On Opening Day the ballyhooed rookie hit a three-run homer on his first big-league swing. On Tuesday an All-Star catcher not having nearly his best year stroked a three-run double to ensure that the World Series will start in a National League city. And it could — yes it could — be this city.
The Braves are having that sort of year. From Jason Heyward’s first at-bat to Brian McCann breaking the NL’s 13-year All-Star Game litany of failure, 2010 began uproariously and has gotten better.
Here’s a team that had no runs after 26 outs in its first meeting against the reigning league champion … and won by hitting three home runs in the next four at-bats. Here’s a team that trailed first-place Cincinnati by seven runs after eight innings … and won in the ninth. Here’s a team that lost nine consecutive games in April … and it begins post-All-Star play with a four-game lead in the NL East.
When it’s your year, it’s your year.
This is the smartest Braves’ team since the early ’90s. These guys work the count. They get on base. They don’t hit a ton but they hit for maximum effect. They didn’t hit at all back in April, but they worked their way through that month and have been a metronome since.
Since May 9 they’ve played 19 series; they’ve lost one of the 19. One. They haven’t dropped consecutive home games since April 21 and 22. They entered the All-Star break by taking four of six on the road from teams in third and second place. When everything turned in May it was permissible to wonder if this was just a club having a hot month, but May ended a while ago and June is gone, too, and here the Braves sit, four games up with 74 to play.
Not everything has gone right. Jair Jurrjens got hurt. Heyward got hurt and didn’t tell anybody until his average had dipped under .260. Chipper Jones has had to work to lift his average above .250. Kenshin Kawakami needed 15 starts to win a game. In the final week of June the Braves used a starting outfield of Eric Hinske, Gregor Blanco and Melky Cabrera.
And none of it has mattered. This is one of those harmonic convergences where the whole outshines the sum of its parts. The Braves are eighth among National League teams in batting and 11th in home runs, but they’re first in walks and on-base percentage, which makes this a Braves’ team unlike any we’ve seen. Their starting pitching has been as advertised, and the bullpen has been great.
Even with five All-Star selections, this isn’t a collection of stars. It’s simply a heck of a ballclub. The Braves went from last in the division to first in two dizzying weeks, and they’ve increased their lead by grinding out five more winning weeks since Memorial Day. The starting pitching gives them a shot every night, and the offense fashions enough runs to make it work. It’s not quite domination, but it’s absolutely the formula for winning baseball.
And yes, for winning a division. The pitching shouldn’t falter, and the hitting isn’t reliant on any one Brave. This is team in the strict definition of the word, a team that has patched the holes that were apparent in April. It’s also a team that feeds off itself. There’s a confidence among Braves, the confidence that comes from the sight of someone different — Omar Infante, Kris Medlen, Brooks Conrad — delivering when deployed. (And the subtraction of Yunel Escobar should only enhance the ambiance.)
It’s also Bobby Cox’s final season. The notion of a big-league club carrying a win-one-for-the-skipper imperative through a six-month season was always fanciful, but if gets down to September and the race tightens … well, these players’ feelings for their manager might well take hold.
Four games up, 74 to go. Can they hold on? Yes they can. Sure they can. I didn’t believe in March and April, but I’ve learned my lesson. And I’ve been around enough division winners to know this:
When it’s your year, it’s your year. This is the Braves’ year.