Philadelphia — The most optimistic man in the world all but admitted Tuesday what has become increasingly obvious: That these Atlanta Braves have come close to maximizing a modest set of assets. Asked how he would remember his final club, Bobby Cox said: “This is the hardest-working team I’ve ever had.”
Not the best. Not the most talented. The hardest-working. And it has had to be. Because talent-wise this team at peak capacity was never a colossus, and the Braves haven’t been at peak capacity since Chipper Jones hurt himself in Houston. They’ve been making do, plugging leaks, fashioning a semblance of a lineup with retreads and duct tape. And you know what?
They entered play Tuesday with the second-best record in the National League.
We Atlantans have noted and bemoaned the slide from seven games ahead in the NL East to four games back, but we can’t have been totally shocked. A lot had to go right to get the Braves into first place, and a lot more was going to have to go right to keep them there. And it’s not as if this team has collapsed: For all its recent wobbles, it would still be leading either of the other two divisions.
The Phillies, who have talent to burn and money to spend, have showed their class. They’ve gone 16-3 in September, and on Monday one of their three aces (Cole Hamels) beat a Braves’ rookie (Brandon Beachy) pressed into service because Jair Jurrjens turned up sore. On Tuesday the matchup was only slightly more encouraging for the visiting nine: Another rookie (Mike Minor) against maybe the best in the game (Roy Halladay).
There are times this season when to look at the standings was to think, “Has this team really won that many games?” Because a list of the things the Braves don’t do well — hit for power, hit with runners in scoring position, steal bases, catch the ball — is longer than a recitation of their strengths, which have been starting pitching, relief pitching and pugnacity. And now the starting pitcher has buckled, which is why the Braves are 9-10 in September.
At such a time, the response is to ask what has gone wrong. In this case, it’s the incorrect question. We’re seeing a team that has spent nearly $60 million more for its roster assume control of a division it has won three seasons running, and we’re seeing a team that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2005 position itself to qualify as a wild card.
The lost division lead represents failure of a kind, but to harp on that would mask the bigger success. Even if these Braves lose every game from here out, they will have overachieved. Let’s return to Cox, who earlier this season described his mindset thusly: “You can’t win them all. But I keep thinking we’re going to, even though it hasn’t worked out like that in 51 years.”
Of this team, Cox said Tuesday: “The ball has bounced our way a good deal this year. You win that many late games and things are going right for you.”
Let’s note that this is the manager whose postgame briefings routinely include a recitation of all the balls the Braves hit hard that were caught (and all the bloops authored by the opponent that weren’t). Let’s note that this is a manager who expects the best no matter what. Let’s note that for Bobby Cox even to hint that his final team has gotten good value for its resources is close to a revelation.
And with that, the figurative phone lines are open yet again for your disagreement. (I know a lot of you blame Cox — or Frank Wren — for everything that has gone awry. I respectfully disagree.) I’ll be here to chronicle and annotate the events of Game 2 in this series, and I’d be honored to have you as company. And, as ever, I thank you in advance.