When the organ cranks up in April, October baseball seems oh so far away. When the All-Star break hits, no matter where your team is, you comfort yourself by saying there’s still a ton of ball left to play. But with the theatrics and the drama that unfold throughout the season, it seems like you blink and October is just around the corner.
And now we’re four games away from the end.
For some teams, this is it. The goal is simply to try and finish with a .500 record. Or maybe to spoil another team’s chances for the postseason. For others, the drama is heating up to a boil with just a few days left on the calendar. For the Braves, things remain hot.
The top wild card spot is locked, and though they may have lost their best chance to catch the Nationals on Friday, the Braves still hang on to a glimmer of taking the NL East. But barring a total meltdown of an incredibly strong Nationals team, it probably isn’t going to happen.
Braves fans should feel good about this season. While many thought the Nationals would be a contender, no one predicted the display of dominance they put on this year. In the meantime, the Braves battled through a handful of setbacks and have found themselves well in contention for postseason glory.
I’m not going to lie, having the entire year and all playoff chances coming down to one game scares the daylights out of me. Particularly against a St. Louis Cardinals team that showed last year how to make an epic comeback from out of nowhere and shock the whole baseball world. I certainly understand the idea of creating some excitement by adding a second wild card team, but all coming down to one game?
What if your pitcher has his one bad day that day? What if your offense hits every ball to someone in the field? What if, what if …
I guess that’s the fun of October.
In any case, the Braves have already made the decision to throw righty Kris Medlen in their one chance to get into the playoffs. I think it’s a great idea, as I’m sure many of you do. Medlen has had a historic run of late, battling through half the season just to have a chance at the rotation and quickly becoming a major league ace. He’s been putting on a clinic about how confidence and poise can lead a team to victory.
Some of you may have read John Smoltz‘s comments about saving your ace for the first game of the division series. I understand what he’s saying, I really do. But if your chances of playing a single playoff game rest on one win, I think you have to come out strong. Not to mention that even with Medlen starting the wild card game, that leaves Tim Hudson to start game one of the NLDS and Mike Minor to start game two. Then Medlen can be back, potentially to secure the series win in game three.
Besides, the Braves offense hasn’t exactly been scoring eight runs a game. With Medlen going for the Braves and (most likely) Kyle Lohse on the mound for the Cardinals, runs will likely be at a premium.
There is good news, though. The Braves will be at home for their one game playoff (or play-in), and, if they win that, for the first two games of the NLDS. They also have an “intangible,” which is another way of saying they have an edge that isn’t quantifiable. It’s the last season for third baseman Chipper Jones and here in Atlanta, it’s important to send him out on the right note – which is one last trip to the World Series. Actually, many of the teams in the hunt for October have intangibles, but Chipper’s last season is a pretty good one to have, I think.
I’m concerned about a few factors, though. Dan Uggla‘s production at the plate hasn’t made the same comeback he experienced last year, and his spot in the lineup is still a looming question mark. Brian McCann has had a similar slump at the plate, which is a hard pill to swallow, considering how valuable his offense really is.
In all fairness, though, the Braves have had those particular struggles all year and found a way around them. My biggest concern is Michael Bourn.
Bourn sprained his thumb last Saturday against the Phillies and hasn’t played since. An MRI showed it was a sprain and not a tear, which means he’s clear for activity as soon as he feels like he can play with it, which is good. But his sudden drop off at the plate has been a concern for the last few weeks. The Braves’ numbers when Bourn is getting on base are staggering. In many ways, the Braves’ best chance of winning any game is to have Bourn getting on base a couple times a game. Reed Johnson has served as a good replacement in the field, but his bat leaves something to be desired.
But every team has their own battles to overcome and the ability of a team to handle setbacks is what sets the great teams apart from everyone else. I can tell you, having been at the game when the Braves clinched a playoff spot, Atlanta is ready to see some fireworks come October and I think the Braves are poised to make a real run of it.