(UPDATED: 11:20 p.m.)
Last year, they excelled at doing things the hard way. Not with stars, but with duct tape. Not with stability, but with an ever-mutating lineup. Not with logic, but with desire, heart and mojo.
The Braves returned to Turner Field for the first time this season Friday night against Philadelphia, a team that for the last four seasons has owned the National League East, a division the Braves once treated as their own Barcalounger. This team is more talented and certainly healthier than the one that was dropping engine parts down the stretch a year ago. But that whole concept of scrapping and doing things the hard way may be a difficult identity to let go of.
With their offense struggling through most of a 3-4 start, the Braves chose an unusual path to give their fans an early-season sigh of relief. They spotted Cliff Lee, this past winter’s major acquisition, a 3-0 lead, and then chased the former Cy Young winner with six runs and 10 hits by the fourth inning, winning 6-3 before a sellout crowd.
“That’s not exactly how you draw up,” said Braves pitcher Tim Hudson, who allowed three runs in the first two innings, then blanked the Phillies in the next 5 2/3 before coming out in the eighth. “Usually when you give somebody the caliber of Cliff Lee an early three-run lead, it’s lights out.”
Drama and implausible storylines defined the Braves in 2010. Why should this season by any different?
“That’s not going to change,” Chipper Jones said. “The bulk of the club from last year is still here. We have some new faces but I still believe this team, no matter where we are in the lineup at a given point, somebody is going to step up with a big hit.”
On this night, it was Jones. He had two meek ground outs in his first two at-bats, both with men on.
“I’m sitting over in the dugout and I’m thinking how disappointed I am,” he said later. “But I also thought that at some point I was going to have a big at-bat in this ballgame. I’ll be darned if it didn’t happen.”
With the Braves having scored three times in the second inning to tie it, Jones came to the plate in the fourth with the bases loaded. He crushed a drive to center field that went off the glove of the backtracking Shane Victorino and fell for a three-run double.
Somewhere in the owner’s box, a 69-year-old former manager probably yelled, “Way to go, kid!”
That would be Bobby Cox. The Braves’ retired manager watched the game from the owners’ box with, among others, President Jimmy Carter. It was a good seat, but not the closest Cox has ever sat for a game.
Earlier, he was on the field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch — to Fredi Gonzalez, of course. It was one of those passing-of-the-torch things.
The pitch appeared to be a ball, low and inside to right-handed hitter. Cox opted not to argue. It would’ve been bad form for even him to get tossed on a ceremonial pitch.
Coming off their first playoff season in five years, the Braves decided pomp and circumstance were in order for the home opener. They unveiled a pennant that commemorated the wild-card berth (the crowd didn’t seem too caught up in the moment). They had all of the players enter the field through a door in center field, amid fireworks, balloons and music. Then the Phillies quieted the house quickly.
Coming off three consecutive losses in Milwaukee might not hold a lot of significance in April, but it didn’t create much in the way of positive foreshadowing for the Phillies series.
The biggest concern was the offense. The Braves scored 24 runs in their first seven games, which isn’t awful until you realize 11 of those came in one day at Washington. Simple math: They scored only 13 in the other six games, and entered the night with a team batting average of .226.
Then came the start to this one: The Phillies had a 3-0 lead after two innings against Hudson. Handing early 3-0 leads to Lee generally isn’t the formula for success. But Hudson settled down after that, and Lee turned out not to be a problem. The Braves chased him with three runs in the second and three in the fourth. They dented him with 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings, including three doubles and a triple, the biggest hit by Jones.
Jones later was given a standing ovation after leading off the sixth inning with a single, the 2,500th hit of his career.
At first base, the Phillies’ Ryan Howard turned to Jones and said, “Man, that’s a lot of hits.” Jones laughed.
The rest was up to Hudson and the bullpen.
Much like Cox’s last team, Gonzalez’s first one with the Braves didn’t do things by the book Friday night. But that’s not a bad thing.
By Jeff Schultz