On the last day of the homestand, the Braves were shut out for the first 8 2/3 innings, came to within one strike of blowing a series to the worst team in the National League and watched as Chipper Jones struck out three times with runners on base (twice looking)
It did not start out as a blueprint for winning a division.
“Not pretty,” Jones said.
Didn’t matter. The Braves left town after a 3-1 victory over Houston on Tuesday to begin a seven-game road trip at Arizona. They were two games behind Philadelphia in the National League East (pending the outcome of the Phillies’ game at St. Louis Tuesday night), after opening this homestand four games back.
When they return, don’t be surprised if they’re looking down the rest of the East.
The Braves found an improbable way to win a game: Brian McCann hit a two-out, two-strike, game-tying, pinch hit homer in the ninth, and then he won it with a two-run, walk-off blast in the 11th. What followed was the Braves’ new tradition of a ceremonial dirt shower at home plate.
“I ate six pounds of dirt,” he said. “It was in my mouth, my ears . . .”
Earth, sweet earth.
It may seem strange that a win and a two-game sweep over the 15-27 Astros would be cause for such celebration. But the Braves strangely have had problems with teams not named Philadelphia. They finished a road trip by winning a series over the Phillies, only to come home to lose a series to the Washington Nationals, only to follow that up with another series win over the Phillies.
See where this is going?
Jones, who looked strong in the field but tentative at the plate after returning from a knee injury (“Cortisone is a beautiful thing”), said as far back as spring training that he was not concerned with how the Braves would fare straight up against Philadelphia. He was more worried about the lesser teams.
“This was very big,” he said Tuesday. “Philly in the first month and a half of the season played some teams that, let’s just say, are not towards the top of the standings. But they take care of business against those guys. They don’t just win those series, they sweep guys. We have to stop settling for just winning the series and sweep the teams we should beat. This series wasn’t pretty. But we did what we had to do. When we play the lower-echelon teams, we have to better.”
He referenced Washington. Since 2007, the Phillies are 56-22 against the Nationals. The Braves are 40-38. That’s a 16-game difference. Last season, the Braves went 23-20 against Washington, Florida and Arizona. That’s 6½ games worse than the Phillies did (29-13). The difference in the division race was six games.
On this road trip, the Braves will travel to Arizona (17-23), the Los Angeles Angels (22-20) and Pittsburgh (18-23). Two teams have losing records. It’s opportunity time. Philadelphia, meanwhile, will play Colorado (21-18), Texas (22-19) and Cincinnati (24-17). All have winning records.
Granted, it’s only May. But a little reassurance by the Braves against the weaklings would be comforting.
“You’ve got to beat everybody, and believe me I’d rather have a team coming in red hot,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “After the series we had against Philly, this was a nice thing to see.”
The Braves can thank McCann, who homered off two Houston relievers after starter Wandy Rodriguez blanked them for eight innings.
“Not bad for a day off,” cracked catcher David Ross, who had started to give McCann a day off. “Maybe Mac should’ve come in and hit for me in the seventh and we wouldn’t have had to go extra innings. When he hit his first home run, the first person I high-fived was Fredi for putting him in.”
World domination it wasn’t. But they’re in position to make a move now.
By Jeff Schultz