• Wild Card

    The call, the Braves loss, Johnny Cash and a raging hangover

    The feeling I have today could be aptly characterized as a hangover. Not the kind of hangover you get the morning after enjoying a few too many adult beverages. No, this is more like the hangover you might experience if you were to wake up face down in a pool of your own bodily fluids, after being drugged, beaten, robbed and dumped half-naked in a dark alley the night before.

    A hangover, like the popular movie of the same name, best describes the bewilderment I experienced this morning as I tried to piece together what in the name of all that is holy just happened last night.

    What’s that you ask? Why yes, I did attend the first ever circus stunt MLB Wild Card game at Turner Field! Good guess!

    Deciding a 162-game season with a 1-game “play in” makes even more sense to me now than it did on Opening Day! Hooray, MLB execs!

    Before anyone hurls a sour grapes accusation in my direction, you should know that I’ve been quite consistent on this matter.

    A while back, the fine folks at the National Basketball Association determined (rightly) that a 5-game series was too short to decide an 82-game season, so they expanded the first round of the NBA Playoffs to 7 games. I’ve been critical of Major League Baseball for years for not following suit. But not only did MLB decline to expand the Divisional Series to 7 games,  it apparently decided a 5-game series wasn’t short enough to adjudicate a 162-game season.

    I’ve hated the idea of a single-elimination Wild Card game from the word “go”.

    Nevertheless, the very first Wild Card contest happened to feature my team and it happened to take place right here in Atlanta, so I showed up to cheer on the Braves and see Chipper Jones play the hot corner once more.

    I  was prepared for the possibility that the Braves’ season could end Friday as it, of course, did. I knew I would be deeply disappointed if the Braves were eliminated, partly because of my disdain for the 1-game play-in and partly because it’s always difficult to see your team’s season end too early, regardless of the circumstances. Still, I was–at least to a certain degree–ready to accept  the outcome of Friday evening’s contest. Or at least, I thought I was.

    Losing an elimination game hurts. Losing it the way the Braves lost it is something else all together.

    As the Braves took the field in the top of the 4th inning, all was right with the world. Atlanta had jumped out to an early 2-0 lead two innings earlier on a David Ross homerun…

    And Braves starter Kris Medlen appeared to be in command, even after Carlos Beltran turned in the first Cardinals hit of the evening, a single to center field. A tailor-made double play ball off the bat of Matt Holliday was scooped up by third baseman Chipper Jones, and in that moment it seemed inevitable that the Cardinals’ only hit of the game to that point was about to be erased.

    But then… it happened. Chipper’s throw sailed beyond the reach of second baseman Dan Uggla and skipped into right-center field. The ballgame turned on that play.

    Now instead of a two outs–bases empty scenario, the Cardinals had something cooking with runners on the corners and nobody out. And it’s possible that the young Braves starting pitcher, making his first ever postseason appearance, might have been rattled just a bit. Atlanta’s lead was promptly wiped out on an Allen Craig double, and then St. Louis claimed a 3-2 lead on a sac fly by David Freese.

    From there, things only got worse. A series of Braves errors handed the Cardinals three more runs.

    Such gifts should have been accompanied by Hallmark cards. You know… the kind that play music when you open them. For the tune, I think I would have gone with Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt. “I Hurt myself today… to see if I still feel.”

    The Braves reclaimed one of those runs to make it 6-3 in the 7th inning, after a Jose Constanza triple and a Michael Bourn RBI ground out.

    But then things went from ugly … to interesting … to uglier than ever.

    In the bottom of the 8th inning, a Freddie Freeman walk and a David Ross single brought the potential tying run to the plate in the person of Andrelton Simmons. After working the count full, Simmons skied a pop-fly into straight away left field. The ball ultimately landed 225 feet from home plate between Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday. Braves fans (and every player on the field) logically assumed that the Braves had loaded the bases with one out, bringing the go-ahead run to the dish. Not so.

    Despite Simmons’ pop-fly literally traveling more than 2/3 of the way to the left field wall, the shortstop gave chase and, well… this happened:

    Did the call adhere to the rulebook definition? I think not, but we’ll let you decide. Text of infield fly rule

    MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds argued after the game that this kind of call and application of the rule is not uncommon. There may be some truth to that, but then again, rarely–if ever–is the infield fly rule invoke that far into the outfield.

