Early Series Victory an Important One

Andrew Bare takes a look at back at the Braves' wild weekend, which was capped off with an exciting extra-innings win over the World Champion Florida Marlins, and how the performance of the team as a whole could be a sign of things to come this season.

One of the aspects of baseball that I really and true love is the pacing of the game, both within the context of a single contest and over the course of a long, 162 game season. Those are basically relaxed, slow-paced events, giving fans an opportunity to enjoy a great game with only occasional moments of extreme stress.

You can contrast this sharply with football, where the compressed nature of the schedule (16 games) and the violent, emotional state that games are played in tend to elevate every play to some sort of do or die, maximum blood pressure moment. You don't lie in bed and watch a football game. You sit on the edge of your seat and wait breathlessly for the next big play.

Anybody who has ever watched NFL Primetime on ESPN or the various post game shows on the televising networks can attest to that. After every game we are assaulted by very loud, very opinionated former players telling us why the proceeding game was absolutely CRUCIAL for the winner and crushingly disappointing for the loser. They yell at us, they scream at us, they generally make us more nervous than the poor Yakuza boy in Kill Bill.

If the Baseball Tonight crew did that every night over a 162 game season, Harold Reynolds would have suffered a coronary halfway through the 1997 season. Harold is still with us, explaining why the 2003 Braves had an anemic offense.

So it is, and I enjoy that. And thus it might seem slightly askew when I say that the Braves' weekend sweep over the defending champions was as huge a series as can begin on April 16th. Of course, there were valid reasons for considering this a big series. The Braves entered the series trailing the Marlins by four games; a sweep would have put the Braves back seven. That's hardly disastrous this early in the year, but let's face it, this isn't a team that you can expect to buzz saw its way through the National League.

From that perspective, the Braves' accomplished their statistical goal when they beat Darren Oliver and overcame early sloppy play in their victory on Friday.

But of course, this series really wasn't about the "GB" column in the newspaper. It was about two teams who considered themselves criminally disrespected, only one of which was truly backing up that belief.

It's strange to think of these World Champion having to prove themselves to the Braves or anyone else, but that was the situation.

And it's strange to think of the Braves as the division's David, but that was the situation. Until Friday the Marlins were the only team to really snatch up the gauntlet, entering this series with a major league leading 8-1 record. They left the series worse three games and with an extra pound or two of doubt.

Before Friday, the Braves had tried to pick up the gauntlet, only to kick it around, bobble it a bit and then throw it past the second baseman.

They left the series with the proud pennant of the reigning Goliath firmly grasped in their hands.

The Marlins had their chance to trample Atlanta, to take one huge step towards snuffing out this amazing string of division championships. And on Saturday, they had the right horse for the job.

The World Series MVP was on the mound Saturday, and on his first pitch the radar gun read "101."

Three pitches later Mark DeRosa rocketed a high-90s fastball into the left-center field gap.

Thus was Josh Beckett's aura of invincibility shattered. 20 Ks in 14 innings, sub one ERA, all became irrelevant after DeRosa's double.

Beckett didn't end up with a bad pitching line, but when you allow a homerun to Jesse Garcia and a triple to DeWayne Wise, it can safely be said that you didn't get the job done.

And then there was Sunday. Depending on the severity of Chipper Jones' injury, come October we might well look on April 18th as the day when Commodus ascended to the throne. But in the dim light of recent past, it can't help but look like the perfect capstone to a truly amazing weekend.

With one MVP candidate ejected and another out of the game with a hamstring injury that looked frighteningly severe, the Braves completed the three game sweep of a team who entered the series with a collective ERA of 1.22. The Marlins had a team of 1993 era Greg Madduxs.

And with the help of the late afternoon Atlanta sun and a pair of ignored sunglasses, Johnny Estrada's routine fly ball turned into the Braves' most dramatic, primal scream-inducing victory of the young season.

It's still too early to draw any truly meaningful conclusions from this series, but make no mistake, pennants can be lost on April 16th. Atlanta didn't lose the pennant this weekend, and they made a statement in the process.

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