The Team That Won't Go Away

It must be rough being a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, or the Florida Marlins. You think you're having a good year, that this might even be "your" year. But then there's this group of jerseys that just won't go away.

The Atlanta Braves.

No matter who is in the jersey, it seems the players wearing the tomahawk across their chest know how to do one thing: win. Whether it's Ron Gant or Charles Thomas, or Mark Lemke or Nick Green, wearing that uniform is no different from stepping right into a phone booth and putting on a red cape. Something happens this time of year that just makes people who wear that uniform win.

And if you're a member of one of the other three teams, there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

You would think the Florida Marlins would be the favorite in the National League East. They did win the World Series last year you know. But the right to attend the playoff party still goes through Atlanta, and the Braves are just now starting to get hot.

Funny thing is the Braves started their ascent right when people thought they were down and out for good. On the morning of Saturday, June 26th the Braves were 33-39 and 6.5 games out of first place. They had lost 11 of their past 14 games. The Braves Nation was buzzing with rumors of a huge trade involving pitcher Russ Ortiz and centerfielder Andruw Jones going to the Chicago White Sox. Was this the end of the run? Were the Braves throwing in the towel?

Instead, that very afternoon, things turned around. Ortiz combined with John Smoltz to shutout the Baltimore Orioles 5-0. Since then, the Braves train has gotten back on track. They are 15-4 since that Saturday game in Baltimore, and tonight they host the Phillies in a battle for first place.

This is the one thing the Phillies, Mets, and Marlins didn't want to see. This is typical of the Braves to come back when everyone thought they were down and out. But this year might have been different. Gary Sheffield is in New York, Javy Lopez is in Baltimore, and Greg Maddux is in Chicago. There was no way the Braves could lose all that talent and still stick around, right?

The amazing thing about the 14-year run this organization is on is the fact that they don't just fall off. Organizations that win come and go, but the Braves stick around. Look at the Diamondbacks. They won the World Series in 2001. Less than three years later, their manager is gone and they are rebuilding. The Angels won the World Series in 2002 and then fell to 77-85 last season. We all know the 1998 Padres team that reached the World Series hit rock bottom before starting over. Ditto the 2000 Mets team that faced the Yankees in the Fall Classic.

But the Braves don't fade. They don't fall to a below .500 team. They may give you the impression it might happen, but just when you're ready to give up, ready to get prospects and look to next June's draft, guess what happens.

So tonight the Phillies come into Turner Field tied for first with the Braves. They had their chance to open up a lead a few weeks ago, only to see the Braves win 2 of 3 in Philadelphia. How frustrating it must be for Larry Bowa to know he's got to beat these Braves to win anything. Surely, he thought, Chipper Jones's hamstring would pop causing the Braves to fade. Surely, he thought, the Braves couldn't resurrect the career of a pitcher (Jaret Wright) who had an ERA above 8 last season. Surely, he thought, the Braves wouldn't get any production from Paul Byrd, out for the last fifteen months with Tommy John surgery.

And don't you know he thought on that Saturday night when Marcus Giles broke his collarbone that his Phillies had it made. Now it would be their turn to control the East. But unfortunately for Bowa, no matter how many tantrums he has on the field, and no matter how many players he alienates, he can't get rid of his biggest obstacle.

The Braves have to be considered the favorite now that they've shown the team can win consistently. It is a young team, one of the youngest in the National League. So it's not surprising it took a while for the club to come together. Forget the fact that if the team had not been besieged by injuries it probably would already be in first place. The struggles this team have had this season have made it stronger. Whatever doesn't kill you is suppose to make you stronger, and the Braves aren't dead yet.

Who knows if the Braves can win the World Series? That's really not important right now. The key is putting this team in position to try and win the World Series. The postseason is a crapshoot. We all know that. But if we don't get into the playoffs, it won't matter anyway.

The pitching has been extremely consistent. With Byrd now settling into the rotation, the group of five has jelled into a formidable staff. Hard to believe our most consistent starting pitcher for the first six weeks of the season has been out for six weeks. It's amazing that Horacio Ramirez has not been missed that much, especially when some thought it would be tough to maintain without him.

Atlanta's offense has been somewhat similar to last season over the past 19 games, scoring runs at will. Adam LaRoche is back and the platoon at first base with Julio Franco is now very productive. Marcus Giles is back and, as Joe Simpson said on the radio Sunday "is like a kid in a candy store." Plus, what can you say about left field?

Eli Marrero and Charles Thomas are the most dangerous combination hitting 8th in any lineup in baseball.

And don't you know Larry Bowa has got to be asking, "Who in the hell is Charles Thomas?" But it doesn't matter how you compare the Braves and the Phillies position-by-position. You can analyze these two rosters for hours. The intangible is something that can't be purchased in a free agent, and it can't be acquired in a deal before the trade deadline. The intangible is something that Larry Bowa knows, even if he'll never admit.

The National League East belongs to the Braves, and the defense continues tonight. And there's nothing Larry Bowa can do about it.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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