We saw a week’s worth of October baseball in August, and what we saw tells us these Braves will be playing for more than a week when October comes. We didn’t just see them win the week. We saw them dominate.
They played seven games. They won six. Four of the victories came by one run. Two, Sunday’s included, finished 1-nil. These were the same manner of games the Braves played against San Francisco last fall, and they weren’t quite good enough — largely because they weren’t healthy enough — then. They’re good enough now.
October baseball is like World Cup soccer. (Hence the “1-nil” reference.) You have to score when you have a chance and keep the other guy from scoring when he gets his. The Braves won Sunday because Alex Gonzalez hit a home run, just as Chipper Jones had hit a home run off Tim Lincecum three days earlier, and because this team is tenacious enough to hold a one-run lead.
Said Fredi Gonzalez, the manager: “Our whole thing is, ‘Just get in.’ We feel like we have enough pitching to win in a short series. We can match up No. 1 and No. 2 against anybody.”
This week all but assured the Braves of a postseason berth. They lead the wild-card hunt by eight games with 34 remaining. They’re not blowing that. “It’s what we needed,” Chipper Jones said. “It allows us to relax and set our sights on the division [title].”
But winning the division doesn’t really matter. All that counts is being in position to play beyond the 162nd game. Then, as the cliche goes, everybody starts anew. And the Braves will be accustomed to what awaits them as anyone.
Said Chipper: “We’ve been playing playoff baseball for a long time now. The bottom line is that we’re not going to go out and score 10 runs very often. But we can go out and shut people down on the mound and defensively.”
Tim Hudson was great Sunday: Seven innings, three hits yielded. He wobbled only once. Kelly Johnson tripled to lead off the sixth, but he didn’t score. Heck, he wound up being the inning’s third out. Hudson induced Willie Bloomquist to ground to short. Then Freddie Freeman, the National League’s second-best rookie, gloved Chris Young’s foul pop while running away from the plate. Whirling, Freeman threw in the general direction of home. Brian McCann took the throw and lunged to tag Johnson. Hudson pumped his fist several times.
In the ninth, the National League’s best rookie did his own wriggling. First and third, one down. Craig Kimbrel struck out Paul Goldschmidt with a 99-mph fastball and Sean Burroughs on an 89-mph slider. Stirring stuff all around.
Let’s be honest: The Phillies are a tremendous team. But let’s also note that tremendous regular seasons don’t guarantee anything in October. (Ask the Braves.) These Braves are suited to October in a way not many of their predecessors were: The splendid pitching doesn’t end when the starter exits. If anything, it’s only beginning: Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters and now Arodys Vizcaino — he could be huge in the postseason — and finally Kimbrel.
Chipper again: “We can shorten games. It’s a race to the end of the sixth inning against us. If we’re winning then, we’ve got a 95 to 100 percent chance. If we’re tied or losing by a run, it’s a tossup.”
That was the Yankee Way under Joe Torre: Get a lead, nurse a lead, hold the lead. It helped that the Yankees had Mariano Rivera, the greatest reliever ever, but that’s October baseball. The team with the better bullpen tends to win. That’s why the Braves of the past 20 years, for all their starting pitching, took the World Series but once.
This is not the most gifted Braves team of recent vintage, but it might be the best-equipped to handle the playoffs. We now have every reason to believe this bunch won’t just make the playoffs but will win its Division Series. And then they’ll see the Phillies in the NLCS, and even then you have to like the Braves’ chances.
Just as the Phillies remind us of the Braves of the ’90s, don’t these Braves bear a resemblance to those Yankees? Refresh my memory: Who won when those two met?
By Mark Bradley