O.K., I’m impressed.
The Braves just completed a sweep of the Cardinals. In St. Louis. At the end of a 10-day, nine-game road trip.
A Cardinals team that entered the weekend tied with the Dodgers for the best record in the National League. A Cardinals team leading all of baseball in runs scored.
A Cardinals team, mind you, that hadn’t lost a series at home all season, and had won two of every three games played at The Latest Busch Stadium.
Of course, we were also impressed last September 1, when the Braves record stood at 81-55, and they held an 8½ game lead in the wild card race.
Of course, the Braves would be swept in a crucial three-game set in St. Louis a week later. That sweep would escalate a free-fall that would see the Braves stagger to a Sept. record of 9-18.
That sweep would also provide the impetus that enabled the Cardinals to celebrate a World Series win in October.
Are you like me? Didn’t the thought cross your mind during the weekend — at least once — that the Braves really could have used one of these wins last September?
And does that hideous collapse still temper your excitement over this year’s edition of the Braves? Do you refuse to be taken in, fearing another jilting? Or are you able to let go and really enjoy what’s happening?
The beauty of baseball is that we can’t say for sure that the Braves will keep rolling through the season’s final month this year. But it does look like their offense is here to stay.
Let’s not dwell on last year’s offensive woes, other than by contrast. How refreshing to see Braves batsmen step into the box with a clue, a plan of attack. How nice to see runners advanced from second base, instead of standing there, eternally stranded.
How nice to see the Braves batters work counts.
“They just fought,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told Jenifer Langosch of mlb.com. “They didn’t really back off. They just kept fighting, regardless of the outs, regardless of the count. It was a nightmare for us.”
Saturday, the Braves made Adam Wainwright throw 30 pitches before they made an out. Included in that ordeal were back-to-back bases loaded walks.
Wainwright was out of gas one out into the fifth inning. With a 5-0 lead, new Braves ace Brandon Beachy sailed along on cruise control.
Sunday brought more of the same. This game had Cardinals win written all over it: the final game of a long road trip, on which the Braves had already clinched a winning record. If that wasn’t enough, the Braves faced an old nemesis: a starting pitcher they had never seen.
Even worse, Lance Lynn had been pitching like he was still at Ole Miss: a lovely 1.40 era backing the only 6-0 record in the majors.
By the end of three innings, Lynn had hurled 81 pitches, and trailed, 3-0. Adding to the pitch count were 27 foul balls hit by the Braves.
All three runs scored in the third inning, a rally unlike anything we witnessed a year ago. Martin Prado singled with two out, and Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla coaxed walks. Yes, Dan Uggla walked. Imagine that a year ago.
That brought up Jason Heyward, who battled Lynn for nine pitches, including six that he fouled off. Heyward drilled the 10th delivery into the right field corner, driving in everyone.
“I just tried to keep perfecting my timing on every pitch,” Heyward told Langosch. “I just wanted to get a pitch to hit, and hit it, or get a walk. I know it took a lot out of him.”
Lynn agreed. “I was making good pitches and he was spoiling them until he got one he could do something with,” he told Langosch. “They were making me fight for every out I got. That lineup will do that to you.”
For Heyward, who looked as clueless as anyone a year ago, it was his second game-winning hit of the series. Friday night, his two-run homer in the 12th inning led to a 9-7 win.
The Braves offensive improvement is borne out by some startling numbers produced Friday by Diane Firstman of espn.com.
A year ago, the Braves averaged 3.96 runs per game; this year, the number is 5.43, a 29 percent increase. But, relative to the league average, which is down in 2012 from 2011, the Braves’ run production is up a stunning 37 percent over last season.
That mark currently ranks third all-time, right behind the 1903 New York Giants and the 1915 Chicago White Sox. Over the past 40 seasons, only the 1978 Milwaukee Brewers cracked the top 10.