    FROM ESPN.COM: “To put Friday’s controversial play into context, in the past three seasons, there were six infield flies that were not caught in the majors, according to Baseball Info Solutions, the longest measured at 178 feet.”

    So Friday night’s infield fly ruling was nearly twice as far into the outfield grass as the farthest such play recorded within the past three years. Is there a way to argue “ordinary effort” with an infielder back-peddling 225 feet from home plate?

    The fact of the matter is that it was an inexcusably horrible application of the rule. Even if you believe LF umpire Sam Holbrook and the rest of the crew can be excused, the league cannot.

    The picture below was taken from the spot where the ball landed on the controversial play. Does it not seem as though the application of the INFIELD fly rule needs to be addressed?

    Picture courtesy of @ZackKleinWSB.

    The same reciting of the rule’s text that has been used to defend Friday night’s calamitous call could be used to explain such a ruling anywhere on the field. If an infielder chased a ball all the way to the warning track, the same justification could used to invoke the infield fly rule.

    This, I think, is where common sense should come into play.

    As MLB Braves beat writer Mark Bowman put it: If you argue it was correct by “the letter of the law” you ignore that the call defied the purpose of the rule. The infield fly rule is in place to protect against deceiving base runners. Any ump can memorize the rule. A good one knows when to apply it.

    Catcher David Ross was almost the hero. He hit the 2-run shot the put the Braves up 2-0 early.

    Mr. Bowman is exactly right. The rule was created to protect the offense from a defensive player intentionally allowing the ball to drop in order to turn an easy double or triple play. In this case, the rule was applied when no (force) double-play was remotely possible, and this ruling clearly penalized the offensive team, rather than protecting it.

    It cannot be said that the infield-fly call cost the Braves the victory. Even if the call had gone their way, Atlanta may very well have lost the game anyway. But a golden opportunity to tie the game or reclaim the lead was taken way from the Braves on that play. We’ll never know what might have happened.

    The Cardinals built their lead by capitalizing on the Braves’ mistakes. When Atlanta finally had a chance to cash in on a Cardinals miscue and jump right back into the game, that opportunity was largely snuffed out by the infield fly ruling. The Braves can blame only themselves for the deficit they faced in the 8th inning. But a BIG chance to come from behind was wiped way with one shake of Sam Holbrook’s fist.

    See also the MLB.com video breakdown of Holbrook’s call below. 

    For the Cardinals I will say that they played better baseball Friday evening than did the Braves, and they deserved their victory.

    For the Braves, I contend that the team deserved every opportunity to see their 8th inning rally effort through. And ultimately, baseball’s 4th best team deserved more than a mere 9 innings to determine its own fate.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    What went wrong… no peace I find

    Editor’s Note: BravesWire.com contributor, former sports writer and lifelong Braves fan Bud L. Ellis has seen it all since attending his first Braves’ game in 1979 … but nothing like the collapse that cost the Braves the 2011 NL Wild Card. At Turner Field for the final game of the season Wednesday, Ellis shares his thoughts on what happened, and how things went terribly wrong.

    By Bud L. Ellis
    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The ball slammed into the first baseman’s mitt at 11:42 p.m., and Freddie Freeman reached for his batting helmet. The Atlanta Braves’ rookie, out by at step on the final play of a season turned upside down, slammed his headgear toward the Turner Field baseline.

    Freeman dropped into a crouch behind the bag, as a roaring crowd of 45,350 turned deathly quiet. An hour earlier, the Braves stood two outs away from extending their season to a 163rd game, a one-game playoff against the white-hot St. Louis Cardinals for the National League wild card, the playoff spot the Braves firmly gripped with both hands just four short weeks earlier.

    Braves first baseman, Freddie Freeman

    At 18 minutes before midnight, the final bell rang on the Braves’ 2011 season, ending a collapse never experienced before in the sometimes-proud, sometimes-putrid 130-year history of the franchise. Ahead in the NL wild-card standings by 8 1/2 games on Labor Day, the Braves finished one game behind St. Louis, an epic fall that shook every nook and cranny of Braves Nation to its very core.

    Seated in the front row of the terrace level at Turner Field, I sat quietly for close to five minutes before accepting the fact my offseason had started. As I slowly made my way toward the parking lot, toward a winter of discontent, the baritone sounds of Ray Charles, “Georgia On My Mind” played over the loudspeakers.

