PHILADELPHIA — They got the start they needed. Alas, they got nothing else. Heck, they nearly got no-hit.
They came here thinking one win — one crummy win — would leave them in good stead for the wild card. Instead they got swept. They weren’t overwhelmed in any of the games, which made it even worse. Three nights running, the Braves got to see firsthand how vast the expanse is between them and the Phillies.
“We got beat all three games,” Brian McCann said. “We were in every ballgame. We just got beat.”
Wednesday’s loss was sweet excruciation. Tommy Hanson matched Roy Oswalt for six innings, and Roy Oswalt was all but untouchable over his seven. (The Braves’ one hit was Martin Prado’s two-out double in the fourth.) In the eighth Jonny Venters opened by plunking Chase Utley, but induced Ryan Howard to hit into a double play.
Then Venters pitched around the right-handed hitting Jayson Werth, which made sense. Then he fell behind Raul Ibanez 2-0 and tried to throw a sinker. The ball didn’t sink. Ibanez, a pro’s pro, poked it into the left-field corner, and Nate McLouth overthrew the cutoff man and the Phillies had the run they needed. And the Braves had an 0-for-Philly.
McCann: “It ain’t easy for a left-handed hitter [meaning Ibanez] to hit a 95-mph sinker into the left-field corner. You tip your hat. And we move on.”
The Braves needed this game to prove to themselves that they could beat the Phillies when it mattered, and all it proved was that they couldn’t. Hanson did what neither of the rookie starters deployed in Games 1 and 2 could manage: He gave his team a chance to win. His team, sorry to say, wasn’t good enough to avail itself. His team is running on fumes.
The Braves had more errors (five) in the series than runs (four). Yes, they ran face-first into the Phillies’ Big Three, but if you plan on playing postseason baseball, you’d better be ready to face top-shelf pitching. All the Braves could think to try was another oddball lineup — McLouth in left and Rick Ankiel in center — against the Roys (Halladay and Oswalt), and here were the two-night totals for the twosome:
Thirteen at-bats, one single, four strikeouts.
“We couldn’t have done much better,” manager Bobby Cox said after Wednesday’s loss, and that assessment sounded at once pitiful and pithy. The Braves have tried everything this season and have gotten further than they probably should have, and now it’s down to this: Nine games to go, the wild card blowing in the wind.
McCann: “This is our season. We’ve got nine games left. We have to be able to get up for these.”
Motivation wasn’t the issue here. The Braves tried their best. The Phillies’ best was just better. Cox even broke with custom before Wednesday’s game. “I talked to the team today,” he said afterward. Then this: “We’re trying to win a game.”
They couldn’t win even once here, but late Wednesday they boarded a chartered Amtrak car for the trek down to D.C., where they’ll meet the last-place Washington Nationals. Then they return home for the season’s final week — six games against the Marlins and the Phillies, and the latter will surely have clinched the National League East by the time they arrive at Turner Field.
Meaning: For all that went wrong here, the Braves should still be able to draw the wild card. (With San Francisco losing in Chicago on Wednesday, the Braves were assured of staying atop the runner-up race at least another day.) They spent three days proving they’re no longer a match for the Phillies, but that’s no longer the issue. The Braves simply have to win as many games as they can and hope it’s enough.
Before the game, Cox had said: “I wouldn’t mind seeing a ‘WC’ [for wild card] up on the wall of our ballpark.” In previous seasons the Braves were always the team winning division titles and letting lesser lights claim the ‘WC’, but in 2010 it’s their only real hope. A big series was lost in egregious fashion, and now they move on.