We’ve seen in sports how one athlete can seem to plug an entire franchise into a light socket.
One such occurrence came in 1979. The Los Angeles Lakers drafted Magic Johnson. There’s a great story about Johnson’s first game that set the tone for his career and that first season. The Lakers won their opening game on a hook shot by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the buzzer. They beat the San Diego Clippers, which generally doesn’t arouse thoughts of a postgame parade. But Magic was so taken by the moment that he ran and jumped into the arms of a stunned Abdul-Jabbar.
The story goes that Abdul-Jabbar — not the most excitable player in league history — then told Johnson, “You do realize we have 81 more games, don’t you?” But that moment set the tone for the Lakers’ season. They won the NBA title that year.
The Braves are only two weeks into the season. But what we’ve seen in recent days — notwithstanding Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the occasionally mortal Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies — says something about what may lie ahead.
If Jason Heyward doesn’t have the career resume of Magic Johnson, he at least has accomplished something out of the box: He has plugged the Braves into a light socket. When a team wins games like Tuesday’s come-from-behind, 4-3 win over the Phillies (punctuated by a three-run rally in the ninth that included a game-tying blast by Heyward) and Sunday’s 4-3 win over Colorado (similarly punctuated by Heyward’s two-run hit in the ninth) it becomes infectious. Everybody starts believing.
“Oh, we can hang with them, there’s no doubt about that,” Chipper Jones said Wednesday night after the loss to Philadelphia, the National League’s best team over the past three seasons. “We know we can play with them on a day-in, day-out basis. We just have to play as consistently as they do against teams that, on paper, we should beat.
“Even though we got beat, there was a lot of intensity. There was no quit in anybody. We were always in the game. We had our chances. We just got beat by a pretty good pitcher.”
It was set up for another comeback. They trailed 2-0 in the seventh and had only two hits through six innings when it appeared they would finally get to Halladay (4-0, 0.82). Jones and Brian McCann started with singles. Glaus, who had a two-run homer Tuesday night, struck out. (Back to normal.)
That brought up Heyward. Everybody in the stadium seemed to collectively inhale. Alas, he only walked to load the bases. Remember when a walk to load the bases used to be enough?
Yunel Escobar then drove a pitch off the mound and up the middle that appeared ticketed for a game-tying, two-run single. But Chase Utley dove to his right and flipped the ball to Juan Castro at second to start an inning-ending double play.
Still, the Braves are proving something early. Even with their early offensive deficiencies, they’re not going away. They don’t view this season as a mere chase for the wild card.
“We know we’re a good team,” Brian McCann said. “We left spring training thinking we can win a World Series. A series this early in the season isn’t going to determine whether we’re going to go deep in the playoffs or even if we’re going make the playoffs. But we can play good baseball and see where we are when it’s over.”
Is it possible a team with so many holes in the lineup can make a race of it?
Philadelphia has won three consecutive division titles, two consecutive pennants and a World Series in 2008. The Braves have missed the postseason four consecutive years and last won a playoff series in 2001. Over the past three seasons, the Phillies are 274-212, the Braves 242-244.
“The fact is,” Bobby Cox said, “you don’t worry about the other teams. You worry about your own house. You play the schedule and find out where you stand in October.”
And what of projections that this is the Phillies’ division to lose?
“I think we’re competitive,” Cox said. “… All we’re doing is going out and playing as good as we can every night. That’s it. That’s been my philosophy forever.”
Early reviews: This could be a race.