Last season they tried to keep advancing, despite enduring exploding parts. There goes an arm. No problem. There goes a leg. Just a limp. There go a couple of organs. Just a flesh wound.
Somebody tore his oblique. Can’t be that serious. Wasn’t it just like a week ago when nobody had ever heard of the oblique?
But eventually, they fizzled. Seven games ahead of Philadelphia a week after the All-Star break, 23 games over .500 and still clinging to a three-game lead on Aug. 1, the Braves’ body finally gave out. Their final spasm got them into the postseason as a wild card. But teams running on fumes don’t win the World Series. The starting lineup in their final loss to San Francisco looked like an old car undergoing some work – some original dinged parts, along with an orange door and two mismatched fenders picked up in a junkyard to make the exterior seem whole.
The Braves open baseball’s second half Friday against Washington (even if technically they’ve played 57 percent of the schedule). With Martin Prado set to return from a staph infection and Chipper Jones likely back in a few weeks from knee surgery, they actually will be able to field their intended lineup. We think. After what happened last summer, general manager Frank Wren may consider lighting incense or sacrificing a chicken in a pregame cleansing ceremony Friday.
“One thing I learned a long time ago is you can’t take any satisfaction when an opponent’s player gets hurt because you know that your turn is coming,” Wren said. “We have a good team. But we had a good team last year, too. It only takes one lunge to first base, one crash into the wall, one fastball up and in, to change everything.”
From June 10 on last season, the Braves lost (in order) Nate McLouth (head contusion; 33 games), Jason Heyward (thumb injury; 13), Prado (fractured finger; 16), the remains of Troy Glaus (knee; 14), Kris Medlen (elbow; 54, plus playoffs), Jones (knee; 48, plus playoffs) and Prado again (hip, oblique; five, plus playoffs). They went from 23 games over .500 (78-55) to a 14-20 finishing limp (playoffs included).
The Braves’ first division title since 2005 is a realistic goal. They’re 54-38 and 3½ games behind the Phillies, despite the fact manager Fredi Gonzalez has had to use 51 defensive lineups and 64 batting orders. They’ve lost Prado, Jones and Heyward for stretches. Heyward and Dan Uggla – two players expected to provide a bulk of the run production — have mostly floundered. But pitching has kept them in it.
The key to the second half? Other than obviously health, here are the five players who can trigger a division title (in order of importance):
♦ 1. Uggla: Entering the season, he represented something the Phillies didn’t have: a right-handed bat with power. His 15 homers at the break represent only a slight drop-off. But the batting average (.185) and the fact he’s hitting .179 with runners in scoring position is relative disaster. The Braves invested $62 million in Uggla because they thought he would make a difference. He needs to be that player now.
♦ 2. Heyward: You hate to put pressure on a second-year player. But when a guy drives in 72 runs and has a .849 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) in his rookie year, a lot more is expected in Year 2 than this: .226 average, 22 RBIs, .238 RISP, .720 OPS.
♦ 3. Jordan Schafer: He hits leadoff and brings something the Braves have desperately needed – speed. Therefore, he can generate offense even if some combination of Uggla, Heyward, Jones and Prado are injured or slumping.
♦ 4. Jones: His importance on and off the field can’t be overstated. When he’s hot, there’s a ripple effect in the lineup. But if the knee injury lingers, Prado can stay at third, and Brian McCann and others will need to pick up offensive slack.
♦ 5. Prado: He conceivably could go ahead of Jones because he plays almost any position. But health has been an issue (53 games missed since last August).
Their chances for a division title are good, a return to the postseason even better. But we’ve learned not to pencil in tomorrow’s lineup.
By Jeff Schultz