(Last update at 1:10 a.m.)
SAN FRANCISCO – The last time the Braves won a playoff game, John Smoltz outpitched Roger Clemens (I guess performance-enhancers didn’t work that night), Andruw Jones had three hits and a rookie catcher named Brian McCann slammed a three-run homer in his first career postseason at-bat.
That was five years ago, hardly an eternity.
So why does this seem like some scratchy radio clip from the ’50s?
The Braves opened the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants Thursday night. To understand just how drastically things have changed since their last postseason appearance in 2005 — an NLDS loss to Houston — consider that McCann is one of only three carryovers on the active roster. (The other two: Tim Hudson and Kyle Farnsworth, who doesn’t really count, and certainly most would rather not count.)
The 2005 team still had some punch but was on the descent. The 2010 team is one that has been hanging from a thread for months. We saw more evidence of that in Game 1 against the Giants.
San Francisco won the opener, 1-0. Facing two-time Cy Young winner and part-human Tim Lincecum, the Braves finished with as many errors (two) as hits (two).
The Braves have a hard enough time touching even normal pitchers with this lineup. So you can imagine how they fared against Lincecum. He struck out 14. Some, he didn’t humiliate.
“He’s different now than he was early in the year — he’s even better,” Matt Diaz said. “His slider was absolutely nasty. I don’t know where he learned it but I’m not happy with whoever it taught it to him.”
Are the Braves out of Plan Bs?
The Braves got what they needed most – terrific starting pitching. Starter Derek Lowe allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings. He was followed by Jonny Venters, who coaxed an inning-ending double play from Pablo Sandoval and retired the side in the seventh. The Giants managed only one run (a disputed one at that) and five hits off of five Braves pitchers.
That wasn’t good enough. The Braves’ potential undoing in the postseason figured to hinge on their erratic defense and anemic hitting. Both maladies continued. Lincecum allowed a leadoff double to Omar Infante. Then he retired 19 of the next 20 — 10 by strikeout.
He was so good, he was borderline illegal.
Injuries have wrecked the the Braves’ lineup, both offensively and in the field. Brooks Conrad (now playing second) committed an error for the fifth straight game (though it didn’t lead to a run). Rick Ankiel had an error. Omar Infante (now playing third) let a grounder by Cody Ross bounce over his glove and into left field in the fourth, allowing Buster Posey to score from second. The play was ruled a hit but even if Infante just knocks it down the game remains scoreless.
The Braves’ had only one legitimate gripe: Posey never should have been allowed to score. He had reached second on a stolen base, even though Conrad appeared to have applied the tag before he reached the bag.
Posey didn’t dispute this. When asked if he was safe, he responded: “It’s a good thing we don’t have instant replay.”
But credit the Braves for not excessively whining about the call. Lowe said, “I thought he was out but that’s part of it.”
Conrad echoed: “[The throw] was a tad up the line but I definitely thought I put [the tag] on him before he got to the bag. It was just a tough call. But obviously we didn’t get the job done offensively.”
How different is this from five years ago?
At least that lineup still included Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal, Julio Franco, Brian Jordan and Jeff Francoeur (he was good then). Relatively speaking, that was Murderers Row compared to the Braves’ lineup Thursday night. (No. 5 batter: Alex Gonzalez, .240).
The question now is whether the Braves have any special moments left in their bag.
This has been a strange but special season. Chemistry and resolve have allowed the Braves to overcome an early-season nine-game losing streak, a blur of injuries that took out two No. 3 hitters (Jones and Martin Prado), two starting pitchers (Jair Jurrjens and Kris Medlen) and others. They had to find a new shortstop when they gave up on petulant shortstop Yunel Escobar. They had to find a player with potential power when Troy Glaus seemed to age 10 years overnight.
All of that is why, when the Braves finally did clinch the wild card on the final day of the season, there was such an explosion of pure joy in the clubhouse, one seldom witnessed by even veteran players.
The unfortunate part is, we may never know how good this team could have been.