(Updated to reflect Wednesday’s rather shabby outcome.)
Not so long ago, some believed the National League East had grown too tough for the local nine. Sports Illustrated even picked this club to finish fourth in a five-team division. And yet, with almost one-fourth of the six-month season gone, who awoke Wednesday holding first place?
Said Brian McCann, smiling: “Bravos.”
Yep. The team that didn’t spend big on free agents — unless you count paying Derek Lowe $10 million to leave — stood atop the division that has stamped itself as the NL’s best. OK, so it was only by a half-game over Washington, and so the skinny lead didn’t last the night. (The Nationals won at home and the Braves played horribly and lost to Miami here.) Still, let’s focus on the bigger picture:
The Braves were rather easy to forget amid the winter Eastern movement, and through 37 games they’d looked pretty darn good.
Granted, the 38th was a downer. They yielded a steal of home and Mike Minor pitched badly again and Juan Francisco got thrown out trying to stretch a leadoff double with his team four runs down. There were only two blessings: It wasn’t a doubleheader, and it’s over.
Looking long-term, we ask: Can the local nine hold up? “Yeah,” Chipper Jones said. “That’s a no-doubter – ‘Can we?’ No doubt.”
OK. Better question: Will they?
Jones: “If we play as well as we’ve played the first quarter of the season.”
McCann: “Yes. We feel like we’ve got a really good team. If we continue to play like we’ve been playing … ”
Actually, the Braves will need to play better — or at least pitch better. Their hitting turnaround has been documented — who knew that the most important newcomer in a division that added Jose Reyes and Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Papelbon would be hitting coach Greg Walker? — but the Braves’ pitching staff has compiled the 13th-best ERA in a 16-team league. That number drops with every good turn taken by Tim Hudson but rises whenever Minor toes the slab.
To date, Washington and Miami and Philadelphia have outpitched the Braves. This being baseball, pitching tends to matter.
Said Miami manager Ozzie Guillen, whose Marlins arrived Wednesday for their first collision of the season with the Braves: “We’re not hitting. We just started hitting last week … [But] the offense will come. A manager always worries [more] about his pitching.”
Another source of (admittedly early) concern: The Braves are 20-8 against the NL Central and West — but 3-7 against division brethren. Said Jones: “We have to play better than we have within the division. The last couple of years we haven’t been able to play [inside the division] in a way that would enable us to hold up near the top. If we don’t find a way, the same will hold true this season.”
But now the good news: Early though it is, the Braves have passed the eyeball test. With the way they’re hitting and the way they should be capable of pitching, they won’t be outclassed by anybody in the East. The Mets probably won’t hold up much longer. The callow Nationals have lost half a lineup’s worth of everyday players, and the Phillies are still without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. More and more, the East is looking like the Braves’ and Marlins’ to contest.
Said Guillen, speaking of Walker, his old hitting coach with the White Sox: “I told him, ‘It’s too bad you’re in my division.’ ”
Being in the beefed-up East has to be bad for somebody. Philadelphia entered play Wednesday with 18 wins, good for last in the division; by way of comparison, the second-place teams in the Central and West — Cincinnati and San Francisco, respectively — had each won 18 times.
McCann: “There’s no room for error. All five teams are above average, and when you play each of them 18 times apiece it makes for a good summer and a good finish.”
Or it could make for a bad summer and a worse finish. The Braves, as we know, faded at the end of the past two summers. They won the wild card on the final day of the 2010 season, lost it in the 13th inning of the 162nd game last year. Assuming the pitching returns to something close to form, this looks like a much better team than its immediate predecessors.
“We’re swinging the bats — that’s a pretty big thing,” Jones said. “If we swing the bats this way last year, we’d have won at least 95 games.”
Which would have claimed the wild card over St. Louis by five games, and the National League wild-card winner wound up taking the World Series. This year there will be, at least for one postseason day, two wild cards. We shouldn’t be shocked if three NL East teams play beyond the 162nd game. We should be shocked if the Braves aren’t among them.
By Mark Bradley