They haven’t quit. When a team in contention loses only its second home series of the season to a last-place club in September, it’s easy to make that allegation. But it’s not true. The Braves are trying. They’re trying too hard.
They’re trying too hard because they see a happy season slipping away. They’re trying too hard because the commodities that sustained them for five months — starting pitching and late-inning lightning — are failing near the finish. The two go together: Good starting pitching keeps a team close enough to win at the end. But now they’re getting too far down too soon, and a weariness has taken hold.
Had Wednesday’s game been played a couple of months ago, they’d have won it on gall alone. But too often lately they’ve been forced into rally mode in the early innings, and the capacity to keep grinding after 146 games of grinding would tax a roster far more robust than this. The Braves trailed 4-0 in the second inning and 4-2 after nine. “Four runs on one swing,” said manager Bobby Cox, referring to the grand slam hoisted by Justin Maxwell, an eighth-place hitter batting .132, off the rookie Mike Minor.
From there the Braves invented ways not to score. They generated 13 baserunners but saw David Ross hit into a 1-6-4-3 double play; saw Martin Prado end an inning with a single off Jason Heyward’s foot (an automatic out) and saw Prado end another inning after another single by getting thrown out after rounding first base.
In the seventh they got the break they seemed to need when Nyjer Morgan lost Eric Hinske’s pop in the sun. But Omar Infante bunted for a base hit and was denied when Ryan Zimmerman made like Brooks Robinson. Then Heyward broke his bat and Prado made a conventional out by whiffing. A gift became yet another fizzle. Said Hinske: “It’s just not really going our way right now.”
Well, no. But we might recall that the Phillies lost four at home to the sub-.500 Astros last month and turned around and swept the Padres in San Diego. The Great Rule of Baseball remains: Momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. And that’s why the Braves, who led the National League East by three games on Sept. 1, find themselves falling further in arrears.
They’ve lost nine of 14. Of the five victories, only three have gone to a starting pitcher — one to Jair Jurrjens on Sept. 4 and two since to Derek Lowe. The bullpen has been stellar; it’s the starters who’ve stopped holding up their end.
If that doesn’t change, the Braves won’t be playing beyond Oct. 3. Said Hinske, speaking of the nine-game swing that begins Friday in New York: “Our season pretty much hinges on this road trip.”
We obsess on the lack of hitting because it’s so obvious, but these modest Braves won’t turn into Murderers’ Row over the next 2 1/2 weeks. They have to win games 3-2, not lose them that way. They cannot keep falling behind and hoping Brooks Conrad will save them. They have to play from ahead and rely on these relievers to hold the line.
Said Brian McCann, who struck out as a pinch-hitter to end Wednesday’s misdoings: “We’re going about it the same way we did for six months, and we were in first place for five of them [three, actually]. Our season is right there in these next 15 games. We’ve just got to go do it.”
Asked what a team going wrong does to right itself, Hinske — who has played on three World Series teams — said: “You do everything the same. You keep working the right way.”
Some folks want Cox to turn over a water cooler and thereby Light A Fire, but the Braves aren’t losing because they don’t care. They’re losing because the method that worked has ceased to function. At this late date, they can’t close practice and install the Wishbone; they just have to pitch better.
It sounds simplistic, but this is baseball. The better you pitch, the more you win. If the Braves pitch better, they’ll make the playoffs. If they don’t, they’re doomed.