I can’t say this crept up on me. I watch the standings, same as you. But I have, I confess, been expecting those standings to change and reveal what I, and maybe you, were expecting — for the schedule to catch up to the Braves and for them to go south, figuratively speaking. (Geographically, they’ve been South since 1966.)
But looky here. The Braves got blown out in two games by the Astros, at which point I/you said, “OK, here it comes.” Then they split a series in D.C. Then they swept the Diamondbacks. They’re 5-4 against the part of the schedule that was supposed to make them full-blown sellers before Aug. 1. It’s July 17 and they’re at .500 for the first time since April. More to the point, they’re six games back of the second wild card.
Six games back of the second wild card still isn’t a trifling margin. They’d have to catch at least two teams to make the playoffs, and even if they made it they’d be guaranteed exactly one postseason game. (We recall the Braves gracing, if that’s the word, the inaugural wild card play-in. We recall also these words: Infield fly.)
But to focus on logistics ignores the big picture, which — might as well say it — gets bigger with every passing week: This team wasn’t supposed to be doing this. Yet it is.
It wasn’t even two weeks ago that these fallible fingers typed a little something about how 2017 was not 1991. And it isn’t: These Braves will not go worst-to-first. The Nationals will get Trea Turner back soon, and they just made the bullpen-bolstering trade they had to make. They’re still 9 1/2 games in front; they’re going to win the East. But the landscape today isn’t the same as it was 26 years ago.
The Braves don’t have to finish first to qualify for postseason. They only have to finish fifth among National League teams. They’re seventh as we speak. If they beat the Cubs tonight, they’ll be sixth.
FanGraphs gives the Braves a 4.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus offers a 4.6. Those are basically 20-1 odds, definitely in the long-shot range. But it wasn’t long ago that those same sabermetric-based sites were assigning a zero-point-something chance. Those sites, it must also be said, are basing their projections largely on what the Braves were expected to be, which was a 76-or-so-win team. This team might not be that team.
The team directly ahead of the Braves — the aforementioned Cubs, reigning champions for the first time in more than a century — has grossly underachieved. Theo Epstein and Co., casting down-the-road planning to the winds, just made another prospect-shedding trade for Jose Quintana, who on cue struck out 12 in his Cubs’ debut. The Cubs are 4 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, but the widespread belief is that they’ll win the Central. That would rearrange the wild card pool.
The Braves would then be chasing the Brewers, the D-backs and the Rockies. The latter three have overachieved. (Not that the Braves haven’t.) All will surely make moves this next fortnight in the attempt to patch over weaknesses. None is guaranteed to hold up over 162 games. Milwaukee looks good at the moment, but Colorado has lost 16 of 21 and Arizona 11 of 14. Remember, the Braves have to catch two teams, not three.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves, given that this franchise hasn’t spent a day above .500 this late in a season since September 2014, the month that got Frank Wren fired? Maybe. But the Braves have three games remaining against the D-backs and seven against the Rockies. They’re 6-2-1 over the past nine series. They haven’t lost three consecutive games in a month.
As much as we keep expecting them to go away, they haven’t. They might at any moment, but at this moment they’re still here. Bobby Cox used to say, “If you’re at .500 at the All-Star break, anything can happen.” His ’91 team was one game under, and we saw what happened. This team was 42-45; today it’s 45-45.
As much as we might think, “Well, the Cubs will roll in here and boat-race the Bravos,” here are the ERAs of Chicago’s scheduled starting pitchers: Jon Lester, 4.25; John Lackey, 5.20, and Mike Montgomery, 4.01. The Braves’ starters carry similar numbers — Julio Teheran, 4.79; Sean Newcomb, 4.26, and R.A. Dickey, 4.08 — but the Braves weren’t supposed to do anything in 2017. The Cubs were, and still are.
If the season’s first 90 games have taught us anything, it’s that — cue John Sterling — you can’t predict baseball. The Braves saw Bartolo Colon spit the bit and Freddie Freeman lost for a month and Dansby Swanson fizzle and Teheran regress, and they’re a half-game worse than the star-spangled club that won it all last year and expects to win it again soon. Absolutely nobody saw that coming.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve contracted pennant fever, but I’d be lying. I’m still not sure a team in Year 3 of a massive reset, a team populated by retreads who were supposed to be the bridge to the really good days ahead, is of playoff caliber, or even realistic-playoff-possibility caliber. But here it is, 45-45 on the morning of July 17. The schedule has toughened, and the Braves have toughened with it. This has gotten interesting.