    As a Braves fan for the past 32 years, and as a sports writer for more than a decade, the baseball season defines my year. And this year crashed around me, the final piece landing with a thud right in front of my dazed eyes. Some 23 hours later, I sat in my home office, a room adorned with Braves’ items of all shapes, sizes and creation. It’s the room where I watch close to 150 games a year. The ones I don’t see from here, I see with my own two eyes in person.

    Trying to comprehend the most difficult month of my baseball life, I turned to the only therapy this Scribe knows.

    I started to write …

    Winds of Change

    As the Braves flew out of Chicago on Aug. 25 toward New York City, Atlanta sat 26 games over .500 at 79-53, and led the NL wild-card race by 9 ½ games over defending World Series champion San Francisco. The day’s 8-3 victory certainly was noteworthy, Atlanta’s seventh victory in eight games. But while the Braves worked their way toward The City That Never Sleeps, hundreds of thousands fled in the opposite direction.

    Hurricane Irene was working its way north along the Southeast Coast. The Big Apple sat squarely in the monster storm’s sights. Several Major League games for the weekend already had been postponed by the time many of the Braves left their Manhattan hotel for Citi Field and Friday’s series opener with the Mets. Upon arriving, they learned the final two games of the series were being moved to Sept. 8, an off day for both teams.

    Atlanta never looked interested in that night’s 6-0 loss, and one certainly could understand. The Braves jumped on their charter and flew safely home while the nation held its breath. As it turned out, Irene weakened considerably before lashing its way ashore in New England. The feared flooding of America’s largest city didn’t happen; the devastation instead reserved for areas farther inland where torrential rains spilled rivers into houses and businesses throughout the Northeast.

    In the grand scheme of things, in things that really matter, a hurricane outweighs the championship pursuit of a baseball team. But with a sudden August weekend away from the diamond, coupled with a scheduled off day Monday, the hottest team in baseball found itself with what amounted to a second All-Star break in as many months.

    In hindsight, the Braves never were the same. The team that flew into the storm’s path was on a 96-win pace.

    It would win just 10 more times the rest of the season.

    A Stacked Deck

    Any Braves fan who peeked at the 2011 schedule when it was published last September circled the first full week of the season’s final month as one worth watching. A difficult six-game road trip loomed, with three games in Philadelphia and three in St. Louis. At least an off day on Thursday, Sept. 8, broke up the stretch.

    But that date would be filled with baseball, a double-dip, the two makeup games from Irene. Atlanta had lost six of nine after the break, arriving in New York for the doubleheader after being swept by Philly. But with 20 games to go, Atlanta led the Cardinals by 6 ½ games in the wild-card race, and a doubleheader sweep of the Mets calmed any jitters Braves Nation felt entering a weekend set under the Gateway Arch.

    Then came the game that many will point to for years to come as the one that triggered the slide toward early winter. Michael Bourn, the speedy center fielder whose acquisition at the trade deadline vaulted the Braves into the conversation as a serious World Series contender, tripled in the top of the ninth (his fourth hit of the night) to drive in a run, giving Atlanta a 3-1 lead.

    On came Craig Kimbrel, the rookie closer who had converted 43-of-47 save opportunities. The flame-throwing righty had not allowed an earned run in 37 2/3 innings, locking down 25 consecutive save chances. But not on this night. Kimbrel couldn’t hold a two-run lead, allowing a pair of runs in a game the Braves eventually lost in extra innings.

    Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel

    The Cardinals took advantage, sweeping the series to pull within 4 ½ games. While it’s unfair to pin the entire month of September on a player who set a major-league record for saves by a rookie, the fact remains if the Cardinals don’t push across two runs in that fateful bottom of the ninth, Atlanta would have left St. Louis with no worse than a 6 ½ game lead. With their boot on the Cardinals’ neck, the Braves couldn’t deliver the crushing knockout blow.

    The failure to do so would prove fatal to Atlanta in the end.

    Pressure Cooker

    As disturbing as the St. Louis series was, in immediate review it wasn’t cause for full-fledged panic. The math dictated the Braves still were fine. With 15 games left, Atlanta had a magic number of 12 to clinch its second consecutive wild-card berth. With the Marlins and Mets waiting at Turner Field, the Braves left the Midwest with plenty of reason to be optimistic.

