As difficult as it is to believe for Braves fans who remember when postseason berths were as routine an occurrence as spring training, it has been a dozen years since the Braves won a playoff series and eight since they won a division title.
It remains to be seen if they’ll break the drought by winning a postseason series, but the Braves are on the verge of snapping their title-less run — there’s a good chance they’ll clinch in a series that starts Friday against the Cubs — and taking back the National League East title that for a while seemed like an Braves birthright.
Brian McCann is the only player on the Braves’ active roster who was a member of the last division-title team in 2005, and no current Brave has won a playoff series with the team.
McCann is older, wiser, a little thicker, a lot balder. And maybe a bit hardened by the reality that baseball is a business and even his seven All-Star berths and six Silver Slugger awards might not be decisive factors if the Braves decide not to make him a free-agent contract offer as lucrative as ones he might get from other teams, particularly American League teams.
“I’m just focused on hanging a (division) banner up there and going and winning a World Series,” McCann said. “Those are the two things I’m worried about right now, and whatever happens after that, is going to happen.”
The Braves’ magic number to win the division title stayed at two after Nationals’ 3-2 win against the Marlins on Thursday. The Braves could clinch Friday only if they win their afternoon series opener against the Cubs and the Nationals lose their night game against the Marlins.
The Braves can clinch with two wins in the three-game series against the Cubs, even if the Nationals were to sweep the Marlins.
The only other current Brave who was on the team when it last won a division title is Tim Hudson, who’s out recovering from a broken ankle.
Neither McCann nor Hudson, also in the final year of his contract, are certain to be back with the Braves in 2014. And McCann, who has enjoyed a strong comeback season after major shoulder surgery in October, wants badly to help the Braves go deep in the postseason for the first time in a long time.
Despite missing the first month of the season, he hit his 20th homer last week to give him six consecutive 20-homer season, only the fourth catcher who has accomplished that.
“That’s unbelievable, especially when you think about the guys who’ve done it,” Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird said.
Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Mike Piazza are the other catchers with six consecutive seasons of at least 20 homers, and only six catchers have more than McCann’s seven 20-homer seasons, which he’s done in eight full seasons.
“I think once you see the guys that have done it, it’s pretty humbling,” McCann said. “It’s special. To be able to do it seven out of eight years, it’s pretty cool.”
On the first swing he took in a major league playoff game, McCann, then a 21-year-old rookie, hit a game-changing three-run homer off Roger Clemens in Game 2 of the 2003 division series against the Astros. That erased a 1-0 Houston lead and propelled the Braves and John Smoltz to a 7-1 win that evened the series at a game apiece.
McCann became the youngest catcher to hit a homer in a postseason game and the first Brave to do that in his first playoff plate appearance. Clemens said after the game he didn’t know anything about McCann, who hit .278 with five homers in 180 at-bats after being called up from Double-A that season.
Do you know how many postseason games the Braves have won since that night McCann took the Rocket deep?
They are 1-6 in postseason games since then. They lost the next two against the Astros to lose the series 3-1 — McCann homered again in the 18-inning Game 4 loss — and didn’t play another postseason series until they limped in as the wild card in 2010, losing three of four against eventual World Series champion San Francisco.
The Braves played the Cardinals in the first NL Wild Card game in October. They lost, and backup David Ross started in place of the sore-shouldered McCann.
That’s the extent of the Braves’ postseason trips in the McCann era. Now they’ll get another chance, and with the most balanced team they’ve had since McCann has been a Brave, albeit with an offense that is alarmingly inconsistent.
McCann is a .300 hitter with three homers and eight RBIs in eight career postseason games. He struggled through a painful, career-worst season in 2012. In October, when Braves orthopedist Xavier Duralde did the surgery, the damage was more extensive than expected. McCann had played with a torn right labrum that would’ve sidelined most athletes.
After seven months of rehab, he returned in May and has looked a lot closer to his pre-2012 form.
“My goal coming into this season was to stay healthy, and I’ve done that,” he said. “My shoulder has responded way better than I ever could have imagined that it would this year. There’s a lot of work that went into being able to stay healthy. There’s so many people I want to thank, for putting me on the field and keeping me on there all year long.
“When you put the work in and you’re healthy and you can go out and perform and compete, I like my chances. I feel like, over my career, the one thing I can say is I’ve been consistent, year in and year out.”
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