Slumping Braves have made the stretch run interesting
If you’re a Braves fan who has long been a member of the faction that believes it is not good to clinch early and cruise toward the playoffs, I’ve got ask, “How do you feel about that theory now.”
I’m not saying the theory is flawed, wrong or anything like that. But when given a choice between clinching too early and potentially enduring an epic collapse, it seems your cardiologist would likely advise you pulling for the former.
Of course those fans who stressed down the stretch with the 2006 Cardinals, 2008 Phillies and 2010 Giants really did not care what their cardiologists were saying at the end of October.
This is not to say the Braves can or can’t duplicate these runs and win a World Series. Given the state of their starting rotation and the way they have played while losing 11 of their past 17 games, they look much more like a prime candidate to suffer an epic collapse.
As I was flying to Ft. Lauderdale this morning, I heard a man a few rows back say, “The Braves will be lucky to win the Wild Card.” While I completely understood why he had said this, it still was one of those, “So it has come to this” moments. It’s just something you never would have expected to hear about a team that is 3 1/2 games up in the National League Wild Card race with nine games to play.
After the games played Aug. 29, the Braves were nine games in front of the Giants and 9 1/2 games in front of the Cardinals. While winning just eight of 20 games since then, they have allowed the Cardinals to creep within 3 1/2 games and the Giants within four games.
Winners of eight straight games, the Giants have also put themselves in Atlanta’s rear view mirror.
This doesn’t seem to be the time to evaluate the rotation, offense or the bullpen. You did it as you tossed and turned all night and you have continued to to evaluate as you have stressed through this Monday at your workplace. Given that this piece is not written for the Kansas City Chiefs, there is no need to pile on.
Instead we’ll look ahead at this most important six-game road trip that will pit the Braves against the Marlins and the Nationals.
While the Braves have rarely found success at Nationals Park, they have halted their struggles at
Joe Robbie Dolphin Sun Life Stadium this year. After splitting 18 games in Miami the previous two years combined, the Braves have won each of the six games played down here this year.
In fact, the Braves have won 11 of 15 against the Marlins this year. If they can win at least twice during this week’s three-game series, they might be able to briefly exhale once again.
Winning two of three against the Marlins would allow the Braves to whittle their magic number to at least five with six games to play. This certainly wouldn’t guarantee anything. But in a fashion that would make Dean Smith and other legendary basketball coaches of yesteryear proud, they would at least effectively take time off the clock.
Putting themselves in position to clinch before next week arrives could also benefit Tommy Hanson’s situation. The Braves want him to appear in a regular season game before potentially making a postseason start. But if the Wild Card is not clinched by early next week, you really can’t send him to the mound in a meaningful game to make his first big league start since Aug. 6.
Tonight’s series opener pits Mike Minor against Ricky Nolasco, who cruised until Alex Gonzalez and the Braves hurt him with a four-run seventh inning last Wednesday.
The Braves will send Randall Delgado to the mound to oppose Anibal Sanchez, who has posted a 0.86 ERA in his past three starts. Derek Lowe will attempt to rebound from his worst start of the year when he opposes former Brave Javier Vazquez Wednesday.
Interesting how the baseball gods would pit Lowe against Vazquez in what will be one of the biggest games of the year. Remember Vazquez would have gained his wish to stay in Atlanta had the Braves been able to find somebody willing to trade for Lowe after the 2009 season.
While the red-hot Giants will rest tonight, the Cardinals will conclude their four-game series against the Phillies by sending Kyle Lohse to the mound to oppose Roy Halladay.
Winners of nine of their past 11 games, the Cardinals will travel back to St. Louis to begin a three-game series against the Mets Tuesday. They’ll host the Cubs for three this weekend and then travel to Houston to conclude their season against Jordan Schafer and the Astros.
So while the Cardinals will conclude their season against the NL’s weakest club, the Braves will conclude it against its strongest.
When the Phillies play the Braves next week in Atlanta, they may put their starting pitchers on a limited schedule and possibly rest some of their position players. But they were in the same position last year, when they won the first two games at Turner Field and forced the Braves to win on the regular season’s final day to clinch the Wild Card.
Of course you could argue this weekend’s trip to Washington D.C. might prove to be every bit as intimidating for the Braves. They have won just 13 of the 33 games played at Nationals Park since it opened in 2008. They’re 6-9 in D.C. over the past two seasons combined.
When the Braves were making a run similar to the one the Cardinals and Giants have enjoyed the past couple weeks, they swept a three-game series at Nationals Park.
In other words, they have tamed the D.C. Beast when necessary in the past. Right now, it’s not necessary that the Braves sweep any series. But as the losses have mounted over the past couple of weeks, they have put themselves in position where they have to approach every game with a “must-win” mindset.
Maybe the fact the Braves will have to fight to secure their once-comfortable lead will prove beneficial in October. This is a team that was flat coming out of the All-Star break and Hurricane Irene break.
But right now, I think there are a lot of players and fans affiliated with the Braves who would have rather gone through the season’s final days in stress-free fashion.