Braves riding backups atop NL wild card
David Ross took one look at the lineup, saw that he was batting sixth and jokingly asked Braves manager Bobby Cox if he had been drinking.
Cox shot back with a quip of his own.
“He said that he was about four drinks deep last night and had me in the four hole,” Ross recalled Wednesday night. “But then he woke up this morning, came to his senses and put me in the six hole.”
Well, maybe Cox should bat Ross sixth more often.
Ross hit a career-high three doubles Wednesday as the Braves kept their wild-card lead at 1 1/2 games with a 5-1 victory over the Marlins.
It was only the 21st time in Ross’ nine-year career that he has batted sixth or higher — and the last time he had batted in that spot, on Aug. 11, he hit two doubles, according to STATS LLC.
So it goes for the injury-riddled Braves, whose heroics the last two games included contributions from three players who normally are on the bench:
Eric Hinske, who hit a two-run, pinch-hit homer Tuesday night.
Brooks Conrad, who hit a three-run homer Wednesday as the substitute for injured third baseman Martin Prado.
Ross, who was making his first start in two weeks in place of the team’s regular catcher and cleanup hitter, Brian McCann. Ross’ two-out double in the third gave the Braves a 1-0 lead and preceded Conrad’s three-run shot.
The loss of Prado, who suffered a hip pointer and torn oblique muscle on Monday, cost the Braves their No. 3 hitter — and the replacement for the player who previously had hit third, Chipper Jones.
Yet, the Braves march on.
“Everyone was sad (about Prado),” Ross said. “But you have to deal with things like this as you’re coming up. When you come up through the minor leagues, you have to grind it out. No one feels sorry for you.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are grinders. Obviously losing Martin Prado is a big blow for us. At the same time, we replaced him with a guy who everyone in our locker room has respect for.”
That would be Conrad, a 30-year-old journeyman whose previous seven homers this season had all come in the seventh inning or later.
Conrad had appeared in 1,103 minor-league games before this season — and only 36 in the majors.
“Half our team is happier when he gets a hit than when get a hit themselves,” Ross said.
“The way he plays, the way he brings it every day, the way he carries himself, just the person he is, always energetic.
“We call him, ‘red-ass,’ sometimes. He’s so fired up all the time, it’s great.”
All of the Braves seem fired up now.
The team’s last two victories were due largely to the efforts of right-handers Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe. Both pitched on three days rest. Together, they allowed just two runs in 11 2/3 innings.
Then, there is Cox.
His pending retirement only adds to the drama.
“We gave him a standing ovation on the bus after he won his 2,500th game (on Saturday in Washington),” Ross said. “He waved at us to sit down. He was like ‘Shut up, guys.’ He’s not into that.”
No, Cox is into winning. And he is not finished yet.
Right-hander Bronson Arroyo figures to be the Reds’ starter for Game 1 of the Division Series against every possible opponent but one.
Arroyo would be particularly vulnerable to the Phillies’ left-handed sluggers — lefties are batting .287/.336/.456 against him this season, righties .185/.251/.328. No pitcher in the majors is holding right-handed hitters to a lower batting average.
Rookie left-hander Travis Wood almost certainly would be in the Reds’ rotation if the team played the Phillies — he took a perfect game into the ninth inning at Citizens Bank Park on July 10.
Game 1, though, likely would go to right-hander Edinson Volquez or righty Johnny Cueto.
Volquez has a 1.95 ERA in four starts since a stint at Class A to work on his command and delivery coming off Tommy John surgery.
Cueto, meanwhile, has a 1.20 ERA in two starts against the Phillies this season, June 28 at home and July 8 in Philadelphia.
WHAT TO DO WITH ZITO?
There is no getting around it.
Giants left-hander Barry Zito has a 6.50 ERA in his last 10 starts.
Lefty Jonathan Sanchez has a 1.16 ERA in his last six, rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner a 1.00 ERA in his last four.
Which ones would you start if the Giants reached the postseason?
The Giants usually are partial to veterans. It’s conceivable that Zito could even pitch Game 2, breaking up right-handers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. But Sanchez clearly has emerged as the team’s third-best starter.
Zito in relief?
Well, he has made only two career appearances out of the bullpen in 354 games, most recently on Aug. 25, when he worked the 12th and final inning, suffering a loss to the Reds.
One rival NL official says left-handed hitters see the ball well off Zito, but his numbers this season suggest otherwise.
Left-handed hitters are batting .228/.330/.377 against him, right-handed hitters .253/.324/.402.
THE RANGERS’ LOWE-DOWN
Rangers right-hander Mark Lowe, acquired in the Cliff Lee trade, made his first appearance with the team Wednesday night — and could end up on the postseason roster.
Lowe, who underwent back surgery in early May, struck out two and allowed one hit in a scoreless inning against the Mariners, throwing in the mid-90s.
He is expected to make two more appearances before the end of the regular season.
“He may be a longshot, but he is definitely a consideration,” one club official said.
FRENCHY CAN THROW
The Rangers’ Jeff Francoeur has made a strong offensive contribution since arriving in a trade on Aug. 31, batting .354/.373/.521 in 54 plate appearances.
Francoeur’s arm, however, still might be the most impressive part of his game. His 11 outfield assists mark the sixth straight season he has reached double digits in that category.
According to STATS LLC, the only three players with streaks of that length since 1980 are Jesse Barfield (seven seasons, 1985 to ’91), Vladimir Guerrero (six, 1999 to 2004) and Tom Brunansky (six, 1983 to ’88).