The Braves handed out “Believe” signs to those who entered Turner Field on Monday, not that a lot of folks deigned to enter. (Attendance was generously — very generously — announced as 25,046.) But we can’t blame anyone for being slow to catch on. Not this team. The Braves themselves weren’t sure they were in a playoff drive until … oh, about five minutes ago.
We’ve seen some Septembers in this city. We saw the worst-to-first’ers chase down the Dodgers in 1991, and we saw the Braves pass the Giants in the final six hours of the 1993 regular season to conclude what many claim was The Last Great Pennant Race. But we’ve never seen one quite like this, and neither has Bobby Cox, who has seen everything twice.
“We got in it a little bit late,” he said Monday night, and by “a little bit” he means “at the last possible instant.” But here Cox’s team is, two games back of Colorado in the wild card chase with six to go, and that’s not all!
Cox again: “We’re only four behind Philadelphia [in the NL East]. With six to go. But that might be stretching it. That’d take a little miracle.”
We’ve already seen the 2009 Braves work a mini-wonder. They were 8 1/2 games behind Colorado on the morning of Sept. 10, not even in fourth place in the wild card standings. (San Francisco, Florida and the Cubs were ahead of them.) They’ve lost twice since. They’re 15-2 and playing so well they don’t even have to hit to win: On Monday they mustered three hits and beat the Marlins 4-nil.
“We’ve got a chance to do it,” Cox said. “We’re watching the scoreboard every inning.”
There wasn’t much to watch Monday night. The Rockies were off, and the Phillies lost big to the Astros. And the Braves were otherwise occupied watching Jair Jurrjens do his best Russ Ortiz tap-dance — remember Russ Ortiz? — as he worked into and out of trouble. And then it was done and the Braves had gained a precious half-game and everybody was left to wonder: Is this really happening?
Terry Pendleton has been in pennant races galore. He hit a massive home run off Norm Charlton to help the Braves overhaul the Reds in 1992, five years after he’d hit a massive home run to help the Cardinals fend off the Mets. (Who was the Mets’ pitcher that night in Shea? Roger McDowell, who now coaches alongside Pendleton.) But even the grizzled T.P. hasn’t seen one quite like this.
“The latest [point of pennant-race entry] was in August,” Pendleton said. “But we’d been up and down … We came home [over Labor Day weekend] and got swept by Cincinnati, and everybody else around the team — maybe not the guys themselves — thought it was over. But we went back on the road and played well and we showed signs.”
That was the pivot point. The Braves took two of three in Houston, then swept the Cardinals in St. Louis, then swept the Mets here. They lost two of three to the Phillies in what seemed another clear reversal, but they haven’t lost again. And they’re closing in on Colorado, which itself reached the World Series by winning 21 of 22 dizzying games in 2007.
“Guys have continued to battle,” said Pendleton, who was the battler’s battler. “We all believed we were capable of playing better than we’d played.”
It took them 5 1/2 months to figure out it, but they’re figuring like mad now. They’re two games out with six to play. They’ve got the softer schedule. They’ve got the wind at their backs. This can happen. It really could. As the signs said …
(And here’s a little something about Monday night’s attendance, or the lack of same.)