PHILADELPHIA – They’re not going to win the East. That fading dream was all but extinguished Tuesday night. They’re five games behind a demonstrably better team with 10 to go, which is another way of saying: Not happening.
But what the Braves cannot do is allow that five-game deficit to obscure the greater goal. They still lead the wild-card race. They’re still positioned to make the playoffs. To do it, however, they must not leave their heart in Philadelphia.
This was a big series for these Braves, and over the first two games they’ve been overmatched. They started two rookies against two classy veterans and paid the price. They flubbed most of the chances they created. They haven’t looked like a playoff team here, but they still can be one. They just have to remember how to play baseball.
On this night they forgot. Facing the estimable Roy Halladay, who needs little help, they nonetheless aided and abetted his 20th victory of 2010. In the third inning of a 0-0 game Rick Ankiel drew a leadoff walk, bringing to bat the rookie pitcher Mike Minor, who has never had a big-league hit. Everybody in the ballyard expected a bunt. Minor swung and grounded into a double play, prompting everybody in the ballyard to say, ”Huh?”
Said Braves manager Bobby Cox, speaking of Minor: “He missed the [bunt] sign.”
OK, it happens. It happens especially with rookies in pressurized games. But what to make of the most decorated healthy Brave, whose double off the wall nearly tied the game in the sixth and still left his team in prime position to equalize. Men on second and third, nobody out. Derrek Lee hoists a deep fly to center field. Martin Prado tags and scores. And Brian McCann decides to advance to third base and is thrown out by five feet. Huh?
Said Cox: “He thought he could make it … There’s no ‘coaching’ on that.”
Is it possible to focus so hard that you get distracted? The Braves were addled from the first. Prado and Nate McLouth both pulled up short and let foul balls drop ungloved. Prado fumbled away a grounder. Kyle Farnsworth threw a ball over Lee’s head. And McCann, who dodged the media after the game, had a passed ball. Only the Phillies’ inability to deliver the key hit — they left 12 men aboard — kept this from being the rout it should have been.
Minor was … well, not major. He threw 73 pitches and retired seven Phillies. He yielded seven hits and a walk. He left trailing 3-0, and he was lucky it was so close. He’s in the rotation only because Kris Medlen hurt his arm in August, and with Jair Jurrjens having missed his start Monday the Braves have essentially dispatched Hickory High School to face the Los Angeles Lakers. But that’s who these Braves are: A threadbare bunch assembled on a shoestring budget.
They’ve done well to get where they are. Indeed, earlier Tuesday, Cox called this “the hardest-working team I’ve ever had” and conceded that “a lot of balls have bounced our way.” It’s possible the Braves have run short of both talent and luck at exactly the same moment.
That said, it doesn’t take either talent or luck to play smart baseball. And these Braves still should have enough resources to carry them through these final 10 games and into the playoffs — provided they maximize them. Their better pitchers have to have only big starts from here on, and this limited lineup must muster some level of support.
There’s no shame in not being as good as the Phillies: Nobody else in the National League has been as good as these Phils for a while now. The shame would be in having what still can be a sweet season ruined by one dud series. The Braves need to win behind Tommy Hanson on Wednesday to prove to themselves they’re still capable of winning. It sounds strange, but here goes:
Having already lost the biggest series of the year, the Braves can still salvage their biggest win of the year.