They’ve played eight times, each winning four. They’re scheduled to meet 10 times more, and there’s a chance they’ll face off in the National League Championship Series. And what might happen then?
Said Chipper Jones: “In a seven-game series against them in October, I’ll take my guys over their guys. Meaning no disrespect.”
Moments earlier, Jones had offered this: “I have no doubt in my mind we’re as good a ball club as the Phillies.”
Then this: “My worry is not about Philadelphia — it’s about everybody else. [The Phillies] bring it every night, no matter who they’re playing. We don’t do that as often.”
We saw as much this week. The Braves needed a come-from-behind walk-off victory to keep from being swept by the Washington Nationals. Two days later they’re positioned to take a series from the team with baseball’s best record.
Jones again: “The thing that bothered me about that Washington series is that we looked like we were sleepwalking. That’s the difference between the two teams. The Phillies don’t come into a series wanting to take two of three — they want to sweep.”
The Braves have put together a nice team. The Phillies have spent nearly twice as much to build what they hope will be another world champion, but this is no mismatch. These Braves could do as San Francisco did last October and derail the Phillies, with this caveat. Said Jones: “We’ve got to get there.”
Without Chase Utley, who’s due back soon, the Phillies still got the start they needed. The Braves didn’t, but they’ve spent the past three weeks making amends. By winning Saturday, they drew within 4 1/2 games of Philly, which is close enough for now. They still haven’t hit the way they should, but they’ve manage to outpitch the world’s finest rotation.
Said Brian McCann: “We feel like we have a great team. … We can hang with them.”
While waiting for the offense to arrive, the Braves have done as they needed: Help their pitchers by playing defense (which wasn’t a given) and by scratching out just enough runs. They’ve won 14 of their past 21, and at no time in that run have they appeared to functioning at peak capacity. And that’s a good sign.
Take Saturday’s game: “A lot of good things out there today,” said Fredi Gonzalez, the manager, and there were. Jair Jurrjens won his fifth game and went 17 outs before yielding a base runner. The Braves led 2-0 before making an out, Martin Prado and Nate McLouth greeting Joe Blanton with homers. (Said Jones, the third-place hitter: “I’ve had that happen two or three times before, and every time I’ve struck out.”)
David Ross, in for McCann, dropped a deft safety squeeze — it was Ross’ idea, not Gonzalez’s — to score an important third run, and that run was made possible by Dan Uggla, who can’t buy a hit, but who hasn’t stopped playing. On a day when his average slid from .199 to .196, Uggla had nonetheless beaten a force at second base by a hair and would score on Ross’ bunt.
Gonzalez: “Those are things as a manager you like to see. It’s easy to play when you’re getting three hits, but Dan is scuffling and still playing hard. That’s great to see.”
For the Braves, the good news is that Uggla won’t always be hitting .196. (Although we were saying that a month ago, were we not?) The better news is that the Braves have managed to ride out the Phillies’ flying start and hang close enough for it to matter. The Rockies and the Giants and the Cardinals and the Marlins are good, too, but the teams with the best rotations should bear up as the NL’s best.
Jones pronounced Saturday’s victory “the biggest of the year so far,” but Sunday brings another test. The Braves must face Roy Halladay, the best in the business. He’ll be opposed by Tim Hudson, who’s pretty good himself. There’s not much difference between these teams, and it might be until mid-October before we sort this out.
Provided the Braves can bring themselves to beat the Washington Nationals.
By Mark Bradley