It started badly and could have spiraled into something far worse. The Braves played seven road games — three on one coast, four on another — against two division leaders, each possessing the kind of starting pitching that can make a good team look bad. If there’s to be an Epic Collapse II, it figured to start here.
But it didn’t. The Braves lost the first two games in Washington to fall seven games behind the Nationals, and they also lost the first two in San Francisco. But they somehow went 3-4 and drew within 4 1/2 of first place, having gained a sliver of ground in the season’s most difficult week. And now the Braves have 34 games remaining, 28 of those against sub-.500 teams, and they’re 2 1/2 games ahead of St. Louis for the first wild-card spot and four games ahead of Los Angeles for the second.
In sum, they’re in good shape. But they were in good shape last year, and they went 9-18 in September. They will not, however, play .333 ball this September, and here’s why:
They have too many healthy starting pitchers. The E.C. happened because Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson got hurt and Derek Lowe couldn’t win and the rotation was reduced to Tim Hudson and a bunch of rookies, thereby increasing the load on an already-taxed bullpen and further exposing a lineup that couldn’t score to save its life. Ben Sheets, Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm energized a rotation that was substandard over the season’s first three months. Mike Minor is actually pitching well — eight quality starts over his past nine outings — and Tim Hudson is still stout (figuratively if not literally). Even with Sheets on the disabled list and questions surrounding Tommy Hanson, there’s Randall Delgado as a fallback.
They hit the ball too well. They’re second in the National League in runs scored, fourth in on-base percentage. (They were 10th and 14th in those categories last season.) Even with Dan Uggla doing his annual disappearing act and Brian McCann hurting, this is still a lineup that’s good at the top and solid in the middle. Jason Heyward hit four home runs last week and is looking more and more like a franchise player, and Freddie Freeman is on pace to drive in 104 runs.
They figure things out. In a seven-game span that saw them lose six times to the Dodgers, the Nationals and the Giants, the Braves were 6-for-54 (.111) with runners in scoring position, which is terrible. But they were 7-for-25 (.280) with RISP in their final two games in San Fran, winning both. On the season, they’ve hit .250 with runners in scoring position and two out, which mightn’t sound like much but is third-best in the National League. This is not the worst situational hitting team you’ve ever seen. On the contrary, it is, as general manager Frank Wren averred 10 days ago, a pretty decent one.
They still have hope of winning the East. A year ago, even the Braves privately conceded they couldn’t catch the Phillies. The Nationals have never known a pennant race, and the strain might be starting to show. Sunday’s loss in Philadelphia turned when Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche didn’t run hard because they thought a ball LaRoche hit off the top of the fence was a home run. Afterward manager Davey Johnson, who had pulled the famous rookie Bryce Harper in a double switch, was visited by GM Mike Rizzo, and Johnson was overheard by reporters yelling at Rizzo, “You come down here and manage the team.” There’s also the lingering matter of Stephen Strasburg and Rizzo’s innings cap, which hasn’t played well in the Nats’ clubhouse.
They have the league’s third-best record, and there are two wild cards this year. The Cardinals are surging again, but the Pirates are waning, so that’s essentially a wash. The Dodgers are buying up every big name in sight, but they probably stand a better chance of catching the Giants in the West than they do the Braves in the wild-card chase. We can argue at length over whether the Braves have enough top-line starting pitching to win a World Series — my grudging guess is that they don’t — but this has borne the look of a playoff team for a while now, and going 3-4 on the road against big-time pitching only underscored the notion.
By Mark Bradley