As the Braves flailed through the regular season’s final fortnight, losing more games than they won, one or two fans expressed the sentiment that they would rather this underwhelming team not make the playoffs than get in and get swept. Which overlooked the greater point of postseason baseball, which is:
Underwhelming teams can and do win.
Bobby Cox, who has taken the Braves to five World Series, says it himself: “We played better in three Series we lost than we did in the one we won.” He refers to 1991, when the Braves outscored Minnesota but lost Game 7 in 10 innings; to 1992, when the Braves outscored Toronto but lost Game 6 in 11 innings, and to 1996, when the Braves outscored the Yankees, but blew a six-run lead and lost Game 4 in 10 innings.
And now we recall the Series the Braves won: They faced Cleveland in 1995, and the fearsome Indians — with Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez — had hit .291 as a team. (The Braves had hit but .250.) The Braves won in six games. The Indians’ batting average in the Series was .179.
And there you have it, the reason the baseball playoffs seldom track a coherent course: Because pitching skews the results. Nobody gets to hit off a No. 5 starter in October because rotations become three- or four-man things. Almost nobody sees a truly lousy starting pitcher in postseason, and the bullpens tend to be good, too. That’s why October is, to borrow the baseball argot, such a crapshoot.
The team entering the postseason with baseball’s best record has won the World Series twice since 1998. A wild-card qualifier has won it three times over that span, most famously in 2004, when the Red Sox lost the first three games of the ALCS and were facing the best closer ever (Mariano Rivera) down a run in the ninth inning of Game 4. Boston won that night and every night thereafter. Who planned that?
The Braves might not look like much as a starting eight, but the guys they send to the mound are good enough to give them a chance. Derek Lowe, who’ll start Game 1 in San Francisco, was 5-0 in September and has won (in the aforementioned 2004) a clincher in both an ALCS and a World Series. Tommy Hanson had an ERA of 2.04 in September, and Tim Hudson won 17 games, including Game No. 162.
Writing for ESPN.com’s Insiders, Keith Law assesses the Braves thusly (link requires registration): “This is pretty clearly, to me, the weakest of the eight playoff teams.” As someone who has seen this team all year, I wouldn’t argue the point. But I would also submit that, in postseason, assessments don’t matter.
If you’re in it, you can win it. The Braves are in it. They have a shot. They have a heck of a lot better shot than do the Padres.