Having spent my adult life being wrong about everything, I try not to be wrong in haste. When I err, I want to take my sweet time about it. And ordinarily I’m ultra-conservative when it comes to declaring a game beyond reach or a team out of the playoff chase, which is why I’m even more chagrined than usual.
Nine days ago the Braves were nine games back in the division race and 8 1/2 in arrears in the wild card derby. Over, I said, and it didn’t seem a difficult call. Too far to go, not enough time to get there. Infamous last words.
The Braves reported for duty Friday still a distant 7 1/2 games behind the division-leading Phillies, but that’s no longer the issue. By winning every game since Sept. 9, the Braves closed within 4 1/2 games of Colorado, which heads the wild card standings. They passed Florida and were but one game behind San Francisco.
“We’re still hangin’, man,” said Bobby Cox, the hipster skipper. Then this: “Anything can happen. All those years we were leading, we’d be up by seven games and I’d never feel comfortable.”
Fifteen games remain, but the improbable postseason drive absorbed a body blow Friday night. Ryan Howard, who hits two home runs every time he plays the Braves, hit two more home runs. The Phillies won 9-4. And the Braves’ playoff chances, which ESPN assessed before Friday’s game at 7.4 percent, dwindled to … I don’t know … 6.3 percent, maybe?
Nine days ago, there didn’t seem any disappointment left in this strange season. Then, for no apparent reason, enough elements coalesced to make the Braves look the part of a contender. They won seven in a row and we — well, some of us — started wondering: Will they? Could they? And for psychic fuel, the Braves had only to look back two seasons at the teams they’re chasing.
On Sept. 12, 2007, the Phillies trailed the Mets by seven games with 17 to play. On Sept. 15, 2007, the Rockies were 76-72 with 14 games remaining. Those teams met in the NLDS series. Colorado wound up in the World Series.
For the Phils, 2007 was the long-deferred flip side to the biggest collapse in the sport’s history. On Sept. 21, 1964, Philly led the National League by 6 1/2 games with 12 to play. That night Cincinnati’s Chico Ruiz stole home in a game the Phils would lose 1-0. They lost the next nine as well. They finished one game behind St. Louis.
Moral of our story (and I’m preaching to myself here, too): This is baseball, where weird stuff happens. You wouldn’t think a team that was 71-68 on Sept. 9 would have much cause to see itself as playoff-worthy, but a 71-68 team gets unaccountably hot at the last possible moment. Which brought us to the Braves.
“Our chances didn’t look good,” Chipper Jones said Friday, speaking before the game of that lost series to Cincinnati over Labor Day weekend. “You looked at the schedule we had ahead [three games in Houston, three more at division-leading St. Louis] and it didn’t look good. But we got through that.”
Of the Braves’ final 15 games, 10 will come against teams with losing records. Of Colorado’s final 15 games, nine are against sub-.500 teams. Contrary to premature pronouncements, it’s still possible. Not probable, but …
Said Cox: “Right now, we’re night to night.”
Friday night was a bad night. It was so bad Cox benched Yunel Escobar for not running out a grounder, so bad the Braves still couldn’t figure a way to pitch around Howard. At this late date, the Braves can afford maybe two more bad nights before it is, once and for all, well and truly over.
Escobar update: Cox indeed pulled the shortstop for not hustling after grounding to Chase Utley with two men on and two out in the first. (Indeed, Utley’s throw pulled Howard off the bag.) “A lapse,” Cox said.
And then, asked how a player could fail to run hard in a game of such importance: “He just has lapses. I think he forgets.”
And why did Cox wait an inning to pull Escobar? “I didn’t want to put anybody in cold, without having a chance to run in the tunnel.”
And now, here’s Cox on Howard: “[Tim Hudson] made two mistakes. The first was a split, and the second was a 3-2 curveball. We know what we’re doing with [Howard]. We just make mistakes.”
Why not walk him? “When?” Cox said. “With two men on?”
With the game on the line, it was suggested. Cox again: “He’s hit us. We just make mistakes against him.”