What a difference a year makes!
Three days, too.
Nothing but seashells and balloons for the Braves on Sunday night. After completing their three-game sweep of Washington, the Braves looked solid for a playoff berth.
They were even talking about eating up the rest of the Nationals’ lead, and claiming the division title. Or, rather, that was confidence talking.
That’s what the series did for the Braves. They played three games in a playoff atmosphere, and forced the other team to crack each time. It left the team with confidence that it could stare down Washington again. In the playoffs.
"I think it was good for us to come out and prove to ourselves that we can play good, consistent baseball against them, for three straight games," retiring legend Chipper Jones told Mark Bowman of mlb.com.
Here’s what else the series did: it ran the Braves September record to 10-5. That’s the kind of baseball you want to be playing down the stretch. It’s also the direct opposite of the way the Braves lurched through September a year ago, posting a hideous 9-18 record.
Even more amazing, this sweep came on the heels of a series in Milwaukee where the Braves were the sweepee. There we saw pitchers and fielders making mistakes under the pressure of trying to be perfect, because the offense had gone into hibernation.
But, hey, they’ve also won a bunch of low-scoring games. Even back-to-back 1-0 wins, without the benefit of an earned run.
Jones again: "I think we’ve played well all throughout September, to be honest with you," he told Carroll Rogers of ajc.com. "We got hurt by the big inning in Milwaukee, where we didn’t make a pitch or didn’t make a play, and it ended up costing us a big inning. You file those away as being flukes.
"We knew that this was a big series. We had to turn things around, and play good, consistent baseball. Washington forces you, more times than not, to have to go out and play a perfect game against them, because their pitching doesn’t give up many runs. They’ve got a very good offense and they play good ‘D.’
"We’ve played well for 27-plus innings against them."
What Chipper just described was playoff baseball.
The best news is that the Braves have been playing playoff baseball for quite some time now.
That bodes well for the rest of the pennant race. And the playoffs, where you’ll face good pitching and good fielding every game. Runs will be at a premium. Games will be low-scoring, taut affairs —just like the Braves have been playing all month.
When the Braves go about their business like they did on Sunday night, making 19-game winner Gio Gonzalez throw 92 pitches in only four innings, they’re demonstrating that they know how to take playoff at-bats. This leads you to believe that the offense won’t be missing in action when it counts most.
Other good signs include Michael Bourn igniting the offense Sunday night. He gave us a glimpse of his all-star first half after slumping for most of the past eight weeks. Having Andrelton Simmons back in the lineup will also add some punch. And Dan Uggla appears ready to add a timely hit on occasion, as he did Sunday night.
Homers from Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman on Saturday gave a big lift; what if they both got hot at playoff time? Along with Jones and Martin Prado, they could supply enough offense to support the Braves’ pitching.
That’s because the Braves’ pitching is outstanding. Throughout the season, we heard that the Braves’ rotation lacked a bona-fide number one starter.
That was before Kris Medlen was allowed to start. I’d toss Medlen out there against anyone right now — including Bob Gibson in his prime. Medlen showed it again Friday night. In the biggest start of his career, he set a personal record with 13 strikeouts, and allowed a single run.
Mike Minor has spent the past 11 weeks proving that he finally has it figured out. It’s what you’d expect from someone who attended Vanderbilt. That leaves Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm to round out the playoff rotation, and that’s not bad.
Especially when fronting the Braves excellent bullpen. Imagine — closing out the Nats with Cory Gearrin, Luis Avilan, and Chad Durbin, while resting Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrell. All of whom remain well-rested, by the way.
Collapse? Not this year. In fact, this Braves team looks like it might make a deep playoff run. At least, that’s what Chipper told Rogers:
"Playing this kind of baseball is what’s going to give you an opportunity to achieve what we all set out in spring training to do, and that’s give ourselves a shot at a World Series."
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for the Forsyth County News.