We as a city are rusty when it comes to baseball games that matter, which is why Monday’s tilt at SunTrust Park bore the shock of the new-ish. The Atlanta Braves were trying to nose above .500 for the first time this late in a season since 2014, and the team they were seeking to pass, conveniently enough, was the team visiting STP — the Chicago Cubs, reigning champs for the first time since William Howard Taft was president of these United States.
There being no bandwagon like a Cubs bandwagon — not that the Cubs’ bandwagon has ever rolled quite like this — the Braves’ new stadium felt very much like the Braves’ old stadium during the NLDS in 2003. Cubs fans made up half the crowd. You can take the team out of the Atlanta city limits, but you can’t take that we’re-a-city-of-transients-and-trendiness vibe out of Atlanta. Fans of the visiting club left having gotten what they wanted — Cubs won, Cubs won — but not without much ado.
Had the Cubs lost, there’d have been furniture destroyed in the visiting manager’s office. Three of the four umpires — the infamous CB Bucknor behind the plate, Manny Gonzalez at first base and Ed Hickox at second — drew the ire of Joe Maddon and his not-so-merry men. Had Johan Camargo authored a walk-off single, the Cubs would have howled until Halloween that they’d already recorded the required 27 outs. But Gonzalez ruled Sean Rodriguez’s clearly unchecked swing a checked swing, leaving the bases loaded for the guy who entered the game hitting .333 and who, in bigger news, seems to have taken Dansby Swanson’s place as Brian Snitker’s shortstop of choice.
On this late night, Camargo did not trigger hometown celebrations. His fly to left was gloved by Ben Zobrist. The Braves lost 4-3. Had Freddie Freeman been playing third base, as opposed to first, they might have lost 7-1. Freeman’s snags of Kyle Schwarber’s bases-loaded screamer in the fifth and Zobrist’s grounder in sixth ended innings and left an aggregate of five Cubs stranded. Sometimes defense matters.
The Cubs would leave nine on base, which is how a game dominated by Jon Lester — he pitched seven splendid innings, doubled off the right-field fence and stole the first base of a career now in its 12th major-league season — was still close enough for Wade Davis to lose. Not that Davis loses many games: Over the past four seasons, he has been no worse than the second-best reliever in baseball, depending on your appraisal of Andrew Miller, and Davis has no blown saves in his 3 1/2 months as a Cub.
He came close this night. With one out in the ninth, the Braves had managed three hits, none since Brandon Phillips’ RBI single in the third. They then mustered three singles in succession — Phillips to center, Freeman to right, Matt Kemp to left. Counting an intentional walk to pinch-hitter Matt Adams and the walk-with-asterisk of Rodriguez, the Braves put five men aboard against one of the best in the business. Davis also cast a wild pitch and saw two Braves steal second.
For a heady few minutes, this had the feel of one of those games from the ancient days of Justice and McGriff and Chipper and Andruw and all those pitchers — a game the Braves really shouldn’t have won but saved at the very end. Didn’t happen, though.
The unhappy totals: The Braves slipped to 45-46; they’re now 10 1/2 games behind Washington in the National League East and seven games back of the second wild card. They’ll get a chance to square the series tonight: The Cubs’ starting pitcher will be John Lackey, who’s kind of their Bartolo Colon, although much less amiable.
For the Braves’ 3 1/2-month-old stadium, Monday’s game was a departure. Snitker likened the ambience — meaning Cubs fans yelling and Braves fans yelling back — to a playoff game, and that was sort of true if you’re going by what playoff games here became in the 21st Century. Meaning lots of cheers for the visitors, who then exit as winners.
And here I apologize. That last bit was snarky. These Braves have been a happy surprise. They weren’t supposed to be this good, or even good at all. The Cubs were supposed to win everything again. Their bandwagon is bursting at the rivets. But there’s reason to think warm thoughts about the team that entered Monday’s game a half-game behind the mighty Cubbies. Even on a night where they were outplayed, the Braves nearly gave us a finish. Faint of heart, they ain’t.
Further reading: Big game, Cubs in town. Dansby Swanson isn’t in the Braves’ lineup.