Braves looking up instead of down

Braves looking up instead of down

NEW YORK -- As far as last-ditch efforts go, this one seems to be lacking the pleasant element of a happy ending.

The Braves have had four shots at the National League East leaders, the Mets, over the past 11 days. They've missed all four.

The Braves were merely 4 1/2 games back on Aug. 31, not an insurmountable lead with one month left to play. Now, largely as a result of coming up short repeatedly against the Mets, the Braves are 9 1/2 games out with only 18 games left. This race has not been mathematically, officially ended, but for the Mets to be overtaken by the Braves now seems to rest largely in the realm of a fevered imagination.

The Braves have a more plausible, although not particularly promising shot at the NL Wild Card berth. After Monday night's 3-2 loss to the Mets, they were five games out in the NL Wild Card standings. Five games don't seem to be the mountain that 9 1/2 games represents, but the Braves have four teams ahead of them for the Wild Card berth. And the current leader, the San Diego Padres, have too much pitching to evaporate.

The Wild Card, of course, was never a factor for the Braves during those 14 straight seasons in which they were winning division titles. It was, frankly, beneath them. So there is a kind of a has-it-come-to-this feeling when discussing the Atlanta club in the context of the Wild Card.

Braves general manager John Schuerholz on Monday had a little bit of humor to toss at this transition. Schuerholtz said that he had earlier favored the traditional argument that a team that had finished behind another team in its division over the course of the full regular season should not be allowed to compete for the championship. But now, given the circumstances, Schuerholz said, "I've had an awakening. I understand just how valuable and meaningful the Wild Card is."

More seriously, Schuerholz said that the Wild Card had worked, that as far as this concept goes, "the excitement of the baseball community is a validation." And that part is indisputable.

Overall, the Braves are not in their usual position, looking down upon the remainder of the divisional competition, because they do not have the kind of lock-down pitching that characterized the teams from their unprecedented run of regular-season greatness. But that wasn't really the issue on Monday night.

The Braves had neither Jones available: Chipper was out with a strained right oblique that he suffered in batting practice on Monday, and Andruw was out with the flu. That didn't bode well, but then a couple of mental miscues also hurt the cause.

With runners on first and second and nobody out in the first inning, a grounder was hit to Yunel Escobar, filling in for Chipper Jones at third. Instead of going for the available around-the-horn double play, Escobar briefly attempted to tag Jose Reyes, the runner coming to third. Reyes is basically the most difficult moving target in baseball today. By the time Escobar abandoned this futile effort, he was only able to get the out at second. The next ground ball, instead of ending the inning, produced a fielder's choice and an RBI. When you lose by one run, this kind of thing is magnified.

Tim Hudson pitched valiantly and effectively for the Braves, at one point getting 13 straight hitters out on ground balls. His three runs allowed over seven innings -- against a truly difficult New York lineup -- should have been good enough for a victory.

But Hudson damaged his own cause on the basepaths. With the Braves down, 1-0, Hudson singled to open the sixth, and you were reminded of his collegiate history as a fine two-way player, who pitched and played the outfield and hit with considerable effect.

With one out, the Braves had Hudson on second and Escobar on first, and it appeared, an opening to change the course of the game. Then Hudson was picked off. With the way Oliver Perez was pitching for the Mets, chances like this had come along exactly once in six innings. But this opportunity was discarded.

The pickoff of a pitcher is not a typical play, but then the pitchers aren't on base that often in the first place.

"I'm hardly ever on second base," Hudson said with a small smile. "I don't know what's close or too far. I guess I know what's too far now."

The Braves, in their best years, were basically beyond the reach of this sort of thing. Nobody plays perfect baseball, but compared to everybody else for those consecutive 14 years, the Braves seemed close to impeccable.

Now, they seem mostly close to going home for the second straight October.

"We just know that the calendar is our enemy right now," Hudson said, adding that each day that passed without closing ground in the standings was one less day to catch up.

September used to be the time when the Braves were engaged primarily in the process of wrapping up another division title. Last year, a previously unthinkable losing season looked like an aberration. This year, for most of the season, the Braves, although they were far from dominant, at least remained in the hunt as postseason contenders.

But in these recent games against the Mets, in which the season still could have been salvaged, the Braves have come up empty. The NL Wild Card is still a possibility, but the usual division title seems to have moved all the way from Georgia to Queens.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.