(UPDATED: 2 p.m., Monday)
Something became apparent about the Braves after they won their first two games against the Washington Nationals, and it wasn’t just the revelation: “Wait, they just won back-to-back games over the best team in baseball on a throwing error and a hit batter? Is this the baseball gods making up for Kenshin Kawakami?”
If you walked through the clubhouse, in the dugout or on the field for batting practice Sunday, a feeling of relative serenity for a stretch drive in September was obvious.
Nobody was stressed. Nobody seemed to be obsessing over first place — or, more importantly, not first place. Nobody was thinking about injuries or losing streaks or .200 batting averages or the recent ugliness of a wrong-way series in Milwaukee.
“Somebody said yesterday we have a magic number or something,” Eric Hinske said Sunday. “Really? Who cares?”
He said that. It’s clear they’re all thinking that way.
The Braves swept a three-game series from Washington, then left town to open a three-game series in Miami Monday night. The odds remain against them moving up or down in the playoff race, but the accomplishment of this past week led to some impressive numbers and, dare we suggest, a trace of optimism about October.
The series sweep gave the Braves nearly as many wins over the Nationals in 72 hours as they had in the season’s previous 15 meetings (5-10). They also went into the Miami game with a 10-5 record in September, which means they’ve already exceeded the win total for September last year (9-18).
“Everybody is asking me: Am I going to say something? Am I going to call a meeting?” said Chipper Jones, who singled in the team’s first run in the third inning and scored the final one in a three-run seventh. “If I thought there was any sort of panic or whatnot, I would say something. I just think these guys don’t need an overbearing 40-year-old father to talk to them right now. Let’s just strap it up and play the best baseball we can.”
The Braves were 8½ games out of first place in the National League East before the Washington series. They were 5½ out after. Temper the excitement. That means even if the Nationals only split their final 16 games, the Braves would need to go 13-2 just to tie them and force a one-game playoff.
Possible. But not likely. Then again, before the Braves circled the drain last season and blew their wild card lead, we were saying: Possible. But not likely.
Regardless, what the Braves just did is significant. They’re finally giving a sense that they’re prepared for the stretch run and the playoffs. That the team returned home after getting swept by Milwaukee and didn’t devolve into full meltdown mode against the Nationals is significant, especially given how it reacted in similar circumstances a year ago.
“I know everybody has a bad taste in their mouth whenever we don’t play well for a two- or three-game span,” Jones said. “They start getting all antsy. But we learned a lot from that experience [in 2011] and I think it’s going to be a good thing ultimately that we went through it. When we win something, we’re going to be able to look back and see the silver lining. Nobnody wants to experience that again. People are using that as motivation.”
Dan Uggla, who came through with a clutch two-run single in the seventh inning after popping up on a 3-0 count with two runners on base an inning earlier, said: “You could cut the stress level with a knife in here last year. There’s a lot of things that have happened that enabled us to get to the point we’re at now, whether it was experiencing what we did last year or having everybody healthy right now, except for [Brian McCann]. I think everybody is just more at ease. I think having gone through what we went through last year helps. We kind of joke about it. It’s just a very different situation, and what we’ve done in September shows that.”
Ultimately, the Washington series may not impact the division race. But the foreshadowing for October suddenly isn’t so ominous.
By Jeff Schultz
Instant re-blog (last 10 typings)