Well, there’s nothing like a ten-game winning streak and another strong start from your newest rookie pitcher to put a little spring in your step.
While ESPN viewers were still chortling over the amusing spectacle of the losing-est franchise in baseball celebrating a season in which they lost the World Series, the Braves jumped out to a lead in the top of the 1st against Cliff Lee, whose neck may not yet be quite as loose as he’d like. Leadoff stud Jason Heyward, batting exactly where he should until the Apocalypse arrives, coaxed a walk on five pitches. Justin Upton struck out looking and didn’t think much of the call (nor did I), but the ESPN crew was too busy talking about how John Kruk managed to get back up from the field to the broadcast booth in time for the second batter to notice. Fab 5 Freddie Freeman singled up the middle, Brian McCann struck out swinging, and you thought for a moment this would be one of those times when the Bravos returned to form and wasted a golden scoring opportunity.
You would be wrong. (That return to form wouldn’t come until the top of the 2nd.) You would have forgotten that batting right after BMac was your current National League batting leader, Chris “Throw-in” Johnson. Mr. Johnson took this opportunity to remind you of that fact, and to announce his freaking presence with authority by turning on a tough-to-handle low pitch and sending it screaming through the right-side hole to score both runners. The Braves led the Nathan Phillions 2-0, and it was all the offense they would need on a night when young Jedi master Alex Wood looked strong and confident, pitching six strong innings and giving up only two hits and a single earned run, with three strikeouts to ice the cake.
To the aforementioned top of the 2nd, in which B.J. Upton magically singled to center and Andrelton Simmons shocked the world by taking a walk to put two men on with no outs. Even with a nine-game winning streak going, this was precisely the sort of situation that makes Braves fans nervous, as for much of the season our boys have excelled in getting absolutely nothing out of such circumstances. Guess what? Wood advanced the two on a terrific bunt; J-Hey hit into a fielder’s choice that hung Melvin out to dry between 3rd and home (although Junior adeptly kept the rundown alive until the runners could safely move up); and li’l bro Justin grounded out to Jimmy Rollins at short. Not exactly stellar work by the Js in our lineup that time around.
(Aside: Orel “I Probably Shouldn’t Be Messing Up Other People’s Weird Names” Hershiser inexplicably insists on pronouncing Simba’s given moniker so that it frames the stage name of Rocket Man, Atlanta transplant, and Braves devotee Reginald Dwight. However, Buster Olney informed us today that Terry Pendleton has a better nickname for the best defensive player in baseball: he calls Simmons “The Reason.” As in, Simmons is The Reason the Braves are leading their division. I think we can all agree that sounds much cooler than confusing the kid with the pop star known for wearing outrageous eyeglasses and duck costumes on stage. I hereby nominate “The Reason” for inclusion in the Braves Journal glossary.)
But why get hung up on that when we can get a good laugh out of the follies produced by the architect of Citizens Bank Park? Bottom 3, Carlos Ruiz hit what was initially ruled a home run to left; with benefit of a telephoto lens, even the casual viewer could see that was wrong, as the ball had bounced off the low mesh screen in front of the row of shrubbery before the Knights Who Say “Ni” section. A brief video review on the umpires’ part confirmed as much (and good on ‘em for checking it out). Not content with one hit, when the top of the 4th came around Sir Melvin the Younger then hit what was also initially ruled a home run, this time to right, and correctly so.
But wait! The bandbox’s architect, who shall apparently remain nameless, had designed an even worse feature on that side: same low screen, but no line of shrubbery to keep the silly Philly Konnnnniguts from reaching over and trying to grab an incoming mortar like any fan would do in the moment. And, indeed, in this case one such fan did reach for B.J.’s ball – just a little, certainly not enough to convince anyone, even with the benefit of video hindsight, to reverse the call on the field. And yet that’s what the umpiring crew did, either because they felt it was only fair or because they were scared the Philly fans (whose verbal abuse could be easily heard all evening) might cut them. Which, hey, who could blame them? Cliffy Lee, for one, whose irritation at this much longer review was clear; his neck hurt, he was already behind, just spot the Bravos the damn run already and let’s get on with it!
Twelve hours later, the umpires returned and, probably incorrectly but certainly without sufficient evidence, reversed the call. Back to second for Melvin. Now the boys in gray were irked, and resolved to take matters into their own, um, bats. After The Reason popped out to center and Woody struck out, Heyward THWACKED a ringing single (see? Just doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi, does it, Anon21?) off the right field wall to score B.J. anyway, and son frère Justin launched a moon shot to center that somehow stayed in the park – but bounced off the wall and scored Jason.
The only moment when you felt the Phillies might have any shot at all to crawl back into this one came in the bottom of the 5th inning, when John Mayberry, Jr. reached on a CJ error and Carlos Ruiz walked to put two men on with no outs. Charlie Manuel pinch-hit for Lee, to no avail, and Mayberry ended the inning prematurely by getting caught off second by a smashing pick-off throw from Woody. You could feel the air go out of the balloon for the hometown fans in the park; the score stayed 4-1 Braves, and that’s how it would ultimately end.
Other developments of note: Li’L CJ started another multi-hit game streak with a 2-for-4 night. Likewise, B.J. went 2-for-4 and continues to look like he might not be completely useless at the plate forever. (You really kind of felt for him after they pulled him back from the dugout and took away his homer; he could have used that little pick-me-up.) Cliff “I Messed With Texas” Lee lasted only five innings, giving up eight hits (and getting eight strikeouts, but against the Braves you don’t get a ton of credit for that stat); he does not yet look right. Alex Wood continues to improve and be an asset. Jason got hit on the knuckles by reliever Raul Valdes and was booed by the ever-lovable Philthy Phans for having the gall; when he got caught in a rundown a couple of minutes later, he got booed again for trying to slide through Kevin Frandsen on his way back to first and taking the Phildelphia first baseman out. Big whoop. Thin-skinned bunch, those Philly fans. They probably all think Pat’s or Gino’s has the best cheesesteaks, too. (Both are outclassed by Jim’s on South Street, and D’Allesandro’s in Chestnut Hill beats them all.)
Things devolved from there. Presciently foreshadowing a sour reception for Phillies closer Jonathan “Helter Skelter” Papelbon, the ESP-gifted ESPN crew of Kruk, Hershiser, and Dan Schulman tried to make excuses for Papelbon’s media comments a day or two ago in which he said, “I didn’t come here for this.” (Presumably meaning the losing part.) The Phans took exception to such apparent disdain from a guy who had blown six of his last thirteen save opportunities, and Krukky inadvertently neologized whilst defending the Manson-eyed closer: “He wasn’t – he wasn’t discluding himself!” No, no he wasn’t, Jon. Not even close.
(Seriously, though, have you seen the footage from Papelbon’s interview? That dude comes off like some kind of crazy-eyed cult psycho, not to mention dumb as a pile of bricks. Wow.)
Anyhow, that was pretty much the game, and the series. The fans looked almost as depressed as the team, and I don’t blame them; their boys are in bad shape and their GM doesn’t seem to be helping much. But, though I do sympathize, that’s not our problem. The win streak stands at ten; the sweep streak is up to three and counting. What really gives you bracing optimism is this: a Braves bunch with the look of a team that has learned from their failures and is determined to slam their boots down on the necks of every would-be rival they face and crush all remaining hope. Doing that to the Phillies was delicious; doing it to the Nationals would be exquisite.
No mercy. Bring on the Bryce.