Leave it to the Braves to add drama to the drama.
The team that put off winning 25 of its games this season until the final at-bat -- a major league high -- has put off any chance of claiming a playoff spot until the last weekend of the season. And of course, these are Bobby Cox’s last three regular-season games as manager.
The Braves will pay tribute to the retiring Cox with a pregame ceremony Saturday, and in an even bigger way if they get him to the playoffs for the 15th time in his 25 seasons as manager of the Braves.
The Braves’ magic number over the San Diego Padres in the wild-card race is two, meaning any combination of Braves wins and Padres losses totaling two gets the Braves into the playoffs. The Braves could clinch Friday if they defeat Philadelphia and the Padres lose to San Francisco.
“It’s fitting that Bobby doesn’t just get one day,” said Chipper Jones, the longest-tenured current player under Cox. “He gets a whole weekend.”
The Braves could still advance without winning another game, if the Padres lose at least two of three to the Giants. But the way the Braves assure they make the playoffs, regardless of what happens between the Padres and Giants, is by winning two of three against the Phillies. That was the Braves’ mindset heading into the weekend.
“Let’s battle and get two wins, no matter what it takes,” Braves closer Billy Wagner, who has three regular-season games left in his career as well, before retiring at the end of the season. “What you’ve got to do is suck it up, and you die out there for two wins.”
The Braves had always figured it would come down to these three games, but for the NL East title. But three narrow losses in Philadelphia last week set up the Phillies to clinch a fourth consecutive division title Monday in Washington. Now, with the Phillies gearing up for the playoffs, that could play into the Braves’ hands for their wild-card hopes.
Kyle Kendrick will start Friday in place of Roy Halladay. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel hasn’t yet announced his rotation past that, but he has said Roy Oswalt probably won’t pitch. If Cole Hamels pitches, the third of their three aces, it probably would be for only a few innings as a tune-up.
“We come out here thinking ‘Oh, gee, we ain’t facing Halladay,’ we’re setting ourselves up,” Wagner said. “We have to focus, and we have to push runs across because it’s not just their pitching that’s beat us.”
Kendrick has dominated the Braves in two starts this season, holding them to one run in 15 innings, but the Braves rallied to win both those games in extra innings.
The Phillies still are arguably the hottest team in baseball with a 21-6 record in September. They were 19-3 until clinching; 2-3 since then.
The Braves are 7-8 against the Phillies this season overall, but 4-2 at Turner Field.
If the Braves win two more against the Phillies, they’ll set a franchise record for home wins in a season. The Braves, a majors-best 55-23 at home this season, won 56 home games in 1996, 1998, and 1999.
The Braves are expecting crowds in the 50,000s this weekend. Saturday and Sunday’s games are down to standing-room only tickets, and Friday’s game isn’t far behind. (Fans are asked to be in their seats for the Cox tribute by 3 p.m. Saturday.)
For fans without tickets to the Cox tribute, Fox Sports South will broadcast the pregame ceremony, which will feature former players such as Greg Maddux, Fred McGriff and David Justice, starting at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Fox will carry the game. First pitch is scheduled for 4:10 p.m.
As has been so typical of Cox over the years, he would rather the attention be focused on playoff implications than on him.
“These games are so important, I’m going to put that on the back burner,” he said, when asked about the prospects of an emotional weekend.
The Braves didn’t sell out any of the three games in the Marlins series they just swept, but they started to sense a playoff atmosphere anyway.
“You can feel it,” said Wagner, who ran out from the bullpen to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and rousing ovations each of the three nights. “You feel it in your body. You feel that anxiety, that nervousness, that excitement, all that stuff that you’re supposed to feel. Now the biggest thing is just controlling it.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC