Braves battling to hang on to wild card

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 28, 2011

Their collapse all but complete, the Braves have one thing and one thing only going for them in Game No. 162.

Right-hander Tim Hudson.

“I'll be having the most fun of anyone in the stadium,” Hudson said.

Hudson, you may recall, started Game No. 162 for the Braves last season under virtually identical circumstances.

The Phillies, preparing for the postseason, used a variety of pitchers at Turner Field, just as they intend to do Wednesday night.

Hudson left with an 8-4 lead after seven innings. The Braves clinched the National League wild card with an 8-7 victory, combined with a Padres loss the Giants. Manager Bobby Cox, on the verge of retirement, returned to the playoffs one last time.

The difference now?

None really. A victory Wednesday night — combined with a Cardinals’ victory in Houston — would only prolong the Braves’ season for one more day.

The Braves lost their one-game lead in the wild-card race on Tuesday night, lost it by falling meekly to the Phillies 7-1 while the Cardinals rallied from a 5-0 deficit to trounce the Astros 13-6.

Here’s how desperate things are in Atlanta: Fans were urging on the Astros, the worst team in the majors, chanting, “Let’s go Houston!” after the Braves fell behind early and the Astros took their big lead.

“I heard it in center field,” said Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, who joined the team in a trade with the Astros on July 31. “I was actually bobbing my head to it. I was right there with ’em. ‘Let’s go Astros.’ ”

The chant again will come in handy Wednesday night — a lot handier than that tired old warhorse, the “Tomahawk Chop.”

The Cardinals, too, will start their ace in Game No. 162: right-hander Chris Carpenter. The Astros will counter with a suddenly hot pitcher of their own, righty Brett Myers, who is 4-0 with a 1.24 ERA in his past five starts.

A tiebreaker, if necessary, would be Thursday in St. Louis, Braves rookie Brandon Beachy vs. Cardinals veteran Kyle Lohse.

It never should have come to this, and the Braves know it.

“It’s like we’re living out a bad dream,” said third baseman Chipper Jones, who went 0 for 3.

The Braves led the Cardinals by 10-1/2 games at the start of play Aug. 26. Since then, the Cardinals are 21-9, the Braves 10-19.

For Atlanta, the past six games have been particularly excruciating. The Braves have lost five of the six while scoring just 11 runs, seven of them in one game.

The Phillies, kicking themselves into gear for a World Series run, are proving the worst possible opponent to conclude the regular season.

Righty Roy Oswalt pitched six shutout innings on Tuesday night. Left-handed reliever Antonio Bastardo showed renewed life on his fastball. Three members of the Phillies’ recent walking wounded – Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence – hit home runs.

The Braves, though, have no one to blame for their current position but themselves, not after losing consecutive series to the Mets, Marlins and Nationals. It’s true they have injuries. But the Cardinals never had right-hander Adam Wainwright; now they’re without left fielder Matt Holliday and shortstop Rafael Furcal. As Hudson said, “that’s baseball.”

And now it comes down to one game — maybe two.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez, in his first season as Cox’s replacement, met briefly with his players after Tuesday night’s defeat, reaffirming his confidence in the team.

“There is not a person in that locker room that I don’t want on my team, that I wouldn’t want on my team to play that game,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve played 161 games with those guys in there. And I wouldn’t trade any of ’em to play (the final game).”

Jones cracked, “I would hope so. We’re pretty much all he has, anyway.” Gallows humor perhaps, but the mood of the team isn’t as bleak as one might think.

In fact, backup catcher David Ross seemed downright optimistic Tuesday afternoon, saying, “Knowing we can clinch today, it’s a different vibe.”

Then the game began, and it was more of the same.

The Braves are batting .188 with runners in scoring position in September. Jones is playing with a bone bruise and fluid in his surgically repaired right knee. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who left Tuesday night’s game after re-injuring his right calf, is likely to be unavailable for the finale.

Right-hander Joe Blanton will start for the Phillies. Lefty Cole Hamels and righty Vance Worley are among those expected to pitch in relief.

The Braves, unable to trust their offense or their worn-out bullpen, will put their faith in Hudson (16-10, 3.23 ERA). He no longer is an ace. But he is the best option in a rotation that includes three rookies and the beaten-down Derek Lowe.

“There’s not another place I’d rather be than out there on the mound when the game means something,” Hudson said. “That’s why we play. That’s why we compete. That’s why we’re out there.

“Everybody that enjoys competing at the highest level, they want to be out there whenever the game means something and the team needs you most. That’s what every pitcher dreams about, being out there whenever that last out is made and winning the big game.”

He might not be out there for the last out. But he plans on winning the big game.

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