This is painful. The Braves are straining for the postseason and collapsing before our eyes. They’re trying to gain ground while losing men, and it’s excruciating to behold.
The final week of a six-month regular season — seems as if it has lingered six years, no? — began Monday at Turner Field. The Braves faced Florida trailing the Padres by a half-game for the wild-card lead, and as the evening progressed the home side learned that the National League East, which they’d led for 99 days, had been won by another team. (The unbelievably terrific Phillies clinched behind Roy Halladay.)
That meant one of the two avenues to the playoffs had been officially closed, not that much hope of winning the division remained after getting swept last week in Philadelphia. It now has to be the wild card or nothing, and the Braves went out and produced only a bit more than nothing over nine innings.
Brian McCann hit a home run in the fourth, and it was as if the rest of the team turned to Tommy Hanson and said, “There’s your run. Use it wisely.” And Hanson, who was splendid in a no-decision in Philly, was every bit as good this night. But that doesn’t mean he was the winning pitcher. He did the unthinkable. He yielded a run.
Yielded it on a bloop double to catcher Brad Davis, who was hitting .220 and who’d already struck out and hit into a double play, in the eighth inning. That’s how little margin for error any Braves pitcher has nowadays. One bloop and your victory goes ka-blooey.
Being the Braves, they flirted with a walk-off victory in the ninth. They loaded the bases for Jason Heyward, and a chilly night became Opening Day with the chant of “Let’s Go, Heyward!” resounding throughout Turner Field. But the rookie couldn’t oblige this time. He grounded to the pitcher, and a long night — the game was delayed an hour by rain — got longer still.
It wasn’t just long in terms of duration. It was long in the sense that Martin Prado, who has been the Braves’ best everyday player in 2010, managed to make both the fielding swoop of the year — a soaring backhanded grab to thwart Dan Uggla in the fourth — and maybe the most damaging out.
Prado grounded to the pitcher to end the fifth but didn’t make it out of the batter’s box. He collapsed in a rather inelegant heap and was escorted, gingerly, to the clubhouse. Later came the announcement: Prado had suffered a hip pointer in denying Uggla and had aggravated it while swinging. He was listed as the standard “day to day,” but with a chilling postscript: “He is still being evaluated.”
In August the Braves lost Kris Medlen and Chipper Jones. Last week Jair Jurrjens couldn’t make a start. Now Prado goes down in the season’s 157th game. Questions abound: Can the Braves possibly win a wild card without their fill-in third baseman and, if so, will they have enough healthy bodies to fill out a batting order this time next week?
The longer this game went, the more important it seemed. The Padres and Cubs were scoreless on the Coast, and surely the Braves couldn’t afford to cede any more ground. Derrek Lee almost won it in the 10th, but his towering drive was gloved on the warning track. Then it was the 11th and Nate McLouth worked a leadoff walk and moved over on Alex Gonzalez’s bunt, and now it was the other prize rookie with a chance to be the walk-off winner.
A wild pitch by Jose Veras moved McLouth to third, but Freddie Freeman struck out looking. That left it to Omar Infante, and he drove a 3-2 fastball into left field for a precious victory. But then the press trooped down to the manager’s office for the grimmer tidings: “Prado’s definitely going to be out a while,” Bobby Cox said.
Out a while. And five regular-season games remain. Yikes.
Update, 12:55 a.m.: The Padres, who have offensive issues themselves, lost 1-0 to the Cubs. The Braves lead the wild-card race by a half-game.