Brian McCann had a question for your apparently skittish correspondent. “Are you panicking?” he said. “Don’t be panicking on us.”
Let the record also reflect that Mr. McCann was smiling as he spoke. The wild-card race has tightened, but nobody could describe these Braves as tight. Recent reversals notwithstanding, they believe they’re going to win.
Said McCann, more seriously now: “If you’d told us in spring training we’d be 4 1/2 up with two weeks to go, we’d have taken it. Every team in baseball would have taken it. We’re fine. Nobody’s panicking.”
(About which, a digression. In the history of sports coverage, has any athlete/manager/coach ever responded to the question, “Are you panicking?” in the affirmative? Did Gene Mauch, who went to a two-man rotation of Jim Bunning and Chris Short during the infamous Philly Phlop of 1964, admit his panicky move was a panicky move? To panic is to run around like a roaring chicken, and who’s going to admit to that?)
We mention the Philly Phlop because it remains the fool’s-good standard for baseball collapses: Twelve games to go, 6 1/2 games in front, whoops! If these Braves endeavor to miss the postseason, they’ll warrant a lasting place on that same bottom shelf. They led by 8 1/2 games with 22 to play, and entering play Monday night they lead by 4 1/2 with 15 remaining. They hadn’t been swept in a series all season, and they got swept twice in one week, the second coming in the one place they couldn’t afford to get swept.
Had the Braves won just once in St. Louis over the weekend, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That once should have come Friday night, but the great Craig Kimbrel blew his first save since June 8 as the even greater Albert Pujols tied matters with two out in the ninth. Winning then would have pushed the lead back to 8 1/2 games and spared everyone the need to inquire about panic.
Said McCann: “It just happens … you can’t explain it.”
It does, and you can’t. This season has been almost numbing in its overall consistency (if not its details). The Braves settled in behind Philadelphia in April and have stayed there, which is no disgrace, and for much of that time they held the second-best record in the National League. It’s rare that a wild-card race becomes a runaway, but the Braves came close to rendering it one. And then two starting pitchers got hurt and some guys stopped hitting and they haven’t run quite so fast.
That said, all is not nearly lost. “I’m very positive,” said Frank Wren, the general manager. “We have a good team.”
Did the thought of starting three rookie pitchers — Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado — in what’s now a significant series against Florida worry the GM? “We threw four rookies in a row in games last week, and they all threw great,” Wren said. “They’re all capable of winning games.”
McCann: “They’re top-of-the-line rookies. They’re the best prospects in the minor leagues, and they’re all in our organization. We’re very fortunate to have them at our disposal.”
Wren’s take on the slide that had seen the Braves lose eight of 11: “We’ve been a little off since the hurricane [the storm that yielded consecutive rainouts in New York on Aug. 27 and 28].”
Is there a way to get back “on”? Yeah. Go out and win games. Twelve of the remaining 15 games will come against sub-.500 opponents, and the season concludes with three games against the Phillies, who’ll be resting people. There’s still no reason to think the Braves can’t and won’t be playing in October.
And if they get there, these palpitations shouldn’t be seen as a reason they can’t stick around awhile. In 2005 the White Sox watched a 9 1/2-game lead on Sept. 8 shrink to 1 1/2 games with eight to play. They steadied the final week and went 11-1 in postseason, and the reason a lot of baseball folks gave as to why Chicago was so dominant en route to its World Series title?
Because it forced itself to tend to business at the shank of September and thereby entered the playoffs at full gallop. Which is another way of saying what baseball folks say all the time: This can be a funny old game.
Oh, and for the record: I’m not panicking, Mr. McCann. I have every confidence in you and yours.
And with that, the floor is open once more for questions, comments and salient observations. I know from experience that you folks are able and willing to provide all of the above, and I’d be obliged if you did it tonight. And I thank you, as ever, in advance.
By Mark Bradley