Such good work have the Braves done the last few days, the last week, the last month that what happened Sunday scarcely rated one arched eyebrow.
They earned the right to stink up the joint for an afternoon.
Call it a well-deserved working holiday. What had begun as a highly trumpeted series against the Braves closest pursuer ended Sunday in a game that had the feel of a March scrum in West Palm Beach (as the Braves changed out three-quarters of the infield along with two-thirds of the outfield by the eighth inning). If you must blame the Braves for anything, it’s that they wrung all the suspense from the day because of their wild winning ways.
By Sunday, they already had padded their lead by a couple more games – at nine games now, it’s taking on the feel of a cozy down comforter – and introduced the Washington Nationals to the harsh reality that the wild card is their destination of last resort.
It’s not nearly as much fun to gloat over the Nationals condition now that they are without a certain pretentiously coiffed right fielder. But it still beats the alternative.
The losing pitcher Sunday realized the Braves great good fortune. Mike Soroka didn’t like living through a 9-4 loss. He certainly could have done without giving up a home run in each of the first three innings – more than he yielded in all of August. That’s five now in his last two starts. Not a great trend, but one that’s easily explained. “They were bad pitches that got hit,” he said.
But he was hardly inconsolable.
Looking at the big picture of taking 3 of 4 from the Nationals in this series, with three more games at their place next weekend at the conclusion of the upcoming road trip, Soroka said, “Obviously it didn’t come out as I wanted it to, but as a whole we really gave it to them tough, and it’s going to be fun to get back at them next week.”
OK, so the Nats beat the Braves this afternoon every way you can beat a team. Clubbed them with the home run (four total). Sedated them with a classic starting pitcher who was in a dominant mood, Max Scherzer (just saying, not enough people name their kids Max these days). Picked on the lesser members of the bullpen, those who will have no say in the Braves October fate.
The soul in charge of SunTrust sound effects kept playing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as some National was trotting the bases after a home run. You don’t do that in times that are in the least dire. And it seemed an entirely appropriate sentiment given the tenor of the last four games.
“We all knew this was a big series coming in,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They were playing really well, we were playing really well, and we played a really good weekend of baseball. It was a big weekend for us.
“That’s a good series win right there, probably as good a one as we had all year.”
Losing to Scherzer was no disgrace, certainly not after the three previous Braves starters had given up but one earned run in 19 innings of work against the Nats. Washington’s own prodigious staff allowed six earned runs in 15 innings before the Scherzer shut-down.
Ended Sunday was the Braves nine-game winning streak and a run of 13 straight at home. They were delayed at least a day in getting their 90th win and equaling last season’s win total. But 18 games remain on the schedule, so their chances seem better than even at eclipsing 90.
Soroka’s catcher Sunday, Tyler Flowers, was also in charge of preaching single-mindedness this day.
Asked if he knew his team’s magic number – the combination of Braves wins and Washington losses needed to clinch the NL East - Flowers said quite firmly, “No. I have no idea.
“I don’t even know how many wins we have. I’ll bet the majority (of teammates) has no idea of how many wins we have. What is it, 80 or 90?”
Well, Mr. Flowers, the magic number for the Braves was 17 entering this series. It was 11 by Sunday, no matter the loss. That wasn’t whittling away at the number standing between the Braves and the reclaiming of the East, that was rip-sawing. What began as an important series turned into a voracious power grab.
Sunday was but a momentary misstep on the way to another division title. One made all but inevitable by the work done on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.