• Exclusives

    As Wren works the phones, Braves face crucial stretch without McCann

    by Bud Ellis

    On a night where the surreal danced with the ridiculous into the wee hours, one moment may resonate loudest when the story of the 2011 Atlanta Braves is penned.
     
    And no, I’m not referring to Jerry Meals and his now infamous safe call at home plate in the bottom of the 19th inning Wednesday morning at Turner Field.

    Nine innings earlier, when it still was Tuesday night and the Braves were playing the first of what would eventually evolve into 10 extra frames, Atlanta lost its best player and most consistent hitter to an oblique injury that threatens to do more than shelve All-Star catcher Brian McCann for two weeks or more.

    More than Chipper Jones limping with a leg injury, more than Jordan Schafer getting drilled with a pitch on the same hand containing an injured finger, more than the futility of a string of zeros adorning the linescore in a game that nearly lasted seven hours, the sight of McCann gingerly walking off the field overshadowed everything exhilarating and agonizing from Atlanta’s marathon win.

    Memorable as Wednesday’s morning victory was, the bigger picture was substantially gloomier as the sun rose five hours after Meals signaled Julio Lugo safe on Scott Proctor’s fielder’s choice. At .306 with 18 homers and 55 RBIs, McCann isn’t just a MVP candidate. He’s been the rock-steady constant in an Atlanta offense that has been anything but consistent through the season’s first four months.

    A major injury to McCann is every Braves fan’s worst-case scenario. This is his team now, and his team needs a jolt of offense now more than ever. While the original prognosis is 15-to-20 days, in reality an oblique injury can nag and hinder for weeks, if not months, especially when the person suffering the injury finds himself playing the most demanding position on the diamond.

    McCann’s injury came just five days before baseball’s trade deadline, the annual benchmark where teams posture and fans speculate and the Internet and social media sites buzz like at no other time during the year. Already linked to some of the bigger hitters on the market as the deadline creeps near, Atlanta now almost looks destined to shoot for an impact hitter with McCann out until, at the earliest, the second week of August.

    For all its offensive struggles, the fact remains Atlanta left Turner Field in the middle of the night with the fourth-best record in baseball, six games behind Philadelphia in the NL East and 3 ½ games ahead of Arizona in the wild-card standings. A dynamic pitching staff has fueled the Braves’ surge toward postseason contention, but at some point, the offense has to start carrying the load.

    That time is now, with the dog days bearing down and the final third of the season commencing. Regardless of what move general manager Frank Wren makes before Sunday, the moment McCann reached for his side in the top of the 10th inning Tuesday night marks the beginning of the most crucial stretch of the season.

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    Follow Bud Ellis on Twitter: @bud006