Braves rebound from winless trip, still confident about postseason

PITTSBURGH – The Braves bandwagon shed some passengers when the team went 0-8 on a road trip that ended Aug. 6, but players say they never saw their season slipping away and still don't believe the National League East race is over.

The Braves had won seven of 11 since that trip and took a four-game winning streak into Tuesday night’s game against the Pirates at PNC Park. With 125 games down and 37 to play, the Braves were six games behind streaking Washington in the East and one game behind San Francisco for the second NL wild card spot.

So, are the Braves now focused on the Nationals or the wild-card hunt?

“We’re not trying to look at anybody,” Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. “I think if we keep playing the way we’ve been playing this past series and last night, we’ll get in the playoffs, no matter where it’s at. I think if we play the way we’re capable of playing, it doesn’t matter what spot we get in, we’re going to get in. That’s how we feel.”

The Braves swept a three-game weekend against the Athletics, who had the best record in baseball before arriving in Atlanta. Then they started a 10-game road trip with a 7-3 win against the playoff-hopeful Pirates on Monday, in a game that began with consecutive home runs by the Braves’ Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons.

“I know this, we didn’t give up ourselves,” Simmons said of the mood after the 0-8 trip, the worst for the team since 1949. “When we were going through that losing streak everyone was still positive. We knew we were going to come out of it. Everybody stayed focus, we didn’t panic. We’re just playing better baseball. We’re doing stuff better.”

After the losing trip, the Braves went 6-4 on their recent homestand including another series win against the Nationals, giving them a 9-4 record against their chief division rival. However, the Nationals reeled off seven consecutive wins since leaving Atlanta, including three consecutive walk-off wins.

When the Nats’ Adam LaRoche hit a game-ending homer to beat the Diamondbacks on Monday night, many of the Braves were watching on TVs in the visitor’s clubhouse at PNC Park, shortly after their own game had concluded.

“We can’t control how (the Nationals) play,” Simmons said. “We’ve got to play the best baseball we can, and at the end of the season see where that takes us. Hopefully we win the division; that’s the goal. But you settle with whatever you get, because if they play perfect baseball and win every single game, you can’t control that.”

The Braves have six games remaining against the Nationals and would prefer to make the playoffs as a division champion, guaranteed of playing a postseason series and avoiding the one-game playoff between wild card teams. But…

“We can both make it,” Johnson said of the Braves and Nationals. “Obviously we would love to catch them and win the division, and we’re going to keep playing great baseball until that’s out of reach. But there’s plenty of back-up plans, and you can win the World Series and not win the division.”

Simmons said the Braves must stay focused each night, not be concerned about the playoff picture. “We’ve got to (play well) each and every game, we can’t give away outs, any at-bats,” he said. “We can’t give away games. We’ve got to grind it out, pay attention to details, and get small (ball) wins if that’s the way we’ve got to win. You’ve got to win somehow.”

They had a 3.30 ERA over the past 11 games before Tuesday, and the Braves batted .260 and totaled 44 runs and 14 homers in that 7-4 run. All but two of the 14 homers came during four multi-homer games, including consecutive two-homer games in the past two wins against Oakland and Pittsburgh, and a pair of four-homer games.

During that 11-game span, the Braves were 4-0 in the multi-homer games and 3-4 when they had one or no homers.

“It’s been a different mentality, I think,” Johnson said. “Out attitude has been great. It’s a completely ‘team’ attitude. Nobody cares about anything right now except for winning the game. If somebody goes 0-for-4 and we win the game, everybody’s in a great mood and nobody’s worried about personal stats. Guys are moving guys over, guys are giving themselves up, it’s just … it’s a lot of fun.”