It would have been easy for the Braves to slip on their rose-colored Annie sunglasses Sunday and proclaim that they’re going to shake the baseball world at its foundation, storm Philadelphia and miraculously come back to win the National League East title. The numbers say it’s just not going to happen.
“Let’s face it,” catcher David Ross said. “Even if we go in there and sweep them, they’ve still got like a five-game lead with 20 games left. So I don’t think they’re in any kind of panic mode.”
No. But notice the Braves also aren’t panicking? In fact, Chipper Jones would tell you they’re relishing a three-game series against the Phillies that opens Monday and he hopes the teams meet again in the postseason — because he believes the Braves can take them.
Start with this: In terms of the National League East Division race, this series doesn’t carry nearly the significance it did two months ago, when the Braves left Philly before the All-Star break trailing by only 3½ games. Since then, Philadelphia is 31-14 and has overpowered several small nations. The Braves are 7½ out — they gained a game! — after Sunday’s 4-3 comeback win over Los Angeles. They have only 23 games left to play. Division title — not happening.
But this series is not without importance. The Braves are a relative lock to win the wild card spot, and that means there’s a possibility of the teams meeting in the postseason. That scenario served as Jones’ launching pad Sunday. If he didn’t quite throw a flaming spear into the ground, he came close.
“We’re what –10 games back in the loss column?” he said before the Philly lost at Florida (which actually left the team only nine losses apart). “I think it’s safe to say the likelihood of them losing 10 games between now and then is slim. So we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we just want to go in and win the series. We want to play well against them. We want to sweep them. The more pressure we put on them, the better.”
Then this: “The only team that can really put any pressure on them and beat them somewhat is us. And I hope we get them head-to-head in the postseason. If we get them head-to-head, we like our chances. We’ve beaten their big three [starting pitchers Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels]. I’m not sure if any other team in baseball has beaten their big three. They’re a great ballclub, don’t get me wrong. But we’re not scared of them. It’s going to be a knock down, drag out [fight].”
The Braves can start thinking about the postseason. They’ve got an 8½ game lead over St. Louis for the wild card. (Their magic number is 15.) Even if the Braves go only 12-11 in their final 23 games, the Cardinals would need to go 20-2 just tie them. So the playoff berth is safe. (The Braves can’t play the Phillies in the first round because they’re in the same division but they could meet for the N.L. pennant.)
“I don’t think anybody is going to cry to their mom if we make it in as a wild card and not win the division,” pitcher Tim Hudson said.
The Braves have survived a blur of issues this season, most recently a decline in health and performance by their starting pitching. Still, they have gone a solid 28-19 since the All-Star break. That’s just too close to mortal to overtake the Phillies (who were 41-12 before losing the last two).
“We’ve had streaks where we’ve gone 7-1, 8-1, and not gained a game,” Dan Uggla said. “But we’re right where we want to be. Of course, we’d rather be leading the division. But we’re  games over .500. We’re doing all right. Our goal has just been to get into the playoffs. Then we’ll see where that goes.”
By Jeff Schultz