Atlanta Braves Are Taking Things One Game at a Time
It's a cliché: "We're just gonna take them one at a time." And when there are 162 of them over the course of the spring and summer, they can all blend together.
You play the ones in April and May to keep yourself in it in June and July, so they'll really start counting in August and September. The individual games themselves never feel very important until football season.
But for the Atlanta Braves, tomorrow afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, one game in late July can be very, very important after all.
The Braves spent the first half of the season watching their starting lineup head for the disabled list or season-ending surgery. They watched Jeff Francouer face demotion and are still in the throes of an unbelievable string of one-run losses (24 and counting on the road in a row).
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Braves were 45-50 and 6.5 games back in an NL East that no one has run away with. The centerpiece of Atlanta was 1B Mark Teixeira, last year's acquisition at the trade deadline when the Braves were buyers.
But as the weeks and difficulties keep adding up, in Teixeira's final year of his contract, it seems like Atlanta will logically need to play the seller for the first time in almost two decades to get at least some return on their investment.
Any ideas to the contrary would need to be proved immediately out of the break, with the trade deadline approaching on July 31. So the Braves came out sharp against the lowly Washington Nationals at Turner Field, building a huge lead they'd have to eventually save in a 7-6 win right off the break.
Then they lost the next two to the last place Nats by a combined score of 23-8.
Any hope that remained now faced an even steeper hill to climb: a six-game road trip against surefire contenders, with three games in Florida followed by three at Philly.
The Braves held up their end midweek, taking two of three from the Fish. Still, winning the series at Philly seemed unlikely. Between the 8-1 mark the Phillies had established against the Braves this season, and Chipper Jones' hamstring injury, which is likely to cause him to miss all three games.
So it came to this, heading into the weekend: Win the series at Philly and give yourselves enough reason to believe that you can still contend in 2008. Keep Teixeira (and possibly even add a piece) and play your hand now. Hope that your pitching staff puts itself back together and some cold bats warm up in a division that no one really wants to run away with.
Or lose the series and call it what it is: A below-average ballclub that, for a number of reasons, just doesn't have it this year and needs to sell what they can and look towards the future.
While the Braves have missed the playoffs for the last two seasons after playing in October every year since 1991, even in those years the Braves were somewhat relevant in the races into at least August, they weren't sellers at the trade deadline. They didn't cash in their chips.
What's more, Atlanta fans simply aren't used to meaningful regular-season baseball. Only twice in the 11 years from Atlanta's World Series title in 1995 to their last postseason appearance in 2005 were the Braves' postseason hopes even in doubt.
During that span, Atlanta won the NL East 11 times by an average of more than 9.5 games each season.
So there's still a lot of new feeling going around in a city that's known for only caring about its baseball team. 14 straight trips to the playoffs leaves a regular season arrogance that hangs around for a couple seasons, even after not playing in October, and the idea that a late-July game could have real merit seems ludicrous.
It still was, really...until tonight.
Atlanta went to Philly without Chipper Jones and his .369 league-leading average and put Jair Jurrjens on the hill in the biggest game of his young career.
Jurrjens responded with eight innings of three-hit, shutout ball.
Without Chipper, he was backed by Brian McCann, who hit a solo shot in the fourth to put Atlanta on the board.
Then, in the ninth, still up only 1-0 (and with thoughts of that horrible one-run loss streak dancing in their heads no doubt), the Braves loaded the bases against Brad Lidge, and Teixeira proved his worth by singling to drive-in an insurance run.
For me, up in southwest Virginia and outside the realm of Peachtree TV and Fox Sports South, it unfolds like this: staring at an animated box score to tell me the results of every pitch.
I see three red dots on the basepaths, and Brian McCann moving up to cleanup in the order in the absence of Chipper. And then, in one beautiful animation, those red dots all disappear, replaced with nothingness and the words "GRAND SLAM".
It was the first home run Lidge has allowed all season. And the Braves put an exclamation point on the evening.
They'd plate two more in the ninth and Will Ohman allowed two in the bottom half before retiring the Phillies. Atlanta wins game one, 8-2.
Now, the Mets are actually leading the NL East, and their win tonight keeps the Braves 6.5 back.
Tomorrow, Atlanta has a chance to go ahead and win the series. To give real evidence that they're still in this race and should keep Teixeira and play for today. And to take another step towards getting back to .500.
It's a big game, no doubt. It's on Fox at 3:55, which means I'll actually get to see it. But what makes Saturday's game potentially more special than all the rest, and that added storyline boost to make it must-see TV for Braves fans, is this:
After 35 months, Mike Hampton is scheduled to start.
He couldn't ask for a better storyline or stage. Against the high-powered Phillies and Cole Hamels. His first major-league action since August 2005—you know, when the Braves were playoff bound. And a chance, with a win, to potentially secure Teixeira and give more momentum to the idea that Atlanta isn't going away this season just yet.
It doesn't get much more important for late-July baseball than this.
Maybe Hampton gets hurt warming up again, which should surprise no one at this point. Maybe the Philly bats get hot again and they run him off quickly. Maybe Atlanta comes back and wins the series on Sunday anyway, maybe not.
But right now, one game is all they've got in front of them. Win Saturday, and you can still think about winning in August and September. Keep winning...and maybe those October dreams can come back to life.
If you take them one at a time...tomorrow would be a good one to take.
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