One game up, three to go. If the Braves take two of three from Philadelphia, they’ll be assured of playing beyond the 162nd game — even if it’s a Thursday play-in in St. Louis. If they sweep the Phillies, this nose-diving team will have bounded into the playoffs and all those who’d dismissed their chances will conveniently forget those dismissals.
“We still control our own destiny,” Chipper Jones said, speaking late Monday afternoon. And it’s true. They do, at least for the moment. But the colder truth is that these Braves haven’t controlled much of anything since Labor Day.
The Braves led the wild-card chase by 8 1/2 games on Sept. 1. They’ve won two of the eight series since, and one of those two wasn’t really a series: It was a doubleheader in New York rescheduled from the washed-out Irene weekend of August. On Sept. 1, these Braves won their 81st game. Twenty-two games later, they still haven’t reached 90 victories.
The past week has been spent asking where this would rank among epic collapses over the fullness of baseball history — worse than the ‘69 Cubs or the ‘78 Red Sox or the ‘64 Phillies? — but this caveat needs to be attached: All those teams had to win their division/league to reach postseason; these Braves have only to finish first among runners-up. And they’ve spent a month casting doubt on their capacity to achieve even that.
Some of this has been bad luck: When you lose your two best starting pitchers, you’re going to feel it. The Braves are trying to make the playoffs with a rotation that includes three rookies, which nobody can remember happening, and if they get there it’s unclear who, if anyone, will start the games in the Division Series. But that’s a different discussion for (perhaps) another day.
At issue now: Can the flagging Braves steel themselves for three days more? Game 1 didn’t figure to be easy: The Braves were scheduled to face Cliff Lee and the full complement of Phillies starters Monday night, and in a weird way that didn’t seem a mismatch. Because the Braves, who’d won four of their past 10 games, had actually been the hotter of the teams.
The Phillies clinched the National League East on Sept. 17. They then lost their next eight games. Yeah, they’ve been resting guys, but still: Is that the way to prepare for the playoffs? (One thing the Phillies’ skid did do was yield another of baseball’s bizarre benchmarks: This became the first team ever to lose eight straight after winning its 98th game.)
At their September nadir, the Braves have only lose four in a row. They haven’t been winning much, but they’ve won just enough to stay in front. That might sound like the faintest of praise, but it’s still something to note: With three games left, you’d rather be ahead than behind.
Said Jones: “We’ve had more than enough opportunities to walk off the field with wins that would have put this away long ago.”
They have, absolutely. But they haven’t blown this yet, and there’s no guarantee they will. “We have to treat this as a playoff series,” Jones said.
Then, asked about the mood in the locker room: “The locker room’s fine. The dugout might get a little tight at times.”
Someone wondered if Jones, who’s 39, still gets nervous. He smiled. “I don’t really get nervous,” he said. “I break it down to its simplest form: It’s the game of baseball; I’ve done this thousands and thousands of times.”
In his star-spangled career, Chipper Jones has seen everything — a World Series title, an MVP season in which he essentially decided a tight race, 13 playoff appearances. But he has never seen his Braves blow an 8 1/2-game lead in September and miss the postseason. If it happens, this would be a first.
But it might not happen. They might just ride out the worst ride of their lives. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Braves awoke Monday with a 71.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s probably better than they deserve, but in baseball as in life, you don’t always get what you deserve.
And with that, the floor is again open for questions, comments and prophecies of doom. I welcome your input. I value your company. I appreciate your insights.
OK, enough. Join me, won’t you? And I thank you, as ever, in advance.
By Mark Bradley