Brave New World

BRAVES 7, CARDINALS 2: Atlanta Braves starting pitcher John Smoltz throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday. Cardinals fall four games back of Chicago.

Braves fans, even the reluctant ones, are learning to live and die with their team again.

The Atlanta Braves had a playoff spot penciled in roughly halfway through the April of any given season over a fifteen-year span (minus the one unfinished strike year). And in the long hot waiting between the ordainment and the fulfillment of this minor manifest destiny, Atlanta fans would find other things to do besides get all worked up over a ballgame. Even those pesky first-round playoff games would barely cause a rustle among the populace. The common theme was "wake me up when they get to the NLCS."

Fifteen years is an awful long time for one thing to stay the same. It's almost against nature's way: a kid could be born and make his pappy a grandpappy in that fifteen-year span, among other things. There is a lot of drama that can come to unfold in that time, but this baseball team only provided it for a few weeks out of the year. So perhaps it isn't surprising that the casual fan of the Braves started to view their team's success as unsurprising, and as unchangeable, as an August heat wave.

As all things must, the Braves finally fell apart last season. Leo Mazzone, the man whose picture is in the dictionary next to "pitching coach," was pried away from Atlanta by a crowbar several million dollars strong. His replacement, former reliever Roger McDowell, presided over the ruination of the Braves' oncevaunted pitching staff. Everyone not named John Smoltz was a walking disaster on the mound, as the team racked up more than 800 runs allowed – the most since 1990, their last losing season and their last season finish out of first place.

On the surface, though, this year's Braves are closer to their contending form than the pitiful wrecks that they were portrayed to be last season. They have yet to spend a day of the season below .500, and have been absolutely scorching the ball all season long, especially now that general manager John Schuerholz landed Mark Teixeira, the single biggest bat on the market during the July trading season.

With all this firepower on display, fair-weather Braves fans suddenly have a reason to watch their team, a reason to get caught up in the day-to-day drama of a division race that hasn't already been decided by the All Star break. And though it hasn't quite registered in the stands, some of the passion about the team's chances appears to be resurfacing on those corners of the internet that border on the Peach State.

However, as they roll into St. Louis for closer inspection, this Atlanta team doesn't seem to have that intangible quality – whether it's luck, moxie, or the roster spackle to cover up embarrassing holes – that marked their contending teams. Since the All- Star break, the Braves have not been able to make a push, going 19-20 despite having outscored their opponents by nearly 20 runs over that span.

The Braves come to town a frustrated and dangerous bunch, having lost three of four games in Cincinnati despite scoring a total of 30 runs in that span.

Reading the Tea Leaves

Despite the eventual collapse that so many baseball pundits had spent years attempting to predict, and despite the pending sale of the club and transition from big-money contender to a humble midmarket team, there were signs that the Braves were not to fall into a deep rut.

For one, in four out of six months those supposedly downtrodden 2006 Braves played wining baseball. However, the two losing months – a 10-14 April to handicap the season 6 games behind the surging Mets, and a 6-21 plummet in June that sunk the team well into the second division – left the strongest impressions among casual watchers.

For another, emerging hitters, such as 23-year-old catcher Brian McCann, 23-year-old Jeff Francouer, and 26-year-old Adam LaRoche were providing great complementary sources of power, hitting alongside the vaunted Joneses. As a result, these former greats managed to put up the secondmost runs of the franchise's modernera history. In fact, they managed to outscore their opponents by better than forty runs, yet still managed to finish under .500 at 79-83, yielding the division race to the bitterly hated Mets and Phillies.

However, there was no disguising the stench in the bullpen. Braves pitching really is this bad. For all of the quality that the Braves' farm system has turned out in offensive skill, and we can add this year's breakout second baseman, Kelly Johnson to that list, it has been matched by the complete absence of emerging quality pitching. Smoltz and a rejuvenated Tim Hudson have anchored the top of the rotation well, and are keeping this team from entering any profound slumps, but as the fans at Talking Chop put it, this year's rotation is "Smoltzie and Huddy and then it gets ugly."

Playing "What If…"

Starting pitching was at the top of Braves' fans desires for the July trading deadline, but at the top of their ultimate wish list might be the chance to undo the fateful trade of 2003 that sent away Adam Wainwright and a few companions for a one-year rental of JD Drew.

It was a deal much like the one Walt Jocketty made for us a year later, sending Danny Haren away to Oakland for Mark Mulder in the 2004 winter meetings. In both instances, a team built to contend now traded future promise for a proven veteran. And in both cases, each team's fans scoff at the short term gains that these trades yielded, and look wistfully over the fence at what might have been.

Ironically for Cardinal fans, it may have been the acquisition of Wainwright that gave Jocketty the gambler's confidence – the feeling of having an ace in the hole – to let go of Haren.

However, Haren's loss was almost immediately felt, as he quickly blossomed into a dominant force for Oakland, while Mulder never showed the famous form of his youth.

Not so for Braves fans and Wainwright.

At first, Adam was just a lanky kid, a nobody, just a pitching prospect who hadn't done a whit in the majors. The Braves had pitching to spare, and Drew was playing like a man possessed – until the opening round of the playoffs, an embarrassing second year running that the mighty Braves failed to escape the NLDS. The golden boy had the bat sawed out of his hands – one RBI and no extra-base hits in 5 games. Then Drew took the money and ran to Los Angeles, and suddenly the Braves had nothing in return for that trade.

It wasn't until their fallow year last year that Braves fans knew exactly what they had lost. On primetime television, they watched the kid with a scraggly playoff beard staring down and then shutting down the greatest lineup in the National League. They saw Wainwright do what their team couldn't – wipe out the Mets. They saw Wainwright take a team that, on the whole, wasn't much better than their own, and take them to the World Series title. And an obsession was born.

A Fly in the Ointment

In addition to pining for a superstar lost, Braves fans are also pondering another superstar who appears to have lost his game altogether. Andruw Jones, former pretender to the MVP and representative of the Netherlands in baseball's 2006 World Classic, has been a shell of his former self all season long.

Andruw entered 2007 seemingly in the catbird seat. This was his contract year, and he had hit nearly 100 home runs the two previous years, while still playing an adept center field. Only 30 years old and having never lost significant time to injury, he stood the chance of landing on any team of his choosing, and for nearly any salary he might think of.

He busted out in April with some career average numbers – a few homers, plenty of doubles, and a respectable .263 average.

Then he hit .202 in May.

And .143 in June.

And though he showed signs of getting back on track around the All Star break, here he is hitting .211 in August.

Of course, there is plenty of baseball left, only not as much plenty as there used to be. He is still spending most of his time in the cleanup spot, and with a huge September could take an offense that is already clicking on all cylinders and give it a burst of nitrous oxide. Perhaps it would be enough to leapfrog the Braves back into first in the division, getting one last taste of the glory in a Braves uniform and cementing his worth once again on the free agent market.

Or, the way things are going for Atlanta, maybe he should pull a reverse- Ankiel and take up pitching.

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