    And yet, chinks in the armor had started to show. The once-unshakable bullpen showed signs of wear. Atlanta would lead all of the majors in extra-inning games. More than one-third of its games would end up being decided by one run. All those phone calls from first-year Braves’ skipper Fredi Gonzalez to the big three of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Kimbrel were starting to resonate.

    As the Cardinals refused to go away – St. Louis would finish September 18-8 and win 11 of its final 15 – and the close games and pressure continued to mount, the Braves drew tighter. Eight of Atlanta’s final 17 games were decided by two runs or less. The team’s average with runners in scoring position plummeted. The players who helped carry Atlanta into the NL Division Series last season – a tense four-game loss to the eventual champion Giants that featured four games decided by one run – were unable to do what they had done all summer.

    The Braves went 17-9 in June and in August, 16-11 in July. September was a horror show that played out amid an unfathomable barrage of shaky relief, short outings from the starting rotation and the inability to drive in runners on base. All of a sudden, the Braves looked like an also-ran, not a playoff powerhouse. Atlanta would win just nine of 27 games in the season’s final month. The Braves split that six-game homestand against Florida and New York, then dropped two out of three in Florida.

    At the most critical time of the season, the Braves had played their worst baseball of the season. Panic started to set in among Braves Nation.

    Extra Agony

    As the sun rose on Sept. 22, the Braves’ once unconquerable wild-card lead stood at a shaky 1 ½ games. With a day off before opening a three-game set in Washington, Atlanta and its fans stood in awe as the Cardinals’ momentum imploded. Leading 6-2 after eight innings at home, St. Louis allowed six runs in the top of the ninth to the Mets. Now two games ahead, the Braves took full advantage the next night, jumping on Washington in the series opener for a 7-4 victory while the Cardinals fell to the Cubs 5-1.

    The lead stood at three games. The magic number to clinch also stood at three. Order had been restored, and Braves Nation breathed a sigh of relief. But baseball is a cruel mistress, one that will turn her back on you at the drop of a hat. Atlanta dropped the final two games in Washington, then returned home and lost two in a row to Philadelphia. At the same time St. Louis won three of its next four, drawing even in the standings with one game to go.

    Lowe's struggles played a large role in Braves collapse

    Game No. 162 arrived, and the faithful denizens of Braves Nation filled Turner Field, shaking the stadium the way the original Tomahawk Choppers made Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium one of pro sports’ most intimidating venues two decades earlier. Atlanta jumped to a 3-1 lead on Dan Uggla’s homer in the third. When the Cardinals batted around in Houston in the first inning, it appeared the two teams were on a collision course for a one-game playoff the next night.

    But the final game of the regular season turned out to be a perfect microcosm of Atlanta’s September stumble. The Braves would not score again after Uggla’s third-inning blast. The Phillies drew within one on Jack Wilson’s error in the seventh. And while Venters escaped a mess in the eighth, Kimbrel could not do so in the ninth. Two outs from heading to St. Louis, the Braves gave up the tying run.

    When the 13th inning dawned, the end felt near. Atlanta had spent the past 10 innings swinging for the fences, coming up empty. Sure enough, a bleeder to right by Hunter Pence plated the eventual winning run. Uggla reached with one out in the home half, but Freeman’s shot to first was corralled, starting the season-ending double play that slapped Braves Nation across the face like a cold shot of wind from the north.

    Winter arrived far too soon. And in the front row of Section 223, a 38-year-old father of two who thought he’d seen it all the past 32 years bowed his head in agony.

    “No Peace I Find”

    Had you descended from some distant planet in the fall of 1999 and landed next to me in the overflow press seating in the left-field stands of Turner Field, you might think it always was like this. Covering the World Series for a suburban Atlanta newspaper that October, I still remember thinking just how surreal it seemed to be watching the Braves – a team I grew up cheering for despite multiple 90-loss seasons, last-place finishes and just two playoff appearances from 1966-1990 – play for baseball’s biggest prize.

    Atlanta reached the Fall Classic five times in the 1990s. I was blessed to see the Braves win it all in person in 1995. I was cursed to see the final three games at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the next October, three losses to the Yankees after the Braves escaped from New York with a 2-0 Series lead. By 1999, playing for it all seemed old hat to many.

