From the first of May until the 7th of September the Braves lolled about in first place. A lot of us kept waiting for the crash, but none came. Trades were made. Alex Gonzalez came to play shortstop, and equally as much to brighten the clubhouse atmosphere, so they say. Derrick Lee came to brighten up first base. Troy Glaus is getting old and tired, but so is Lee, and there hasn’t been much brightening up there.
Centerfield has been a revolving door. First, Nate McLouth, then Melky Cabrera, then Rick Ankiel (a reformed pitcher), then back to Cabrera, or McLouth, or Cabrera, or Ankiel, and on and on. Left-field became Matt Diaz’s territory, when the opposing pitcher was left-handed, for Matt devours left-handed pitching. And everybody is familiar with the back-stopping regimen. David Ross is good for clubhouse atmosphere—there’s that moody stuff again—and to give Brian McCann a day off. But when you’re in a race for your life, you put your best on the field. Day or night, left-hander or right-hander. McCann hasn’t seen the left-handed pitcher he can’t hit.
No matter what, who moved in or out of the lineup, the Bravos forged ahead. Even when Chipper Jones went down and out for the season, that didn’t put a dent in their armor. Bobby Cox couldn’t make a bad move, even when he shifted his second baseman (Martin Prado) to third, then installed his utilitarian, Omar Infante, at second. There had been a lot of spoofing when Infante was chosen for the All-Star team. (Utility players don’t get picked for All-Star teams, critics grumped. The hell they don’t, if they have the highest batting average in the league, and they can play ANYwhere.) Since that time, by the way, Prado and Infante have been carrying the Braves’ offensive load, with occasional shots in the arm from McCann and Jason Heyward.
I kept waiting for the axe to fall, but it never did. Pitching held up, until Jair Jurggens lost it and the offense ran dry every time Tommy Hanson had a start. Even Derek Lowe changed form and should have had a complete game—but, you know, Bobby doesn’t care for CGs. Lowe suddenly developed a hurry-up pitch, quit dawdling about around the mound and stuck to getting it on.
Then the Bravos suddenly couldn’t handle the lower-class members—Florida, Pittsburgh and lately, right here at home, Washington. They lost seven of ten games and awoke Sept. 16 to find themselves three games out of the lead. The Nationals required only one swing of the bat, by a .132 hitter named Justin Maxwell in one of those daylight “Businessmen’s Special” games to let the air out of their balloon. Bases-loaded home run in the second inning, and there was nothing special there. A Maryland alum wiped out the Braves’ Vanderbilt alum, and Mike Minor tasted his first major league beating.
You have never seen a drearier Braves clubhouse. Beaten by another of the league’s worst teams—again. Just hold it there. Heaven knows what can happen next in Flushing, an untidy destination next on their datebook.