When they were hanging banners for 14 straight seasons, the Braves had more than merely great parts. A team that wins so often and for so long develops a confidence and a belief that can’t be taught, it has to be experienced.
“You want to get back to that point where you walk onto the field every day and you just expect to win,” Chipper Jones said Tuesday. “That was something we had back in the 1990s and early 2000s. That mentality of, no matter what happens, things will fall right.”
The Braves may be at that point again.
Two years ago, they were hovering barely above .500 in early September. Then they rose, as Don King once put it, “from the media pallet of death.” They went 15-2 and pulled to within two games of the wild card lead, only to eventually start dropping parts on the highway. Last year, we watched a perfect blend of imperfect players get back to the postseason despite a blur of injuries and lineups. The last spasm in game No. 162 got the Braves in. They eventually lost to San Francisco, the team that would win the World Series.
They are better now. More importantly, the majority players on this roster can draw on success that their predecessors from the previous few years couldn’t.
Yes, on paper, Philadelphia has one of the greatest starting pitching rotations ever assembled.
But on the field, the Braves project like National League East Division champions.
“We’ve got to play the games – we’ve got to play 162 games,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said when asked how he felt about the fact most are picking the Phillies to win the East. “They have a great pitching staff. But we feel pretty good about ours, too. So in September, let’s see where we’re at.”
The Braves’ last division title came in 2005. It was the last time they hung a banner in Turner Field until team officials decided to commemorate last year’s wild card team with a flag on banner row — only the sixth of 17 wild card participants to do so.
“Making the playoffs is special and it should be recognized,” general manager Frank Wren said.
This team could be more special. Adding Dan Uggla gives the lineup the potent right-handed bat it needed. Jason Heyward is no longer a prospect — he’s a given. Martin Prado is as good an all-around player as there is in baseball. Nate McLouth looks better. Chipper Jones made it through spring without a limp.
The starting rotation isn’t Philly’s but it is top 10 — at least. Closer Billy Wagner is gone. But Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters might be good enough to fill the void.
Think I’m drunk on the Kool-Aid? Maybe. But a lesser team won 91 games last season with a lineup that on some nights looked like that old stuffed bear you kept as a kid, despite the missing arm and the partially detached head.
About the Phillies: They’re good. They’ve won the division four of the last five years. They have a ridiculous top four in the rotation: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt. (Joe Blanton is Gummo Marx in this exercise.)
But Philadelphia has significant issues:
♦ Chase Utley has been “their heart and soul for the last several years,” Wren said. But he has patellar tendinitis, bone inflammation and something called chondromalacia. That’s Latin for: “My knee hurts.” Utley has risked public humiliation by sitting on a stool while fielding ground balls. His goal is to be back for the All-Star break. Not his projection – his goal. Doctors don’t even believe surgery would help. They’re basically declaring his right knee terminal.
♦ Closer Brad Lidge may not pitch this year. He is one hiccup away from mutating into Mike Hampton. He has had elbow problems, knee problems, biceps problems. Now his shoulder hurts. His tombstone will read: “Doctor, it hurts when I go like this.”
♦ Jayson Werth is gone. He signed a ridiculous $126 million contract in Washington, but that doesn’t diminish what he meant to the Phillies. He brought needed right-handed power.
Philly is more than beatable.
Jones again: “They’ve earned that moniker as the team to beat. But as long as we’re in the mix and people are talking about us, it’s good.”
It will be very good.
By Jeff Schultz