It’s been official for three years and counting: The Braves have gone from operating as the famously hunted in their division for 14 consecutive seasons to whatever they are now.
What the Braves are now is just another wannabe team in the National League East not named the Philadelphia Phillies or the New York Mets.
No worries, though. If used properly by their evolving boys of summer, this is encouraging news for the choppers and the chanters. The Braves could sneak from the shadows into brightness with their significant upgrades that include starting pitching, bullpen depth (well, potentially) and Jeff Francoeur.
They could do all of this by feasting off that tired but occasionally effective us-against-them mentality.
That said, before the Braves left for Philadelphia, where they are scheduled to spend Wednesday afternoon completing their season-opening series against the Phillies, Braves manager Bobby Cox shrugged off underdog talk. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, puffing away at one of his cigars at Turner Field.
“Once the umpire says, ‘Play ball,’ everything’s out the window. Who’s picked. Who’s not. I don’t even look at it.”
Cox shouldn’t. Among the reasons why he already has at least the bill of his cap in Cooperstown is his ability to live that old Bob Knight philosophy: You don’t play the opponent. You play the game.
As for Braves players, they need to play the opponent and the game. They need to use everything they have physically, mentally and spiritually to battle a couple of former wannabes who suddenly are the real things as consistent forces in the NL East and beyond.
You have the Phillies, for instance, with their wonderfully cocky attitude courtesy of that fresh World Series trophy in their possession. They return all of their primary sluggers and throwers who made that trophy possible. You also have the Mets, prolific chokers during the past two seasons. That’s because they couldn’t keep leads from vanishing late in games. Now they have the splendid likes of J.J. Putz as a setup guy and Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez as a closer, which means New York foes have little hope if they’re trailing late.
“Who wouldn’t pick the Phillies or the Mets, especially when you look on paper at what they’ve done?” said Francoeur, whose Braves are expected to spend this season trying to swat away the rapidly improving Florida Marlins for third place.
Even so, it doesn’t have to be that way for the Braves. Not if they have the right attitude, along with that pitching and a rejuvenated Francoeur after last year’s fiasco (.239 batting average, 11 home runs, demotion to the minor leagues). Said Francoeur, “I think the thing that I like about us this year is that we’re just kind of flying under the radar. I came to camp, and I saw a very confident team.
“It was a little embarrassing where we finished at the end of last year (20 games behind the Phillies), so we’ve got a lot of guys who kind of have a vendetta. I think we’ll come out with a little bit different attitude this year.”
They haven’t a choice.