    But not to me. I remember 1983, the year the Braves led the NL West by 6 ½ games in mid-August only to lost 27 of its final 44 games to finish two games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. I remember the brutal years of the mid and late 1980s, when Atlanta finished last five times in six years in the West while Bobby Cox rebuilt the farm system. I remember the feeling of watching a second consecutive World Series title slip away in 1996.

    And yet, nothing seems to fit what I’ve watched the past month. The Braves’ collapse of 2011 was simultaneously slow and sudden. A jarring hit, followed by the reassurance the lead was big enough, the calendar was short enough, to keep the unthinkable from happening. But the Cardinals kept winning, the Braves kept losing, and just enough time remained on the stopwatch for the door to slam on the fingers of the Braves and its saddened, stunned fan base.

    Similar circumstances would wreck some franchises. There would be knee-jerk reactions, firings and trades driven by pure, raw emotion. One point of solace to take from this is the Braves will not engage in such behavior. Certainly, there are hard questions to ask and, yes, fingers to point, after 2011 turned so sour after such a sweet summer.

    But the team that finds itself packing up its lockers and heading home is a good squad, with a good mix of veterans and youngsters primed for future success. One can only hope the lessons learned will resonate from this lost opportunity will resonate throughout 2012 and beyond. But that doesn’t heal the gaping wound that festers and oozes at the moment.

    The worst part of this didn’t come with the final out, or the 50-mile drive home in silence, or 90 minutes of far from restful sleep. It came with dawn’s early light, in telling two young boys their favorite baseball team couldn’t come through when we needed it most. And as I hugged my two sons and tried to explain what happened, I thought back to the lyrics Ray Charles sang as Braves Nation trudged out of Turner Field a few hours earlier:

    “No peace, no peace I find.”

    —30—

    Follow Bud L. Ellis on Twitter: @bud006

    The Braves’ 5 critical keys

    by Kent Covington

    So… how ‘bout that road trip?!

    As I watched the Cardinals take a 5-0 lead in route to sticking the Braves with their second sweep in a week’s time, I fully expected to hear Jigsaw’s voice in my living room (for those of you who didn’t get that reference, please Google the terms “Saw”and “torture”).  Fortunately, I didn’t have to saw off my foot to reach the remote.  It might have been a difficult choice, had I been faced with it.

    Braves' highest paid player, Derek Lowe, is just 9-14 with a 4.70 ERA


    The bad news:
    Atlanta’s once mighty Wild Card lead has been cut in half to 4.5 games entering play against the Marlins at Turner Field Monday night.  First-half ace, Jair Jurrjens, may very well be out for the remainder of the season.  Tommy Hanson is still on the shelf.  Martin Prado and Jason Heyward continue to look like poor imitations of themselves.  Johnny Venters may finally be showing the wear and tear of two years of inexorable overuse.  Derek Lowe, after providing Braves fans with a brief swell of optimism, has reminded us that he cannot be wagered upon. And the veteran leader of the staff, Tim Hudson, who had been brilliant nearly all year, has looked lately as though he’s drinking from the same water fountain (or keg spout) as Lowe.

    The good news: The Braves still have a 4.5 game lead in the Wild Card race, which at this point in the season is substantial.  They have only 3 games remaining against a winning team (3-game set at home against the Phillies to close the season).  They also have a few weeks to get their **** together before they begin postseason play, assuming they’re able to find a foothold on the side of this cliff they’ve been sliding down recently.

    While it is not the all-but-over race it appeared to be a week ago, I still believe the Braves will repeat as NL Wild winners.  However, if the Braves once again limp into the playoffs, playing their worst baseball since April… will it matter?  I doubt a repeat of last year’s postseason script will do much for Braves fans.

    With that in mind, what are the keys if the Braves are to not only lock down a postseason berth, but compete for something that matters when they get there?

    What to watch…  the Braves 5 critical keys (in no particular order):

    •  Tommy Hanson:  A healthy Tommy Hanson is a MUST for the postseason.  It’s important that he’s not only healthy by the end of September, but also that he’s able to make multiple starts in preparation for the NLDS.
    • Tim Hudson:  The Braves desperately need him to find the handle and regain his command.  He must be the anchor for this injury plagued pitching staff.
    • Derek Lowe:  Lowe reminded us last September/October that he is capable of earning at least some of that ridiculous paycheck of his.  And that ability could not have entirely vanished in a year’s time.  He’s capable, but woefully unreliable. The Braves will just have to hope and pray for the best when he takes the hill.
    • Johnny Venters:  Worn out?  Venters clearly has not been the light’s out super-setup man lately that he was most of the season.  The back-end of the Braves’ bullpen has been a mainstay all year long. Needless to say, Venters is a huge part of that.
    • Martin Prado:  The production that made him what many believed to be the team’s MVP in ’10 has been sorely missed this season. There is still time for Prado to iron out the wrinkles.

