Opponents used to come here shouldering the burden of proof. To reach the World Series, National League teams would say, you had to go through Atlanta.
The Mets would say it, and the Phillies and the Marlins. “And even the teams not in our division — the Astros and the Dodgers,” Chipper Jones said. “They knew they had to go through us to get to the World Series.”
Said Brian McCann: “For 14 years, that’s the way it was. But for the last three years, the Phillies have been the best team … They’re the team in the National League.”
The Braves haven’t graced a playoff game since Chris Burke hoisted Joey Devine’s pitch in the 18th inning into the Crawford boxes at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The date was Oct. 9, 2005. The Phillies have won the NL East three years running and have reached the World Series the past two, winning it all in 2008. They have become what the Braves, over those 14 consecutive first-place finishes, once were: The standard of excellence.
McCann: “We think we’ve got a great team. But we’ve got to go through them.”
The Braves and Phillies will convene for three games beginning Tuesday at Turner Field. The Phils arrive leading the third-place Braves by a game. Yes, it’s early. But it’s never too soon to make a good first impression.
“We found that out last year,” McCann said. “We ran out of time. If the season had gone another month, we’d have found ourselves playing in the postseason. These games now count just as much as the ones in September.”
Lest we forget, the Braves handled the Phils over the first three series last season. They won seven of the first nine meetings, including a three-game sweep here just before the Fourth of July that cut Philadelphia’s division lead to two games. Then Ryan Howard got involved. He hit eight home runs against Braves pitching over the final nine games, of which his team won six.
And this year? “Well, we know we’re going to have win the season series from them, which we did last year [10-8],” Jones said. “And if we do make it to the postseason, you figure you’re still going to have to play them — not in the first round, but the next.”
Such was the aura that once attached itself to the Braves: You couldn’t go anywhere until you managed to beat them. The Phillies now wear that mantle, and to their credit they’ve worn it well. They’ve sold out their ballpark and increased their payroll and made acquisition after clever acquisition — Jayson Werth, Joe Blanton, Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee (for three months) and now Roy Halladay and Placido Polanco. And when all else fails, they’ve got the big man hitting cleanup.
Here’s Jones speaking of Howard, who did to the Braves last season as Chipper himself has historically done to the Mets: “It’s one thing to pitch to him with nobody on; it’s something else when he’s got runners on and you have to pitch to him. It’s like [John] Smoltz with Tony Gwynn. Smoltzie could not get him out, and finally Leo [Mazzone, then the pitching coach] said, ‘You know the best way to pitch to Tony Gwynn? Get the son-of-a-guns in front of him. Then who cares if he hits a single?’ ”
The difference being: Gwynn was a singles hitter; Howard is a big bopper. But you get the idea.
The Braves themselves began to get an idea last season, not about Howard but about themselves. They were 43-31 after the All-Star break, and that was with losing the season’s final six games. “After the All-Star game, we realized what we could do,” McCann said, and now they’ve got a brand new reason to believe.
His name is Jason Heyward. The Phillies haven’t seen him in a real game yet, but they’re about to take a gander. Nobody of sound mind would dare suggest the rookie is yet on a par with the great Ryan Howard, but through two weeks Heyward does have one more RBI. Just sayin’.