Somebody up there — and by that we mean a presence who sits higher than the general manager’s box — must love these Braves. On Wednesday they completed a homestand that saw them score a total of 13 runs against two sub-.500 teams, go 7-for-45 (.156) with runners in scoring position, get shut out three times and no-hit once.
And yet: They split the six games and closed ground in the wild card chase.
With 22 games remaining, the Braves have a chance. As much as they’ve frustrated their audience and surely themselves, they can make the playoffs in a year that has seen Dan Uggla waived, three starting pitchers lost to injury and the offense fail to an extent unseen in a quarter-century. (They’re on pace to score 602 runs, which over completed seasons would mark a franchise low since 1989, a year in which the Braves lost 97 games.)
Many among us wrote off these Braves long ago. I’ve come close a time or two. They aren’t pretty to watch — no team looks good when it’s getting shut out — but there’s a stubbornness about them. Just when you think they’re ready to concede, they score more runs in one game than they had in the previous five combined, and they do it with a most improbable assemblage.
Having managed three hits over the previous two games and one run over four, the Braves dispatched a lineup Wednesday that included fan favorite B.J. Upton batting eighth, the just-up-from-Gwinnett Christian Bethancourt batting seventh and, in the cleanup spot, the .191-hitting Ryan Doumit. Justin Upton didn’t play due to a tender triceps. Evan Gattis didn’t start because manager Fredi Gonzalez didn’t feel the need.
Lo and behold, Doumit got one hit and, for 15 minutes, had another. (A second-inning single was changed to a Chase Utley error.) Bethancourt went 3-for-4, scored two runs and had two RBI’s. Bossman Jr. hit a home run and reached base three times. “We moved the line,” Fredi said, voicing a Fredi-ism that hasn’t often been applicable this season.
The Braves managed only seven hits, but that was more than twice as many as they’d mustered in Games 1 and 2. They fell behind early and were tied twice later, but they kept scoring. For one of the few times this season, they kept scoring.
About that moving line: The clout-or-out Braves scored seven runs, only two via the homer. “That’s always a key for us,” Gonzalez said. “That’s not something you always see with our club. We strike out a lot.”
We’ve seen too much to believe that the Braves are going to turn into the Sultans of Smallball over the final 3 1/2 weeks, but at this late date it’s not about how but how many. Milwaukee has done the Braves the favor of losing seven in a row and keeping them close for the second wild card. It’s up to them to make something of it.
Since the 0-8 West Coast swing, the Braves have gone only 15-11. They haven’t exactly risen to the moment, but more moments await. “Everyone in here is aware of what’s going on,” closer Craig Kimbrel said. “But at the end of the day, you can only control how you play.”
Then this: “But it almost kicks your butt to think how much closer we might have been.”
The Braves’ pitchers worked quality starts over the first five games of this homestand. The Braves lost three of the five games. On Wednesday, Ervin Santana yielded four earned runs in six innings — not a quality start — but his team scored seven runs. “That’s baseball,” Kimbrel said, shrugging.
No, the Braves don’t look like a playoff team. No everyday player has had a great season — Jason Heyward has been splendid on defense; Justin Upton carried the team in August; Freddie Freeman has been good but not exceptional — and Gonzalez has been forced to use some of strangest lineups (Bossman Jr. leading off!) ever seen. But those stalwart pitchers have held the line, and now it’s September and the Brewers are collapsing.
“These next three weeks,” Gonzalez said, “whoever gets hot could do some damage.”
Maybe his team will be that team. Maybe these Hitless Wonders will hit just enough. Maybe, I say.