     

    Game on! And… game over

    By Kent Covington

    Jair Jurrjens will take the ball for game-1 of the series Tuesday night

    After an unexpected 3-day vacation, courtesy of Hurricane Irene, the Braves return to action tonight to take on the perennially losing—yet somehow fearsome—Washington Nationals at Turner Field.

    The bad news: The Nationals have been a thorn in the Braves’ side. To Atlanta, the Nats are more irritating than a screaming kid in a restaurant; the guy in front of you on the freeway whose phone call is apparently much more interesting than driving; giggling teens in a movie theater; text spam; a shopping cart left in the middle of the only vacant parking space, and… well, you get the point. They’re annoying. In recent years, it seems the Nats have saved their best baseball for Atlanta, making nearly every contest anything but an easy win—if a win at all.

    The good news: It doesn’t matter.

    The Braves currently hold a 9-game lead in the NL Wild Card race (10 games in the loss column) over the second place San Francisco Giants.

    If the Braves were to go just 15-14 in their remaining 29 games, they would finish the season with a 94-68 record.  The Giants would have to play .852 baseball (23-4) from here out just to force a 1-game playoff for the Wild Card berth.  That assumes the NL West leading Arizona Diamondbacks would be able stave off the Gaints in the division race, which in this hypothetical scenario, would force them to play .704 ball (19-8) the rest of the way.

    Baseball Prospectus currently places the Braves’ likelihood of winning the NL Wild Card at 95%. I gotta tell ya… from where I’m sitting, that seems low.

    On the other hand, Atlanta’s odds of overtaking the first place Philadelphia Phillies for the NL East pennant are, unfortunately, almost as anorexic.

    Bottom line: It’s over. The Braves will repeat as NL Wild Card winners. The Phillies will win the East. And it appears the sizzling hot Milwaukee Brewers can now coast into the winner’s circle with the NL Central pennant. The only remaining question in the National League is who will come out of the West.  However, that race could also be decided with nearly a month left in the season if the Giants don’t find their groove quickly (they currently trail the D-Backs by 5 games).

    So boys and girls, while the Nationals seem to relish their role as tomahawk tormentors, they won’t have the pleasure now. Even if they win this midweek series, they can’t play spoiler. This time, the Nationals—and every other opponent from now until game-1 of the NLDS in Milwaukee—will be seen as only one thing to the Braves… practice squad.

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    Braves take Giant step toward October

    By Bud L. Ellis

    I’ve been around the grand ol’ game long enough to know a baseball season is a long march, from the briskness of April through the stifling heat of summer into the chilly pressure cooker of October.

    Randall Delgado impressed in second career start Tuesday.

    But there are times during the 162-step journey to the postseason when you can feel the finish line, even on the third Monday of August. Sitting in Turner Field on Monday, a refreshing breeze blew through the ballyard downtown, making it feel nothing like the dog days of summer.

    In the air was something else that hinted of October. The Atlanta Braves hit the field for a big four-game set with the team that bounced them from the playoffs last season, the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Four games against the champs, followed by three games with the biggest surprise in baseball this season, NL West-leader Arizona.

    And now we sit four nights later, and the Braves find themselves squarely in the driver’s seat for their second-consecutive NL wild-card berth. A four-game lead four nights ago now sits at six, the Braves taking three out of four against San Francisco, capping the series win with a tense 1-0 victory Thursday that felt every bit like the games that will be staged two months from now.

    The Braves extended their advantage in the wild-card standings, but it’s the manner in which Atlanta found success the past 100 hours that causes thoughts to dance toward what could be for this team. Consider:

    Monday, the Braves were down to their final strike, before Freddie Freeman ripped a single off Brian Wilson to plate two runs in the bottom of the ninth, giving Atlanta a 5-4 victory.

