The good news is Braves have won 5 of their last 7 games, including two last at-bat wins. They beat the Houston Astros today 8-2. Another big inning late in the game, made possible by Billy Wagner's seventh blown save after Tommy Hanson pitched a gem of a game. (OK, that last part isn't such good news.) McCann contributed the fourth Braves pinch hit grand-slam of the season.
The Braves have now won 19 games this season in their last at-bat. The most in the majors.
Even better, they beat the Astros in last night while the Phillies lost at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers. That gave Atlanta a skinny two-game lead over Philadelphia in the loss column. Suddenly, the Braves are hitting the long ball. After not showing that much power for most of the season (as a team they rank 19th in all of baseball in home runs), they recently took 3 out of 4 games (we should have swept them) from a very good San Francisco Giants ball club and have beaten the Astros largely because of good pitching and home runs.
Chipper Jones has been showing a hot bat of late, just at the right time of the season. I started to feel like Chipper would take some of the pressure off Brian McCann in carrying the team offensively. Then, last night Chipper made a great throw to first on a sharp grounder down the third base line. He got the out. But, he also landed wrong and his knee ‘popped’. He was on the field writhing in pain. He had to leave the game. An MRI is scheduled for later today. Hopefully, Chipper won't miss the rest of the season. Fortunately, Brooks Conrad, as he has done all year, came in a helped the team win...with a home run.
But, losing a talented veteran player like Chipper just as he was starting to get hot is a major blow to the Braves no matter how you slice it. Conrad is a fine player coming off the bench, but he’s no Chipper Jones. Last week the Braves lost Kris Medlen to injury. Mike Minor pitched OK in his major league debut, replacing Medlen in the rotation. Unfortunately, the Braves played what was probably their worst game defensively since April behind Minor in losing the series opener to the mediocre Houston Astros.
Moreover, Jason Heyward was scratched from both today's and last night’s line-up with a sore knee. This injury business has haunted Atlanta all season but it is starting to spiral out of control. Bobby Cox is a great manager at keeping all his 25 players ready to play. He always has a great bench to call upon because of his emphasis on team play. But, you can’t keep losing starting players (Martin Prado is also currently on the DL as is Eric O’Flaherty, a very effective bullpen leftie) to injury after injury and expect it not to take a toll to some degree.
Of course, back in 2005 Cox ended up managing a team that was effectively made-up of AAA players (McCann and Jeff Francoeur were rookies that year) late in the season and took them to the play-offs. So, if anyone can do it Cox can. It is just not the kind of thing you’d bet money on.
Errors still concern me. The Braves made two more errors today, three of them in their win last night. They made three more errors in the game on Monday against the Astros. Just as suddenly as we started hitting home runs lately, we have suddenly started making 2 or 3 errors a game. If we keep making this many errors we are going to lose most of our remaining games and the season is effectively over. It is a glaring sign that, even though we are winning at the moment, the team is not at the level of ‘championship caliber play’. With only a two game lead, we can’t afford to be playing anything less than our very best.
As a fan (or rather as a ‘consumer’ since baseball is just ‘entertainment’ these days), you have to look for a silver lining here somewhere. We are still in first place, after all. We do have the best record in the National League, after San Diego who is only one game ahead of us in the loss column. The sky is not falling...yet.
The fact is that the Braves are in first place because all 25 guys have contributed at some point. We have all-stars on this team, but no single player this season is what you might call a super star. Prado was leading the league in hitting at one point. But, other than that the Braves don’t have a player that has been leading the league in any category. This is a solid team of good (not necessarily great) players. Except for utility player Omar Infante (the best utility player in all of baseball) we don’t have anyone in our line-up that can hit .275 let alone .300. We can’t rely on anyone consistently getting on base right now. It takes someone different stepping up every game. So far, that has happened more times than not. And that is a rather hopeful quality of the 2010 Atlanta Braves.
Long-time Braves radio announcer and Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton said last night after Chipper was escorted from the field that what separates the great teams from the wannabes is how they respond to adversity. It is a question of who is going to step up and pick the team up when there is no Martin Prado or Jason Heyward or Chipper Jones in the line-up. If the Braves have a player or two that can do that, then they have a shot of fending off the hard charging Phillies. If they don’t then they don’t have what it takes for the postseason given the cards they've been dealt. It is that simple.
You can’t control injuries. You can control how many errors you make and how aggressively you play the game. Like I said, Cox has managed through all this sort of thing before. But, most of the guys on the team this season were not on the 2005 Braves. If we are to repeat past success, we have to have previously “good” players and previous bench players take their game to the next level. There’s no room for error...not just on the field but in our attitude toward the each game. Game by game.
But I come back to the one statistic that is most representative of the 2010 Atlanta Braves, exemplified by the last two games. The Braves continue to score runs late in the game, often in their last at-bat. 19 times that has happened. There is no single player responsible for those 19 crucial wins. They are reflective of a team effort. More importantly, they are reflective of a basic confidence and will to win. That is an intangible characteristic that a team either has or it doesn’t. So far this season, the Braves have had that in spades. It’s a great quality to have in your back pocket, no matter what injuries might come our way.
Late note: Chipper Jones is out for the season with a possible career ending torn ACL. That sucks. Worst possible outcome. The question now is which Braves player(s) is going to pick this team up?