When the Atlanta Braves, the team I followed religiously as a kid, lost Chipper Jones, my favorite player as a youth, for the season earlier this Summer, I believed the team would have a difficult time staying afloat. The 38-year old wasn’t playing all too well, but he was their leader, a lifelong Brave that has been a tremendous clubhouse presence. They managed to persevere without the 16-year veteran, and currently find themselves in the middle of a playoff race in manager Bobby Cox’s final season as manager.
Cox, who has been the manager of the Braves for the past 20 years after four years at the helm from 1978-1981, is currently the longest tenured in baseball and been nothing but successful in Atlanta. He led the Braves to 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005, a major league baseball record, and to one World Series championship, that coming in 1995.
After a four year absence from the postseason, Cox is looking to put a final feather in his cap and reach the playoffs for the 15th time. Atlanta is in a prime position to do so, as they entered Wendesday’s day-game and series finale against the Florida Marlins 1 1/2 games ahead of the San Diego Padres in the Wild Card. They are led by the five-pronged offensive attack of Martín Prado, rookie sensation Jason Heyward, fellow All-Star Omar Infante, Brian McCann, and late-season acquisition Derek Lee, and have a three-headed monster anchoring their rotation, with veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe at the top and young righthander Tommy Hanson not far behind.
Lowe pitched on three days rest, just as pitchers used to on a regular basis back in the good old days but is celebrated in this era of babying, paranoia of injury, and pitch counts. Lowe’s been around the block a few times, as a 13 year veteran, and has pitched in many crucial games, having won all three playoff series clinchers in the Boston Red Sox 2004 championship run. So, not surprisingly, he delivered in the Braves biggest game to date.
Six strikeouts were recorded by the sinkerballer over the first three innings, and then Atlanta’s offense went to work, tagging Marlins young starter Andrew Miller for four runs in the bottom of the third. Two were out when the damage was done, as catcher David Ross, who entered hitting .285 in limited at-bats behind McCann, leveled a rbi-double to left-field and then scored as Brooks Conrad followed with a three-run blast to left-center.
Ross, 33, entered the season with a career batting average of .233, but has flourished in Atlanta. Last year, his first with the Braves, he hit .278 with a very solid .380 on-base percentage, both marks career highs by a mile. This season, as his aforementioned batting average suggested, he has picked up where he left off, one of many players through the years to come to Atlanta and exponentially increase their production.
The offense has been sporadic this season, though they have a lot of talented bats who have put up very respectable numbers. This means, as they were going for their 90th win, their success has primarily been due to their superb rotation and, especially recently, an overpowering bullpen.
Lowe, who pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowed one run on seven hits, walked one, and struck out nine, exemplified their rotation’s success, and four relievers combined to exemplify the relief core’s success. Thirty-one year old Peter Moylan, who has been superb all season, recorded his 21st hold and lowered his ERA to 2.97 by getting the final out of the sixth and first of the seventh. Twenty-five year old Mike Dunn notched the first hold of his major-league career taking over for Moylan. He also pitched two-thirds of an inning and now has a 1.00 ERA. Then, 22-year old Craig Kimbrel continued his stifling rookie season by baffling the Marlins with a changeup that continuously fell off the table and caused many whiffs. His inning of work was perfect, and in 20 appearances so far at the major league level he has relinquished only two runs. Finally, closer Billy Wagner came in, albeit in a non-save situation with the Braves ahead 5-1, and closed the door.
The 38-year old Wagner overpowered the Marlins as he has many opponents this season. He did so with his blistering fastball and offsetting slider, the results of a furious windup that makes my elbow hurt just watching. He, who ranks fifth all time with 421 saves, is hanging up his spikes after the season. He will have played this grand game for 16 extraordinary years. And he hopes to ride off into the sunset on the highest of notes, to win the World Series, just like his manager Bobby Cox, who is on the verge of leading his Braves to the playoffs yet again.