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For struggling Braves, all is not lost
The collapse is that painful; the Braves led the Cardinals by 10½ games on Aug. 26, but since have gone 9-16 in September, leaving the National League wild card undecided with two games remaining.
Still, a few stragglers gathered inside the players’ lounge in the home clubhouse late Monday night, unwilling to leave Turner Field until they knew whether the Braves would retain their one-game lead or fall into a tie with the Cardinals.
Two clubhouse attendants were present. Media-relations director Brad Hainje. Strength coach Phil Falco. And one 13-year veteran, pitcher Tim Hudson.
“Got to squeeze here,” Hudson said as the Astros put runners on first and third with one out in the 10th.
Falco said no, not a good idea.
“Expect the unexpected,” Hudson replied.
Second later, the room erupted in shouting and glee.
The Astros’ Angel Sanchez laid down a squeeze bunt in front of home plate. Cardinals right-hander Octavio Dotel mishandled his attempt to flip the ball to catcher Yadier Molina. The Astros won, 5-4, and the Braves retained their one-game lead over the Cardinals.
Hudson, who recalled Dotel’s brief stint with the Braves in 2007, knew that the reliever had awkward footwork getting off the mound.
“Tell Fredi (Gonzalez) to call me when he needs some advice,” Hudson cracked as he left the ballpark, referring, of course, to his manager.
And so the night ended on a happy note for the Braves. But before that – heck, for nearly all of September –almost every chord had been sour.
Only the Red Sox’s foibles have deflected attention from the Braves, a team that has broken down in almost every way imaginable.
The rotation is missing injured right-handers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. The offense inexplicably ranks 14th in the NL in runs in September. The bullpen, arguably the strength of the team, appears worn out.
Backup catcher David Ross, trying to inject some levity in the clubhouse, amused his teammates before Monday night’s game with some hilarious imitations of Lou Brown, the manager in the film, “Major League.”
The Phillies’ Cliff Lee, however, is a walking mute button for a team in search of a laugh track. Lee spotted the Braves a 2-0 lead, then retired 14 of his final 15 hitters in a six-inning postseason tuneup. The Phils’ offense and bullpen did the rest, securing the team’s 100th victory.
And so the countdown continues - two days left in the regular season now, maybe three if the Braves and Cardinals need to play a tiebreaker in St. Louis. The Cardinals would host the game because they won the season series, 5-1.
The Braves, who currently are using three rookie starters, will pitch veterans in the final two games - Derek Lowe against Roy Oswalt on Tuesday, Hudson against a set of Phillies’ relievers on Wednesday.
Crazy as it sounds, as poorly as the Braves have performed, third baseman Chipper Jones said that it does not feel as though the team is reeling.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Jones, who is likely to undergo an MRI on Tuesday for his ailing right knee. “How many teams still in the playoff hunt are running three rookies out there (to pitch) every five days?
“Baseball is a funny game. You don’t decide when your bats go quiet. You don’t decide when you get major injuries to you pitching staff. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.
“If you can dictate when you were going to go into a slump, certainly the end of September would not be it. I think that we’re close. We’re just having a little trouble getting over the hump.”
More offense would help; as Jones put it, “You’ve got to go out and take it with the bats.” But the Braves, even after the addition of leadoff man Michael Bourn on July 31, rank only ninth in the NL in runs.
Catcher Brian McCann is batting .168/.288/.336 in 146 plate appearances since returning from a strained left oblique on Aug. 14. He paused for a long time when asked how he felt Monday night, then said, “I feel all right.” After the game, he engaged in a long conversation at his locker with the Braves’ assistant hitting instructor, Lee Elia.
Bourn’s on-base percentage in September is .299. Right fielder Jason Heyward only recently began showing the form of his rookie season a year ago. Left fielder Martin Prado, considered an emerging star in the first half of 2010, is batting only .263/.308/.390 since July 9 of that season.
Some with the Braves believe that the team has not been the same since rookie closer Craig Kimbrel blew a save in the series opener against the Cardinals on Sept. 9, ending his streak of 37 2/3 scoreless innings.
Then again, how long can one crushing defeat linger? More than two weeks have passed, and the Braves just lost consecutive series to three sub-.500 clubs - the Mets, Marlins and Nationals.
“It’s a big challenge right now,” Hudson said. “If we step up and get it done and get in the playoffs, the weight of the world is off our shoulders and we go in ready to kick some ass.
“If we don’t get in, if we blow this lead, we didn’t deserve to get in anyway. It’s one of those things – put up or shut up.”
Hudson put up in his own way Monday night, predicting the Astros’ game-winning squeeze. His teammates, after stepping into the darkness of another lost night, missed all the fun.
The light for their season stayed on just a little bit longer.