When is a pennant race not a pennant race? Why, right about now.
The Braves trail Philadelphia by 6 1/2 games with 31 to play. (The Phillies have 34 games remaining.) There’s no pressure on either team. An illustration as to why:
Let’s say the Phillies somehow manage to squander their lead. Let’s say they do finish second to the Braves. To miss the playoffs, Philly would have to blow — pause for effect — a 15-game lead with 34 remaining. Because that’s the margin Philadelphia holds over San Francisco, the second-place team in the wild-card chase.
Not even the infamous Pholdin’ Phils of 1964 did anything resembling that. They wasted a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to go. But they did it by going to a two-man rotation — Jim Bunning and Chris Short — and by losing games in strange ways. (The Phold began on a night they lost to the Reds 1-0 when Chico Ruiz stole home.)
Let’s just take a deep breath and say: These Phillies aren’t going to collapse, and neither are these Braves. We around here can dream — “The Braves still have six games to play against Philly; what if they sweep all six?” — but that conveniently ignores the greater truth: The Phillies are one of two teams that haven’t been swept in a series this season, the Braves being the other.
It’s weird: The Braves are playing well and we’re about to head into September, which is supposed to be an exciting month, and yet the final weeks of the regular season figure to be just another round of exhibition games. The Braves lead San Fran by more than they trail Philadelphia. They’re getting in. Philly’s getting in. Milwaukee’s getting in.
The only issue in the National League is whether Arizona holds on in the West, and even that doesn’t stand to have an immediate effect on the Braves. They’re apt to see the Brewers in the Division Series, and the scariest thing about Milwaukee is that it’s really good at home. And it will have the home-field edge in the best-of-five.
(Does that matter? Well, the Braves held the home-field edge in every Division Series from 2002 through 2005. They lost all four.)
Until then, we’re all just waiting. Chipper Jones said over the weekend that the Braves’ 6-1 homestand against the Giants and Diamondbacks had the effect of allowing his team “to relax.” As odd as that might have sounded, it’s nonetheless accurate. We’re about to witness, of all things, a relaxing September.
By Mark Bradley