we’re in real need of some serious help,” said Diaz, “not necessarily from the Rockies but maybe from above — maybe a miracle or something like that. It’s a sinking feeling.”
Do you believe … how it ended?
After five innings, the Braves trailed 5-0 and had struck out 12 times (including nine straight). They managed a final gasp for those few fans who 1) showed up and 2) stayed. They scored two unearned runs in the seventh and added two more in the ninth to close to 5-4. A walk to Nate McLouth loaded the bases with two outs, bringing up Prado. The first pitch was in the dirt. Diaz, who was on third, began to dart home, then stopped, then started back toward third, then hesitated and considering coming home when he saw Marlins catcher Ronny Paulino turn the wrong way looking for the ball.
“I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can make it,’” Diaz said. “When you think, you’re done.”
Paulino found the ball quickly. He threw to third. Diaz was done. So, probably, are the Braves.
Everything that went so right during a 15-2 run went so wrong for the second night in a row.
Question: Ricky Nolasco?
We can’t be certain if he was channeling Cy Young, Sandy Koufax or Walter Johnson. We just know he wasn’t channeling Ricky Nolasco. He struck out 16 in 7-2/3 innings. One more, and the Braves would’ve been eligible for aid from FEMA.
This is the same Nolasco who entered the game with a 5.32 ERA. Houston dented him for 10 runs in just over three innings last month. He picks now to get serious and ruin a party.
Mathematics says it’s not over. Javier Vazquez, who had one of his worst outings, said, “Obviously, we have an uphill climb.”
Fact is, it would’ve been an uphill climb if the Braves had 14 games left, not four. Diaz accurately pegged it when he called for divine intervention.
Maybe it figured to end. It just didn’t figure to end like this.
Nolasco struck out the first two Braves of the game, McLouth and Prado. Then he struck out Brian McCann in the second. Then things just got stupid. He struck out everybody in the third, the fourth and the fifth. When Adam LaRoche doubled to lead off the sixth, fans didn’t know whether to applaud or run onto the field and hug him.
Meanwhile, Vazquez, was getting rocked. He allowed five runs (three earned), eight hits, a home run, a wild pitch and hit a batter in six innings. In five previous September starts, Vazquez was a 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA. He has been the Braves’ best starter this season, leading general manager Frank Wren to marvel before the game, “He’s as solid as a rock.”
But on this night, Vazquez, Diaz and the Braves got sideways. Everybody was due.