We’re seeing a different sort of Braves, and the difference isn’t just between bad and good. It’s the difference between professional and amateurish. It’s the difference between a guy who’ll take a pitch and one whose aim every plate appearance is to air-condition the ballpark.
“We seem like we’re a patient team,” Jason Heyward said Sunday. “We don’t give any at-bats away.”
The Braves … a patient team. When last could we say that?
Said Chipper Jones, drafted by this organization in 1990: “I never thought I’d see it here. Bobby Cox’s way is to sit back and wait for the three-run homer. This team is more suited to my liking — .300 hitters, .400 on-base percentages.”
The men who batted first, second and third in Sunday’s lineup — Martin Prado, Omar Infante and Heyward — finished the game hitting above .300. The man who delivered the tiebreaking single in the eighth — Jones, appearing as a pinch-hitter — has an on-base percentage of .399. The man who drove in the clinching runs with a triple off a lefthander submariner — Heyward, hitting against Pittsburgh’s Javier Lopez — has an OBP of .421.
Jones again: “It started to click when we got the best on-base percentage guys [meaning Prado, Heyward and himself] at the top of the lineup. [Brian McCann's RBI] numbers are going up. Troy Glaus’ numbers are going up.”
Even as we lament the miseries of Nate McLouth and wonder when Yunel Escobar will find himself, we must credit the Braves for this: They’ve taken a flawed batting order and turned it into something worthwhile, and they’ve done it in a way unlike any band of Braves in memory.
Jones: “We’re leading the league in walks by a pretty fair margin … In the past, we’ve swung ourselves out of innings. But now we’re giving the opposing pitcher a chance to beat himself, and sometimes he will if you let him.”
Said Terry Pendleton, the batting coach: “When you’re patient, you get to see more pitches, and it gives you the opportunity to hit the pitch we want to see.”
And this has been the time-honored Braves method? Said Pendleton, laughing: “I can honestly say we’ve been a team that swings first and thinks about it later.”
No longer. Maybe it’s because these Braves don’t possess megatons of power. (They’ve hit 40 home runs in 50 games.) Maybe it’s because recent imports — Troy Glaus, Eric Hinske, even Melky Cabrera — have American League backgrounds, and the AL way is to work the count for all it’s worth. Or maybe the patience of the 20-year-old Heyward has rubbed off on his elders. But something has taken hold.
Sunday’s victory marked the Braves’ ninth in their final at-bat this season. It was closer than necessary — they left 10 men aboard in the first six innings — but in the end it felt inevitable in this newfangled way. McLouth walked leading off the eighth and stole second. McCann walked as a pinch-hitter. Jones fought off a fastball and dunked it into left field.
“It got me pretty good,” Jones said, speaking of Joel Hanrahan’s delivery, but he put it in play. It’s uncanny how much can happen if you manage that simple act.
And now the Braves, who trailed the Phillies by 6 1/2 games on May 17, have a chance to lead the National League East by the close of business Memorial Day. “We haven’t been this close to the top in a long time,” Jones said, “and now we’ve got a chance to be in first place [Monday] after the April we had.”
This from a team that has a center fielder batting .184 and a gifted shortstop needing a 3-for-5 afternoon to nose above .200. This from a team that hasn’t yet gotten a win from two starting pitchers — Kenshin Kawakami, who yielded a tying homer in the seventh inning Sunday, and Jair Jurrjens, who’s on the disabled list. This from a team that was 8-14 a month ago.
These aren’t the Braves we’d come when they were taking those 14 division titles, but the 2010 Braves have started to win. Once you start, it gets harder and harder to stop.