Even now, an hourly check of the standings is required. Because the first five times you look, you don’t really believe what you find. Two and a half games back with a week to play? The Braves? The Atlanta Braves? The 2009 Atlanta Braves? Pull the other leg, pal.
The 2009 Atlanta Braves are in a playoff drive. We around here had grown accustomed to playoff drives, so the sensation shouldn’t feel new. But this one definitely feels funny. It’s the chase from nowhere. It’s the finish we didn’t see coming and still in many ways refuse to acknowledge. Here’s a team that was 23-21 on Memorial Day, 39-41 on the Fourth and 70-67 on Labor Day, and still it has a real chance.
On the morning of Sept. 10 the Braves were 8 1/2 games back of Colorado in the wild card standings. They also trailed San Francisco, Florida and Chicago. They have lost two games since. They’ve gone 14-2 since Bobby Cox pulled Tommy Hanson after eight shutout innings in Houston and Rafael Soriano lost the game in the ninth. If anybody among us says he saw this coming, that person is a big fat liar.
The old Braves — by old, we mean the teams of last decade — could summon up such streaks on cue. They were never out of any chase. They trailed the Dodgers by 9 1/2 games at the 1991 All-Star break and clinched the West on the season’s penultimate day. They trailed the Giants by 10 games in July 1993 and clinched three hours after beating Colorado in the season’s 162nd game. But the 2009 Braves, as we’ve lamented at high decibel and impassioned length, were not those Braves.
And yet here they are. On Monday night they were to play Florida in a game that could well tip the odds in this final sprint from “possible” to “probable.” Colorado had the day off, which meant the Braves would awake Tuesday either two or three games behind with six to play. You can see the Rockies losing twice. (They lost three times last week, giving the Braves an opening. And the Braves didn’t lose at all.) But three times?
The figure filberts on ESPN.com still afford the Braves only a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs. (Up from 6.4 percent 10 days ago.) But Colorado has to be feeling the hot breath from Hotlanta. If any team knows how hot a team can get in the final furlong, it’s the Rockies. Two years ago they won 13 of their final 14 games to force a one-game playoff with San Diego, in which they trailed by two runs in the bottom of the 13th. Next thing you knew, the Rocks were playing the (Red) Sox in the Series.
At this stage, it’s hard to see the Braves losing even once in four games to Washington, against which the regular season concludes. Granted, this is baseball, and any pitcher is liable to shut down somebody without warning, but still … would you bet against any of the Braves’ pitchers in any game against the worst team in baseball?
The Rockies, by way of contrast, close with three games at Dodger Stadium, and an even better Braves foil was undone there 16 years ago. The 1993 Giants won 103 games but lost on the season’s final day to their nemesis in blue, and the Braves, watching on TV having polished off Colorado — Glavine pitched and Justice hit a homer, a parlay we would see again to dramatic effect in October 1995 — celebrated the most of improbable runs.
Or so we thought. If they pull this off, they’d trump even that wonder. If they pull this off … well, we’d all look a little silly, wouldn’t we? Silly but giddy.
And with that: I conclude my part of the writing for the time being and invite your comments, predictions, movie recommendations. I’m at the ballpark and will be happy to chat until the cows come home, as we say in cow country.