When you’ve played 75 games and nothing much has happened, you’re looking for that one good night. You’re looking for a start, a spark, a reason to keep hoping when you’re a good week away from even nosing above .500. Maybe this was that night. Maybe this was the start of something, if not quite big, then at least bigger than what we’ve seen.
The Braves blew a game against the reigning world champs and won it anyway. They won it because Gregor Blanco, who was playing only because Bobby Cox decided after batting practice that Nate McLouth shouldn’t, and Martin Prado, playing only because Kelly Johnson has forgotten how, mustered seven hits between them.
They won it because they outpitched the Phillies, which everyone does, and also outhit them, which you wouldn’t figure these Braves could ever do. They won it despite two horrendous pitches from Mike Gonzalez that turned a 3-2 lead into a 4-3 deficit. They won it in the way the Braves used to win games all the time but this team hasn’t yet.
They won it in the bottom of the 10th, and after they did Matt Diaz, who touched off the winning rally with a tough two-strike single and scored the winning run, said this sort of winning is capable of being replicated on a more or less nightly basis. “That’s what has been so frustrating about this team,” Diaz said. “We should be able to play this way more often that not.”
What way is that? Diaz again: “We got great pitching [six big innings from a rejuvenated Derek Lowe and clutch relief from everyone save Gonzo]. We got great defense. [Chipper Jones authored a beautiful double play in the top of the 10th.] We got timely hitting.”
And what, having done all that for seemingly the first time this millennium, were the 2009 Braves left to think? “That we can do this,” Diaz said.
The Braves began the day in fourth place in a five-team division, five games below .500, and then they trotted out a lineup that didn’t include McLouth (hurt), Johnson (awful) or Yunel Escobar (hurt). They got no hits from Brian McCann or Diory Hernandez but 13 from everybody else. They trailed three times — and how often has it felt a one-run deficit was insurmountable for these hitless wonders? — and hit their way back in the bottom of every inning.
Prado had four hits and four RBIs, and afterward Bobby Cox proclaimed him his starting second baseman. “Right now, yes,” Cox said. “He’s too hot to take out.”
And sometimes that’s what it takes to light a fuse: A utility guy is given a chance and renders himself indispensable. Three times Prado drove home a tying run, and in the 10th he hammered a two-strike pitch over the head of John Mayberry Jr. in left field to untie this one forever. Martin Prado, of all people, and he could have picked no better moment.
Diaz again: “We’re starting to play division games now, and someone has to win. We need that someone to be us.”
Just like that, the Braves are within four games of first place and within one of third. Just like that, a homestand that went flat against the Yankees and Red Sox has found a second wind. Just like that, a team that has had no reason to feel good about itself celebrated the best night of 2009.