Braves must shift focus to Wild Card
Series at Citizens Bank Park has put NL East in Phillies' grasp
PHILADELPHIA -- As far as Bobby Cox is concerned, baseball would be better off without the Wild Card. From the moment it became a reality in 1995, he's never warmed up to it.
Win your division -- don't go in through the back door, he's always preached.
But as the legendary Atlanta skipper's brilliant career winds down, he better change his tune. If his Braves are going to compete in this postseason before Cox's retirement becomes official, it's going to be as the National League Wild Card winners.
The Braves' once-solid chances of winning the NL East have come to a screeching halt this week at raucous Citizens Bank Park.
The rampaging Phillies dumped the Braves, 5-3, on Tuesday night as Roy Halladay became the NL's first 20-game winner. The game wasn't as close as the score.
The night before, Cole Hamels numbed the Braves, 3-1, in the first bout of this crucial three-game series.
The Phillies, seven games behind Atlanta on July 21, are the hottest team in the Major Leagues. They lead the East by five games with 10 to play.
Any combination of Phillies wins and Braves losses totaling six would give Philadelphia a fourth consecutive division title. The Phillies have won nine in a row, and since that low point on July 21, they have reeled off 43 victories in 58 games.
The Braves lead the Wild Card race by one game, but when somebody asked Cox to appraise the division race after Tuesday's jarring setback, he became testy.
"We're thinking about tomorrow, and then the series in Washington," he said. "We have to focus on winning. A game. We just won three in a row [against the Mets] before we came here."
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel rearranged his starting rotation so that his three aces -- Hamels, Halladay and Roy Oswalt, who pitches Wednesday night -- would face the Braves.
Cox, on the other hand, didn't tamper with his rotation. That meant his two winningest pitchers, Tim Hudson (16-8, 2.61 ERA) and Derek Lowe (14-12), missed the Phillies series, and it's obviously hurt the Braves.
Instead, Cox sent two rookies to war against a team that has been to the World Series the past two years.
Brandon Beachy made his Major League debut on Monday night, an emergency starter for the injured Jair Jurrjens, and took the loss.
Mike Minor, with just seven starts to his credit, didn't make it out of the third inning on Tuesday night.
"We need a well-pitched game [from 10-game winner Tommy Hanson] tomorrow for sure," said Cox. "We only got [2 1/3 innings] out of our starter tonight, and it was hard to work around that."
Halladay, the first Phillies pitcher to win 20 games since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton in 1982, was in trouble in the fifth when the Braves scored their first run, reducing the deficit to 3-1.
Alex Gonzalez opened with a booming double off the right-field wall and scored when Rick Ankiel singled to left.
But this is how it's been going for the Braves: Minor missed a bunt sign, swung away, hit a ball to second, forcing Ankiel for the first out. Halladay then got Omar Infante on a deep fly to center. Jason Heyward looked at a called third strike.
"He was supposed to bunt," sighed Cox. "He missed the sign for some reason. I have no clue."
Minor said, "It was just a mess-up on my part. I had the bunt sign the first time, but I guess I wasn't really thinking, because he didn't give it to me the second time. I really didn't have anything going for me the whole game."
The reality of the season obviously gripped the visitors' clubhouse after their latest loss.
Infante walked to his corner locker and slammed his bat into the cubicle. Other players stared into space, defining the scary-quiet scene. The only smile came from rookie Freddie Freeman, who hit his first Major League homer, a pinch-hit blast off Halladay with two down in the seventh that narrowed the score to 5-3.
Catcher Brian McCann apparently bolted the room before reporters were allowed in.
Before the game, he said, "We just want to play good baseball and finish strong. We've got 11 games [now 10] left and we're going to play until the end."
It would have been special for the Braves to give Cox his 16th division title -- he's won 14 with Atlanta -- as a going-away tribute.
The Phillies will be in Atlanta to close the regular season in a three-game series beginning Oct. 1 -- a once-projected showdown that might have determined the division champ.
Given the Braves' current predicament, barring a miracle, about all that's left is an Oct. 2 ceremony to honor Cox.
And maybe the unthinkable for Bobby -- a clinching of the Wild Card.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.