A lead once bulbous had been reduced to a pimple in the time it takes to say the words, “A lead once bulbous.” But, being a professional athlete, Chipper Jones broke out the usual brave bromide Monday afternoon. “We still control our own destiny,” he said, blithely ignoring the cold truth that these Braves have controlled nothing this past month.
They’d led the wild-card chase by 8 1/2 games on Sept. 1, the day they posted their 81st victory. It’s nearly October, and there’s no guarantee these Braves will ever win a 90th game. They’ve lost six of the past eight series, and one of the two exceptions wasn’t really a series but a rescheduled doubleheader in New York.
They’ve watched the Cardinals draw ever closer, and now the regular season had been reduced to three games. Win two and the Braves would assure themselves of no worse than a tie for the wild card and a Thursday play-in game; win three and the Braves would qualify for the playoffs, no strings attached. But their collapse has forced us to reassess possibilities, and a more realistic question seemed: Can they even win one?
Monday’s game offered hope — for three innings. Jones hoisted a first-inning homer that took us back to 1999, to a time when this player was capable of turning a playoff race by himself. But then, as happens in life as well as baseball, reality descended. The Phillies scored four runs and washed away a 2-0 deficit, and by game’s end Chipper was limping after appearing to hurt himself legging out a double, and in his final at-bat he hit into a double play.
On paper, this seemed the biggest mismatch of the series: Cliff Lee, who’ll probably finish second in the Cy Young voting, against Randall Delgado, who had started six big-league games. Which only goes to show that, in baseball as in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. Four of the first eight Braves to face Lee managed extra-base hits, and Delgado made it through three innings having yielded only an against-the-shift single to Ryan Howard, who surely didn’t intend to put the ball where he did.
Then the Braves stopped hitting, which they can do against pretty much any pitcher any time, and the Phillies started. Placido Polanco’s two-out single off Delgado — are two-out RBI’s even allowed? — and halved the Braves’ lead in the fourth, and Jimmy Rollins’ homer tied it in the fifth. Delgado was gone after that inning, replaced by Cristhian Martinez, who lasted two batters.
Shane Victorino’s triple into the corner forced Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to summon Eric O’Flaherty for a lefty-against-lefty parlay at a moment when a strikeout was warranted. But Raul Ibanez, who’d failed with the bases loaded and one out two innings earlier, drove O’Flaherty’s first pitch, a slider, through the infield.
About here, the only consolation came via the scoreboard above left field. The Cardinals, who’d led 1-0, had fallen behind the Astros. The only comic amusement stemmed from the Braves’ announcement of the game’s attendance. (Autumn attendance is a sore subject with this franchise, as you know.) Monday’s gathering was assessed as 42,597, which seemed the biggest baseball inflation since Mark McGwire’s biceps.
There were moments when this crowd of uncertain number sounded loud and proud, but as the night unfolded the pride gave way to resignation. These Braves are perilously close to a failure of epic dimensions. At least some infamous September flops — the ‘69 Cubs, the ‘78 Red Sox, the ‘64 Phillies — had to win either their division or league; these Braves have only to finish first among runners-up. And with two games left, nothing is assured.
“We’ve had more than enough opportunities,” Jones had said, “to walk off the field with wins that would have put this away long ago.” But instead the Braves have been forced to race against time, and time keeps running both ways. The regular season’s end hasn’t arrived soon enough, and this time can’t retrace its steps to June or August and remember how easy winning seemed then.
And at the end Monday, the proud man who’d opened the scoring with a massive drive off the estimable Lee was reduced to looking every bit of his 39 years. The Braves are dancing on the lip of the volcano, and Chipper no longer seems capable of riding to the rescue.
Then again, the Braves mightn’t need rescuing. The Cardinals rallied to tie the Astros but flubbed a go-ahead chance in the 10th and lost in the bottom of the inning on a bloop double and two bunts. As catchable as these Braves appear, the chasing Cards still haven’t caught them. After another long day at the races, the shaky lead held. Still one game up, and now only two to play.
By Mark Bradley