PHILADELPHIA -- The two best teams in the National League met in Game 1 of the series that could well decide the NL East. A clash of the titans it wasn’t.
The Phillies’ starting pitcher: Cole Hamels, most valuable player of the 2008 World Series.
The Braves’ starting pitcher: Brandon Beachy, a rookie who wasn’t on the team’s 40-man roster as of Sunday.
The Phillies set their rotation for this series so as to give each of their Big Three — Hamels and the two Roys, Halladay and Oswalt — a turn. The Braves didn’t know who’d start Game 1 until 3 p.m. Monday, when it was decided Jair Jurrjens’ knee was too sore. Said Beachy, speaking late Monday after two days of motion and uncertainty: “I’m here right now; two days ago I was down in Orlando [in the instructional league].”
The wonder was that it was even close, but this Braves’ season has been a series of wonders. They took a early lead and wasted a chance to make it bigger, and then their defense collapsed — Jason Heyward dropped a knuckling liner for a three-base error and Alex Gonzalez chose not to throw home and Brian McCann whipped a throw into center field — and Beachy was a loser despite yielding fewer hits and just as many earned runs as Hamels.
“I thought he pitched unbelievable,” said McCann of Beachy, whom he’d never caught before Monday night. “The atmosphere in this ballpark — you couldn’t ask for anything more from him.”
The Braves lost 3-1 on a night you maybe expected 13-1. Not that the result was much comfort to anyone in the visiting clubhouse, not even the 24-year-old who’d acquitted himself nobly. Said Beachy: “I’m not really happy with the way I threw the ball.”
This is September, which isn’t the month for nice tries. The Phillies have won eight in a row and look like the class of this and maybe the other league. The Braves are trying to rustle up enough players to get them into the postseason. The NL East seems all but gone now — four down with 11 to left — but the wild card is another story.
The Braves lead the Padres by two games and the Rockies by three for the right to be called the best among runners-up. “You want to win the division,” Cox had said before Monday’s game, “but it doesn’t make any difference at all [if you're the wild card].”
Truth to tell, this team bears the look of a wild-card qualifier: Gifted and gritty but not quite a complete team. The Braves are 9-10 in September and are scratching for runs, for starting pitching, for someone to play center field at a big-league level. From May through August they were able to mask some of their flaws, but the long season is catching them at last. At issue is whether the Braves wear out before the 162nd game is done.
It’s not essential that the Braves win this series; it’s imperative they’re not swept. One victory here would ensure they leave for D.C. and the season’s last road series with the wild-card lead intact. One victory would leave the burden of proof still in their hands.
But you look at the Phillies, almost at full strength, and the Braves, who are without Chipper Jones and Kris Medlen and now Jurrjens, and you ask: How are these teams still in a race? The Phils ace the eyeball test: They look like a championship ballclub. The Braves are a creaky aggregation trying anything just to get through another day.
That said, they’ve gotten this far, and they’re not about to stop. Someone asked McCann how the Braves would feel if they lose Tuesday and fall five behind with 10 to go. “I can’t answer that tonight,” McCann said. “We’re not thinking we’re going to lose.”
And maybe they won’t. But the pitching matchup for Game 2 is only slightly more promising. The Braves’ starter will be Mike Minor, a rookie with three big-league wins. The Phillies’ starter will be Halladay, who could win the Cy Young Award. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?