They’re very close now. In three days these Braves have gone from a half-game behind San Diego to assuring themselves of being no worse than a full game ahead when next they play. They’re very close to securing a playoff spot with a roster of kids and retreads and no-names who had no position until everybody started getting hurt.
On Wednesday they won their 90th game behind a pitcher the general manager tried to trade over the winter, a pitcher who has gone 5-0 in a month that began with cries for him to be sent to the bullpen. And Derek Lowe, believe it or not, has been a relative constant amid shifting sand. Of the nine players in the Braves’ lineup for the season’s 159th game, only three — Lowe, Melky Cabrera and Jason Heyward — started on Opening Day.
“It’s been awesome,” Lowe said. “When we left spring training, we knew one of the strengths of our team was our bench, but nobody knew for sure how things would turn out. The bench has turned out to be our savior.”
Said David Ross, the backup catcher who started Wednesday and who had three hits and drove in the first run: “Guys like Brooks Conrad and Omar Infante … they’ve been the MVP of this team.”
The Braves lost one third baseman in August when Chipper Jones tore up his knee and another Monday night when Martin Prado hurt his hip. Naturally, the third-string third sacker (the aformementioned Conrad) had a key triple Tuesday and an emphatic three-run homer Wednesday.
“[Prado's] injury just emphasized how amazing this team is,” said Jones, in attendance as counselor/cheerleader. “How many times can a team come back after losing an integral part?”
The answer: As often as is necessary. These Braves haven’t always had what they wanted, but they continue to find what they need. Troy Glaus has had only 14 at-bats in September, but his May changed the season. Lowe had spent one full season and five-sixths of another becoming the caricature of the overpriced free agent, but his September has washed away all transgressions.
Said Jones: “[Lowe] might have had one start all year that matched these last five.”
A manager who’s supposed to be ready for the rocking chair has juggled lineups like crazy — Wednesday’s was the 106th different combination deployed in 159 games and marked the first time Matt Diaz had batted third — and yes, the strain is showing. Said Bobby Cox, who turned 69 in May: “I wish we had clinched it a month ago.”
But this team was never going to do anything nice and easy. A dreadful road trip put a sweet season in peril, and what did these Braves do? Came home and put the Fish to the sword. “This series we really took it to the Marlins,” Ross said. “Our energy, our aggressiveness, our pitching staff setting the tone …”
Three games remain. Win twice over the weekend and the Braves will play beyond Sunday. The team that has appeared to have nothing left at least a half-dozen times keeps showing us it’s too stubborn to fall down. The team of 25 final at-bat victories and 45 comeback wins has amazed us all summer, and it amazes us even as the first chill of autumn descends.
Said Lowe: “The times I’ve been to the playoffs [with the Red Sox and the Dodgers], we never had anything like this. We never had a starter or a key pitcher out. This has been a very unique season, and not necessarily in the best way.”
Then again, who’s to say this isn’t the best way? Who’s to say this club of 106 different lineups hasn’t proved to us that there’s more to professional sports than big money and charter flights? For all the winning the Braves did during their 14-year run of excellence, they’ve never been so inspiring as this.
Said Jones: “There were times [this season] where I didn’t know if we had enough bodies in the organization.”
There has, however, been no doubting the heart. With three games to go, that fighting heart is pounding like a kettledrum.