They’d suffered a bad loss late Wednesday, and now the Braves had to play an afternoon game against the team with the National League’s best record on a sweltering day. (Heat index: 106.) They won so easily as to make you believe there’s no way the final 10 1/2 weeks of this regular season hold any danger for this dauntless band. The reasons why:
1. They can pitch. It never changes. As long as you can pitch, you can win. The Braves won breezing Thursday — actually, they did some sweating, too — because Tim Hudson never gave the Padres a chance. He worked seven innings and yielded six baserunners, one of whom was erased by a double play. This isn’t a team apt to lose five in a row because the rotation won’t let that happen. Jair Jurrjens looks hale and hearty, and even if Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe haven’t been dominant they’re fine as Nos. 3 and 4 starters.
2. They’re buoyant. Not 15 hours after a sobering loss, the Braves had taken a lasting lead in the decisive game of a three-game set against an opponent they might well see in October. Said Billy Wagner, who blew a save Wednesday night: “Good teams are resilient. The heat out there today was awful; I guarantee you the Padres had never felt anything like that. We jumped on them early and kept them out there a long time.”
3. They’re daring. The key play of the first inning was the rookie Jason Heyward going first-to-third on Chipper Jones’ single to left field, which isn’t easy to do. (Heyward scored the only run the Braves would need on Troy Glaus’ sacrifice fly.) Said Bobby Cox of Heyward: “His instincts are off the chart, and he’s got some larceny in him. He’s not afraid to take a base.”
4. They’re clever. The 20-year-old right fielder is wise in the ways of older men, and there are a bunch of older guys to backstop him. Back to Heyward taking third: “You’d be surprised how many [left fielders] at this level can’t make that throw,” Jones said. “We’re a smart team. We steal bases at a very high percentage [69.5 percent, to be precise]. We’re very good at taking the extra base.” Then this: “We’ve got ballplayers. We’ve got guys with great instincts.”
5. They have a dependable shortstop. Alex Gonzalez, nicknamed Sea Bass, had four hits Thursday and made another series of deft defensive swoops. Said Cox: “Watching him play shortstop these past few days has really been special.” Jones likened A-Gonz to Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel, saying: “It’s great that he’s having a great offensive year, but what I want out of a shortstop is defense — to know that 99 percent of the time he gets his mitt on something he’s going to make the play.”
6. They have a healthier Heyward. He was hitting .251 at the All-Star break, but this is in no way a .251 hitter. He carried this team when nobody else could do a thing in April, and he’s capable of more heavy lifting. He hit .321 over the seven-game homestand. He will do even better very soon.
7. They have a working lead but they’re not impressed by it. Said Wagner: “We play as a team. Chipper has said it a million times, but it’s not one person keeping us going. It’s someone new, a new face in the bullpen, helping us win a game. And we worry about one game at a time, and that comes from the manager.”
8. They have it going in a way that makes you believe they’ll keep it going. They didn’t panic when they lost nine consecutive games in April. They didn’t wring their hands over the lost lead Wednesday night. They press on. They’ve won or halved 20 of their past 21 series. Said Gonzalez, on board only a week: “When you watch the way they play ball every day, you think, ‘This is a great team.’ ”
“Great” overstates. This is a good team that has come to maximize every resource. It isn’t without flaws, but after 95 games it holds the best record in its league. Gonzalez again: “We play hard. We do the little things you have to do. We want to put ourselves in position and see what happens at the end of the year.”
What will happen: The Braves will play beyond the 162nd game for the first time since 2005.