    Tuesday, rookie Randall Delgado carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning in just his second major-league start, and after fellow rookie Arodys Vizcaino shut down the Giants in the 10th and 11th innings, Martin Prado’s single sent Atlanta to a 2-1 win.

    The Braves fell 7-5 on Wednesday, but scored four times in the bottom of the ninth and brought the tying run to the plate.

    M.Minor outpitched Giants ace, T. Lincecum, Thurs in 1-0 win.

    Thursday, Mike Minor outdueled Tim Lincecum, striking out nine in six innings as Chipper Jones’ solo homer propelled the Braves to the series victory.

    Roll this around your brain for a minute: The past four nights against the defending World Series champions, this generation’s version of the Braves’ Young Guns – Minor, Delgado, Vizcaino, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel – struck out 18 hitters in 18 innings while allowing one run.

    Venters and Kimbrel were rookies a year ago. Delgado started the season at Double-A; Vizcaino at Single-A. Minor has bounced between Atlanta and Triple-A all season, but in his past two starts – a victory over the Cubs on Friday and Thursday’s gem – the left-hander has shown a level of comfort and confidence on the mound that speaks to better times ahead.

    You could say that about the Braves as a whole. The infusion of speed from Michael Bourn and Jose Constanza, the return to health for Jones and Brian McCann, and the solid work being done by the three-headed monster of Eric O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel gives Atlanta every reason to believe these won’t be the only games of meaning it plays this season.

    October is reserved for baseball’s grandest moments, when the grind of the regular season transforms into a tension-filled sprint to the world championship. Six weeks to go. A six-game lead in the wild card. Four more days off the calendar, and a giant step taken toward October.

    —30—

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    SOUTHERN FRIED BASEBALL RADIO: 8-8-11… Can the Braves Match the Phillies?

     

    Braves stil boast the NL's second-best record

    The Braves are winning. BUT… they still aren’t firing on all cylinders.  The NL East pennant race is likely a lost cause. However, the NL Wild Card leading Braves could still be on a collision course with the Phillies come October.  So how ’bout it…  Can the Braves match the Phillies? Kent Covington breaks it all down in this week’s edition of Southern Fried Baseball radio.

    (NOTE: Please notice “play in popup” link under flash player. This is often a more convenient way to listen.)

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    Follow Kent on Twitter: @FriedBasballATL

    Are the Braves still in the NL East hunt?

    by Kent Covington

    After another frustrating loss to the Nationals, coupled with an extra-innings win by the NL East-leading Phillies in Colorado, the Braves now find themselves 7 games out of first place. Eight games in the loss column.  This begs the question…

    Are the Braves still in the hunt for the NL East pennant?

    With 1/3 of the season still remaining, the answer is yes, they are still in the race in the East. Needless to say, however, it’s going to be tougher than a frozen bag of Jack Links.

    Here are a couple of scenarios that would force a 1-game playoff to determine the division champ:

    1)  The Braves play white hot .750 baseball the rest of the way (39-13), and the Phillies play out the season at a .611 clip (33-21).

    2)  The Braves play .692 ball from here out (36-16). Meanwhile, the Phillies scuffle just a bit and play .555 baseball (30-24).

    These scenarios are obviously unlikely. Then again, standings can shift in the blink of an eye in baseball.  If Atlanta could reel off an 8 or 9 game winning streak in the very near future, they might just trim a few games off Philly’s lead and turn that 7-game deficit into something much more manageable.  Overtaking the Phillies at this point will be very difficult, but not impossible.

    The good news, of course, is that Braves currently rest atop the Wild Card standings, 2.5 games in front of the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks. While the odds of knocking the Phillies off their NL East perch are increasingly slim, they have an excellent opportunity to repeat as the NL Wild Card winners.

    But winning the NL East pennant is worth more than just bragging rights. If the Braves hold on to win a Wild Card postseason berth, their road to the World Series would most likely wind through BOTH San Francisco and Philadelphia, without home field advantage for either series. Meanwhile, the Phillies would open against the NL Central champs, who will likely be a weaker opponent than the defending World Series Champion Giants. And the Phillies would have home field throughout the postseason.

    Nevertheless, 3 of the last 10 World Series Champions earned their postseason berth via the Wild Card. So while that “2011 NL East Champions” banner would look pretty alongside the other 14 currently hanging at “The Ted”, and the division pennant is the preferable path to the postseason, the important thing is to get there. One way or the other.
     

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