Our love for the Braves goes back to the Dale Murphy days. (Foxsports.com)
Yes, we’re Braves’ fans. But no, we’re no bandwagon jumpers. In fact, we’ve been fans of the team since the days when Dale Murphy patrolled centre field and 90-loss or worse seasons were a common occurrence.
In recent years, during the Braves’ unprecedented run of success, many “experts” have predicted the demise of the club, but Atlanta always found a way to win. We have resisted such portents of doom, always suggesting until it happened, you had to give the benefit of the doubt to the Braves.
That is why when we say this now, it is with a heavy heart and a tone of resignation: the fat lady may not quite be singing yet, but I believe she is warming up in Atlanta.
It was never so clear that Atlanta’s bid for a 15th consecutive division title was about to come to a screeching halt as this weekend, when the division-leading Mets came to town and simply hammered the Braves in three straight. The convincing sweep (27-13 composite score) — the Mets’ first in Atlanta in 21 years — left no room for interpretation: Carlos Beltran, David Wright, et al., are now the class of the NL East.
A sweep of the Mets would have pulled the Braves within nine games of the division lead, still a Sysyphian-like task to achieve. But by getting swept, Atlanta is now 15 games back. And the psychological barrier to overcome after getting embarrassed so thoroughly in front of their own fans probably makes that feel more like a 40-game deficit.
For the first time since Home Alone was a box office hit, Atlanta will have to find another way into the playoffs; it must employ the lowly Wild Card if it hopes to see postseason play.
Many of the Braves’ players are refusing to discuss the Wild Card possibility, continuing to suggest that they will remain focused on the division title until mathematics make it an impossibility. Second baseman Marcus Giles put it best, saying while they still want the division, if worst comes to worst, and they have to settle for the Wild Card, “then, if you have to accept kissing your sister, so be it.”
Of course, if Jennifer Connelly was the sister we’re talking about, that might be another story.
So what went wrong in Atlanta this year?
Right from the outset of the season, our contention was that you get what you pay for. The Braves believed that they could get by with a bargain-basement bullpen, and that, along with some surprisingly suspect starting pitching, proved their undoing. Skeptics might suggest the departure of pitching coach Leo Mazzone was the biggest loss of all. However, it’s difficult to imagine even Rockin’ Leo fixing this trainwreck.
In the last week and a half, Atlanta has acquired Cleveland closer Bob Wickman and former Devil Rays closer Danys Baez. But can you say “too little, too late?”
Other than John Smoltz, the team hasn’t had a consistent starter all year. Opening Day starter Tim Hudson has been nothing short of dreadful, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to discover that he’s been pitching hurt. How else can you explain a pitcher of his pedrigree and track record experiencing such a monumental collapse?
That 6-21 June left the Braves in a Godzilla footprint-sized hole that even their torrid July showing (14-7 before being bitch-slapped by the Mets) couldn’t rescue them from.
At one point, Atlanta even spent a full week in last place in the East, as many as 16 games back of first. That’s a new experience for an entire generation of Braves’ fans.
Now the Braves find themselves 6.5 games back in the Wild Card race, certainly not an insurmountable gap, but one made all the more difficult by the sheer number of teams involved. Atlanta must pass eight teams to reach the Wild Card lead. Add Murphy, Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro in their primes and it would still be a tall order. Hell, we don’t even think Biff Pocoroba — despite having one of the greatest names in Atlanta Braves’ history — could save the team now.
Atlanta sets out on a road trip now, and that may not be a bad thing, as it’s actually been better away from Turner Field so far in 2006. Three in Pittsburgh is usually a good tonic for whatever ails you, but the Pirates have actually won five straight, so they seem to be playing the spoiler to perfection of late.
The Braves then go to Cincinnati for a three-game set, and considering the Reds lead the Wild Card race, no series will be bigger for Atlanta all year. If they can sweep, suddenly they might have life. Almost anything short of that will probably render the remainder of the season moot.
For the Braves and their fans, it’s time to put the earplugs in, focus on the task at hand and try to drown out that fat lady. We’ll know a lot more about the 2006 Atlanta Braves and their fortitude one week from today.