They’re exhibitions. They don’t really count. Except sometimes they do, kind of, and the Braves are hoping this is such a time.
“It makes for a good camp when you’re winning games,” Bobby Cox said Sunday, speaking on the bus ride back from Port St. Lucie, where his team had lost to the Mets. It marked only fifth time in 21 games the 2009 Braves had been beaten, and the first time all spring, according to Cox, his guys hadn’t pitched well. “One bad inning,” he said, sounding in midseason form.
Even Cox, who could find a rainbow in a sump pump, wouldn’t try to overstate the value of exhibition games. “Spring training is to get everyone in shape,” he said, not ready to take 16-5 as a predictor of impending majesty. And it didn’t matter whether the old Braves were 16-5 or 5-16 in Florida — they knew they knew how to win. But these are not the old Braves.
The old Braves never lost 90 for-real games. (We have to go back to the really old Braves of 1990 for that.) The old Braves never finished fourth in a five-team division and then experienced such a whirlwind winter. John Smoltz left and Derek Lowe arrived and Ken Griffey Jr. and Rafael Furcal got rerouted and Garret Anderson rolled in, and just figuring out who stands where was a chore. But now the Braves have some idea what they have, and they like what they see.
And that means something after an offseason wherein Chipper Jones was ripping the only employer he has known. It means something for the Braves to have seen how good Lowe really is and whether Jeff Francoeur’s open stance would avail him. (He’s hitting .350 and has struck out once in 40 at-bats.) They needed affirmation. They’ve gotten a daily dose.
“We’ve really improved our team,” Cox said, and yes, this is the same Cox who left Lake Buena Vista believing the 2008 Braves could win the pennant. But those Braves had geared up for one final fling. This team has been tailored to get better as it goes.
Cox again: “We’ve got a lot of good young kids in camp. People are going to be really excited when they see them.” (And no, he won’t say if Tommy Hanson will make the 25-man roster.)
Granted, it would have been better had Jones not gone 0-for-10 at the World Baseball Classic and tweaked his oblique to boot, but Chipper, as we know, can tweak anything at any time. And the WBC-induced absences of Jones and Brian McCann gave other Braves a chance to get longer looks, and that’s never a bad thing.
There’s also this: “With the economy, it never hurts to win,” Cox said. “Maybe we’ll sell some tickets.”
Should they lose three straight in Philadelphia two weeks hence, any good Disney vibes will be gone. That said, you’d rather have had the Braves’ spring than, say, the Phillies’. (Questions about the health of Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, and a 50-game substance-related suspension for reliever J.C. Romero.)
And consider the spring endured by the Braves’ spring neighbors. The Houston Astros are 4-16-3 and went three weeks between victories. When the Braves and Expos shared a stadium in West Palm Beach, the team with the better exhibition record would claim something known as the Mayor’s Trophy. Said general manager Frank Wren, speaking last week: “I think we’ve clinched the Kissimmee Cup.”
He was kidding. There’s no such thing. But maybe there is such a thing as a meaningful exhibition season, and maybe this is it.