You know the lead? The one I insisted they wouldn’t squander?
They’ve squandered it.
The Braves held first place in the NL East from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but they hold it no more. They spit the bit, as we say in horse country, on a wretched night in Pittsburgh where it rained buckets and even Tim Hudson couldn’t hold the line against the worst team in the major leagues.
After 99 days in first place, they now stare up at the Phillies. As of 10:26 p.m. Tuesday, the Braves went from leading the East to leading the National League wild card chase, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. What’s troubling, alas, is how horribly the Braves are playing.
Rick Ankiel has done nothing. Nate McLouth continues to do nothing. Derrek Lee has done next to nothing. Troy Glaus hasn’t done much since June. Those four men staff two fairly key positions, and at this late date you have to wonder: Would moving Melky Cabrera to center and the kid Freddie Freeman into a starting role at first base have a deleterious effect on a team that can’t score to begin with?
Understand: The Braves have 23 games remaining and are a half-game back of the Phils. That’s not exactly an insurmountable lead. But being ahead was important for these Braves, constructed as they are of kids and retreads and a precious few big-timers. The Phillies are shooting for a fourth consecutive division title, and they see it as their birthright. The Braves had cause to believe as long as they were ahead of Philly — as David Ross said last month: “It’s better to be the team being chased than the one doing the chasing” — but now they’re the club that needs to hop on its horse.
There’s no Chipper Jones to win this division the way he did in 1999. There are only two holdovers of uninterrupted Braves service — Brian McCann and Tim Hudson — to the last division title annexed by the local nine. When you’ve led this long and you lead no more, it’s human nature to doubt. But the Braves have fought through so much already that there’s no reason they can’t fight through this.
Yes, the Braves have lost two in a row to Pittsburgh, but it wasn’t so long ago — two weeks — that the Phillies lost four straight at home to the sub-.500 Astros. Then they went on the road and won five of six from San Diego and L.A. That’s what a big-time team does. It gathers itself and hits back harder. We’re about to see how hard the Braves can hit back.