Fighting for playoff lives, Braves remain calm
ATLANTA -- It's panic time for the Atlanta Braves. It really is. Rookies are everywhere on the roster. The offense is sputtering, Chipper Jones is hurting, and the St. Louis Cardinals are charging. Even so, those in the home clubhouse at Turner Field keep sounding as if life is at least tolerable, even with their baseball world collapsing around them.
Go figure. Well, let's do that right now.
Despite sitting on the verge of one of the biggest collapses in baseball history, these Braves don't know they should be afraid -- not with the slew of young players scattered throughout their roster.
Whether such a thing will help the Braves hold off the Cardinals -- who remain one game back after both clubs lost Monday -- for the National League Wild Card slot is questionable. It was highly questionable on Monday night before the Braves played host to the slumping yet scary Philadelphia Phillies during the first of the last three games of the regular season for both teams.
Later, after the Phillies surged from behind to a 4-2 victory with barely a fight from the home team ...
This tells you all you need to know.
"I'm taking this hard right now," said Freddie Freeman, one of those Braves rookies, standing by his locker in a silent clubhouse, where he recalled failing times at the plate during the game with a runner at second base. Then Freeman added quickly, "But I can't let it get to me."
Too late. It's not for the Braves, though. Depending on what the Cardinals do in their final two games against the pitiful Astros in Houston, the Braves still have two games left to get it right.
At least, theoretically.
"We've got a good group of young guys and veteran guys, and the young guys sort of follow the lead of the veteran guys," said reliever Jonny Venters, one of the Braves' semi-young guys, referring to the likes of Jones, Tim Hudson and Eric Hinske, all veterans of multiple playoff appearances. Venters was a rookie last year, when the Braves clinched their first playoff trip in five years on the last day of the regular season against many of these same Phillies players.
In other words, September drama has returned for the Braves, and it was absolutely unnecessary. Their lead in the NL Wild Card race was 8 1/2 games on Sept. 2, but prior to their first pitch against the Phillies, it was one.
Not only that, it was the slimmest of ones, since the Braves were facing a Phillies team with the best record in baseball, while the Cardinals were spending their corresponding last three games in Houston, where the Astros own the worst record in baseball.
You also have that youth thing: Through the rest of September and into October (you know, if they survive the Cardinals), much of the Braves' fate will rest on their slew of rookie pitchers in particular.
Five, to be exact.
One of them, Randall Delgado, started the season in Double-A, but there he was on Monday night, matched against Cliff Lee, who is trying to add a second Cy Young Award to his trophy case.
"To tell you the truth, I thought he did a helluva a job," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez of Delgado, who was composed despite allowing the Phillies two runs and five hits in five innings. "Everything considering, he was fantastic. Putting him in this situation, in this atmosphere, you couldn't ask for anything more."
Still, the Braves lost, and the tension is only beginning, especially with parts of Turner Field booing the coming of another loss for the Braves near the end of Monday's game. It's enough to make you wonder if Gonzalez screams a lot after he pulls the covers over his head.
"Good. I sleep good. I get up in the middle of the night, but when I go to bed, I'm OK,'' said Gonzalez, laughing, before the game. This is his first year as Braves manager, but he was the team's third-base coach for four seasons under the legendary Bobby Cox. There also were Gonzalez's 3 1/2 years managing a mediocre Florida Marlins bunch. So, this is Gonzalez's first year as the head guy in this situation.
"Obviously, this is a little bigger and grander scheme than I've been through," Gonzalez continued. "But you can lay your head against the pillow at night -- at least, I can -- knowing that these players have given a great effort. You know, sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way. Or you can do a lot of things wrong, and the ball bounces your way. Bad hop. The ball gets lost in the lights."
Like in 1991, for instance.
Those Braves also were loaded with young players. The majority of them were in their mid-20s. Youth stretched from the rotation with Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine to everyday players such as David Justice, Ron Gant and Mark Lemke.
"We came up together through the Braves system, and we had plenty of winning teams in Double-A and Triple-A, so we just felt like, 'Well, we've won before,' and that gave us confidence in the big leagues," said Lemke, who grew up in Utica, N.Y, as a diehard Yankees fan during the days of Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson.
Added Lemke, "I remember how I used to say to myself during that 1991 season, 'Remember back in the day when you used to throw the stone up in the air, then hit it, and then pretend you were the guy who just won the game for the Yankees? Well, here it is. This is the position you wanted to be in all of your life. It's right in front of you.'"
You do it, or you don't.
So do it.
Lemke's teammates had similar thoughts. They become the first NL team to go from worst to first in a season, and they did so with pressure down the stretch. They survived the big, bad Los Angeles Dodgers on the final day of the regular season to take the old NL West when there weren't Wild Card teams. Then they won a seven-game NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates of Barry Bonds.
In the end, they lost in the World Series to the Minnesota Twins, but most of those seven games were classics.
For the moment, these Braves would settle for a victory.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TMooreSports. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.