Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tied with 19 Left

If Alex Gonzalez (or Derrek Lee, for that matter) starts hitting homeruns the way he hit one today (night – 12th inning) the Atlanta Braves will win the NL East. We are down to a few games left in the 2010 season and things like this mean a lot. Tonight the Braves and Phillies are tied for first. Gonzalez crushed the Cardinals. That is what we need right now. Players who will crush our opponent. Kill.

There is a poetry about baseball that lies at the heart of why I love the game. Discussion of the game among fellow fans always eventually revolves around statistics. Batting averages, earned run averages, strike outs per nine innings, walks per nine innings, fielding percentages, how this batter matches up with this pitcher in this particular situation. And so on seemingly forever.

It was statistics that initially got Jennifer interested in the game. Her engineering training makes her a very detailed, quantifiable type of person. She immediately could “see” the game through statistics and immediately appreciate the individual game in a new dimension.
That was 1990 and she became an Atlanta Braves fan. But it wasn't for the stats that season (which weren't all that great). It was for the promise of the "young guns."

But, no matter how infatuated the fan becomes with the stats of baseball, the heart and soul of the game lies in its stories. There are even more stories in baseball than statistics.
Ty Cobb’s metal cleats. Babe Ruth pointing before hitting a home run. The shot heard round the world. Kurt Gibson with weak knees knocking the ball out of the park. John Smoltz versus his boyhood idyll Jack Morris in game seven of the 1991 World Series. And so on seemingly forever.

Every season is a story and sometimes the story can become poetic. Any baseball moment (be it career or season or game or pitch) can be an inspiration and thing of beauty.

It was a beautiful thing when
Brian McCann won the 2010 All-Star Game for the National League. Something that hasn’t happened in 13 seasons. The idea of his own catcher giving Bobby Cox home field advantage in Cox’s last possible World Series is sheer poetry. Admittedly that is taking things to an extreme. That is a day-dream. But day-dreaming is a huge part of baseball. So, the possibility of Cox winning the NL East (as an initial step toward glory) has been at the forefront of my mind all season, Cox’s final season.

At the All-Star break the Atlanta Braves enjoyed a comfortable 7-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies. Today, they find themselves tied with Philadelphia. Suddenly, the playoff pressure is intense due to the recent surge of the San Francisco Giants and the Colorado Rockies as they battle the San Diego Padres over in the NL West. What happened?

When I last posted about the Braves, they had a two-game lead on the Phillies and Philadelphia was sputtering offensively. But, the Phillies got their hitting mojo back and now they have the best record in all of baseball (33-15) since the All-Star break. So, a lot of the Braves problems reside with the way the Philadelphia has played championship caliber ball.

The Braves haven't. The Braves are just 29-25 since the All-Star break. Mediocre play, at best. The reasons are fairly obvious. They are batting less than .200 with runners in scoring position during that time. Their starting pitching (with the significant exception of Tim Hudson) has been giving up more runs and putting more pressure on their excellent bullpen which, frankly, is too much to expect. Even a great bullpen can’t shutdown everyone. At times, they have looked like a minor league team in the field, making mental mistakes and errors. In short, not championship caliber play.

Add to all this to the fact that the Braves just do not seem to be able to win on the road. While they enjoy baseball's best home record (51-20), they have played uninspired baseball away from Turner Field (31-41). That's on par with the Houston Astros, who have no hope for making the playoffs. Few teams have ever won championships playing 10 games under .500 on the road.

This all sucks, of course, for me as a life-long Braves fan. It messes with the potential poetry of the moment. I want Bobby Cox to go out on top.
It is the final season of Billy Wagner as well. I always liked Wagner even when he was on the other team getting us out. It could possibly be the final season for Chipper Jones, though he says he is going to try to comeback from his injury.

And yet, there's still hope. There's still time. We’ve had 24 (counting tonight) last at-bat wins so far this season, the most in the majors. Six of our final 19 games are against the Phillies and we have played them well this year. The Braves have a record of 7-5 against them, which is important. So, maybe we are looking at a different kind of last at-bat win. Literally winning the last three games of the season at home – against the Phillies. How poetic.

Just after Swan this summer, my good friend Mark got us some tickets for Bobby Cox’s final regular season game as a manager. Sunday, October 3, against Philadelphia. I am hoping that by then the Braves will have the NL East title sown up. But, if the last at-bat karma continues for the Braves, then clinching the division on the final game of the season would be the best kind of poetry, not to mention a helluva lot of fun to see in person.

There I go again. Day-dreaming. It just …..seems ….possible though. The Braves have had the big inning late in the game many times this season. I’ve posted about this before. They had a big inning
last night against the St. Louis Cardinals. The important Gonzalez homer was authoritative. The 2010 Braves have a spirit for last-gasp heroics.

But, unfortunately, seasons are not like individual games. Seasons require a different kind of rally. They require winning streaks within a fixed number of games. And that is something different. In baseball you can bat forever until the other team gets three outs. So, you can score all the runs you need in a timeless fashion. There is no clock inside the game.

In terms of seasons, however, you only have so many games. Seasons are fixed in time and, therefore, clock-bound. The Braves have to beat the Phillies and they have only 19 games to do it. Only 19 games. The Phillies need to play one game better than Atlanta from here on out. That means the Braves have to win more of these 19 games than they have of their last 19. Because the Phillies are hot. End of story.

In this situation, I am not keeping up with one game every night, but several. I use to keep track of the Phillies while listening to the Braves but also keep an eye on the
Padres-Giants-Rockies situation as well. Taking the two NL East teams and the three NL West - one of these five times will be the wild card and two of these teams will not make the playoffs. The final playoff team will likely be the Cincinnati Reds, who are definitely displaying championship caliber play.

A pennant race this tight always makes for a great baseball story. It is so intense for the fans. It generates and expends a lot of human energy. So, this is fun, even if the poetry is, for me, threatened. You see, the Braves have only lost one series at home all year. That was to the Philadelphia Phillies. Troubling.

Come on stars. Align!

BTW: It is worthy of note that this series in Atlanta is the first time since 1950 that two managers whose combined records add up to over 5,000 wins have faced one another. It will be decades before that happens again, if ever.

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