Losing is never fun, OK? But losing can bring clarity to a team that had, through 90 games, been better than we and maybe the team itself expected. The Atlanta Braves awoke Monday at .500, 9 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East, six games back of the second wild card.
Two days later, the same Braves are 45-47, which isn’t a great deal worse than 45-45, but the standings are rather different. The Braves are 11 1/2 games behind Washington, meaning that race — not that it ever was much of one — has been settled. They’re eight games out of a playoff spot, which is a lot. They’re now even with the Pirates, who have been a disappointment, and behind the Cardinals, who have by exalted Redbird standards been pedestrian.
We stipulate that this is baseball, where teams play every day. A five-game winning streak could rearrange all dynamics. But the Braves face the Cubs again today, and then they head to L.A. for four games against a team that was already good and has gotten frighteningly so.
The Dodgers are on a 10-game winning streak. They’re on pace to win 112 games, which would be the best by a National League team since the Cubs — yes, the Cubs — in 1906. Their probable starter Friday night is Alex Wood, the former Brave who hasn’t lost this season. Their Sunday starter is scheduled to be Clayton Kershaw, about whom we say no more.
Only 48 hours ago, we wondered (seriously) if the Braves were a playoff team. Over that span, their odds of qualifying for postseason have been — this according to FanGraphs — have been more than halved. They were 4.8 percent; they’re now 2.3 percent. In our heart of hearts, we always figured this was a massive boats-against-the-current deal. The past two long nights at SunTrust Park have only underscored the point.
The Braves nearly pulled out a game Monday they didn’t deserve to win. They were beaten 5-1 Tuesday by a Cubs starter who’d just exited the disabled list and was believed to be ticketed for the bullpen, what with the arrival of Jose Quintana and the expected return of Kyle Hendricks. But John Lackey, terrible all season, handled the Braves.
Again, it was one game. (Or two, counting Monday.) Again, these Braves responded to two blowouts by Houston by halving a series in D.C. and then, after the All-Star break, sweeping Arizona. The reason we hadn’t yet dismissed their chances was because they refused to go away. But now a discouraging word: By week’s end, they could be all but gone.
In the here and now, that would be disappointing. In the grand scheme, it probably would be for the best. It would allow John Coppolella to approach the July 31 trade deadline without having to worry that his clubhouse would revolt if Brandon Phillips/Jaime Garcia/Matt Adams/Julio Teheran get moved.
Asked Monday what his deadline approach would be, Coppolella offered this: “The best thing we can do for our team, our players and our fans is to seek out opportunities that will make us better in both the short and long term. There are options out there for us that fit what we are seeking, but we need to be careful in assessing the cost-benefit analysis.”
You’re free to parse those words as you like, but here’s how I took them: “We want to give this team every chance to win, but we don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes the rebuild we put in place 20-some months ago.” And that, you’d have to say, would be the only prudent approach. The Braves have put too much into this tear-down-to-build-up to compromise any part of it in the attempt to qualify for a postseason that might last one game.
As deflating as the two losses to the Cubs were, they came at a useful moment. The deadline is 12 days away. That’s a finite thing. The Braves will have to make some sort of choice — fish/cut bait — by the last day of July. That choice will be easier if the numbers show that the 2017 team has no realistic playoff chance.