“It’s like we’re living out a bad dream.”
-- Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, after losing 7-1 to the Phillies on Tuesday.
Entering September, the Braves were 80-55, in clear command of the NL wild-card race, leading the Cardinals by 8.5 games. Somewhere, the nightmare began, like that recurring dream in which you drive a car off the side of a mountain. Over and over and over again.
But not all dreams are nightmares. For every 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s a 1951 New York Giants. For every 2007 New York Mets, there’s a 2007 Philadelphia Phillies. This story is also about a St. Louis team that has overcome a shaky bullpen and some injuries of its own.
While the Braves have averaged just 3.2 runs per game while going 9-17 this month, the Cardinals have gone 17-8. Albert Pujols has led the way, hitting .366 with 20 RBIs; Lance Berkman has an on-base percentage over .450; Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia (recovering from a terrible August) have combined to go 7-0 with an ERA under 2.50. But as Tuesday night’s victory over the Astros showed, the Cardinals -- unlike the Braves -- are getting contributions from deep in the roster.
For a few minutes on Tuesday, the Braves did appear like they would get a reprieve. The Phillies had knocked around Derek Lowe and were well on their way to a 7-1 win. But the Astros had jumped to a 5-0 lead after three innings. Atlanta would enter the final day of the season with a one-game lead; after all, when leading after three innings, teams have won 72 percent of the time this season. That’s when leading by any margin; when leading by five runs, the percentage is much higher. Yes, the Astros are the worst team in the league, but a five-run lead should be safe.
But this Cardinals team keeps on attacking. Nick Punto, filling in for Rafael Furcal at shortstop (Furcal pulled a hamstring on Monday), went 4-for-5. Allen Craig, so valuable all season in a utility role, replaced Matt Holliday after one at-bat when Holliday felt discomfort again in his injured hand. Craig went 2-for-3 with a walk, three runs, four RBIs, a home run and did the laundry after the game. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa used seven relievers and 23 players.
That’s why the Cardinals feel like the playoff team of destiny. They’re the better team right now. They have the stars; they have more depth. They have Pujols -- and he has that look in his eyes.
It’s not quite that simple. The Braves will send Tim Hudson to the mound against Joe Blanton, making his first start since May. The pitching matchup has to favor the Braves. The Cardinals send Chris Carpenter to the mound; he’s allowed five runs over his past four starts. But the Astros will start Brett Myers, who is as hot as any pitcher in the National League; he’s allowed seven runs his past six starts and has a 21/3 strikeout/walk ratio in September. I expect two low-scoring games.
At some point in recent days you may have heard this factoid: Only one team has overcome a deficit in September of at least 8.5 games to reach the postseason -- the 1964 Cardinals.
Maybe it will happen again, with another Cardinals team pulling off the miracle. (The Rays could also pull this off in the American League.)
But for every miracle, there’s a nightmare. And right now, the Braves and their fans have awoken in a cold sweat.