Updated: October 21, 3:07 AM ET
Concession speech? Braves dig big hole
By Jayson Stark
ATLANTA -- OK, so most of their Octobers haven't had happy endings. The Atlanta Braves don't need to consult Jim Leyritz, Derek Jeter, Livan Hernandez or Kevin Brown to be reminded of that.
But at least in those other Octobers, the Braves never did what they've done these last two evenings, in Games 3 and 4 of an NL Championship Series that might not last beyond the weekend.
Heck, they might have lost a few games in those other Octobers. But at least they never turned into ... (for want of a better term) ... THE PIRATES.
It's one thing to fall behind a team like the Arizona Diamondbacks, 3 games to 1. Could happen to anybody, especially if that Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling tag team is going to insist on giving up a combined seven hits and one run in 18 innings.
But that isn't the story of this NL Championship Series. The story is the Braves coming home and essentially making one never-ending How-Not-To video in maybe their two ugliest postseason losses ever.
"Basically," said Chipper Jones, after his team had bungled itself to within one loss of stacking firewood Saturday night, "I'm a little bit shocked about what happened out there -- because things like that don't usually happen to us."
Well, they happened, all right. They happened and happened and happened some more. This was a game that didn't just mushroom on this team. It downright Portabellaed.
And that was the encore after a Game 3 defensive nightmare that was so unsightly, you might have thought a team this good couldn't possibly get much worse. Ummmmm, so much for that theory.
What could get worse than John Burkett not making it through the fifth inning in Game 3? How about Greg Maddux not making it through the fourth in a messy 11-4 loss in Game 4?
What could get worse than Burkett not getting an out on a routine bunt in Game 3? How about Maddux -- noted winner of 11 straight Gold Gloves -- not getting an out on a routine groundball back to the mound in Game 4, then rushing a throw home on the next play and e-mailing it past the plate to the screen?
What could get worse than Javy Lopez not catching a throw by Chipper Jones in Game 3? How about the Chipster failing to catch a slow-mo squibber to third base in Game 4, followed by Rey Sanchez fielding the next hit, a run-of-the-mill groundball to short, and throwing it five feet wide of first base?
What could get worse than the Braves falling four runs behind Schilling in Game 3 and knowing their only shot to catch up was a four-hour rain delay? How about getting wiped out in Game 4 on a night when Arizona starter Albie Lopez was so lousy, his manager pinch-hit for him in the fourth inning -- while he was leading by two runs?
"I'll be honest with you," the Chip Man said afterward. "I don't know how to explain that game."
Well, it wasn't quite the biggest mystery since the Loch Ness Monster, but it was close. And all those snafus we just mentioned weren't even the half of it.
"That," said Maddux afterward, "was embarrassing. You don't want to sit there and throw the ball around like that. I'd almost rather pitch bad than throw the ball around."
Well, Maddux did make some history in this game. Unfortunately, it was bad history. The nine outs he got were the fewest he has ever gotten in a postseason start. And he has made 28 of them.
He and Lopez -- who failed to become the first 19-game loser in history to win a postseason game -- combined to make this the first National League playoff game ever in which neither starter got an out in the fourth inning.
But there's a slight difference between Albie Lopez not getting an out in the fourth inning and a four-time Cy Young trophy collector not getting an out in the fourth inning. It's been that kind of year, though, for Maddux -- who now has gone 10 straight starts without winning for the first time since a stretch before the All-Star break in 1990.
"I needed to go out and shut somebody out," Maddux said. "I mean, Glavine did it. Schilling did it. Randy Johnson did it. That's what I needed to do."
But not only did Maddux not throw a shutout, an incomprehensible 10 of the last 11 hitters he faced reached base. Of course, this was a game in which a hit wasn't necessarily a requirement for reaching base.
It's hard to remember now. But Maddux did actually roll into the third inning of this game with a 2-0 lead. Then the insanity began.
Jones flubbed a Tony Womack dribbler for the first error of the night. That was only a warm-up, however, because catcher Paul Bako threw Womack out stealing three pitches later.
"I'm just glad Bako threw Womack out," Maddux was able to joke later. "Or we might still be playing."
After that came Sanchez's first error, which the Braves blamed on a wet infield. And that set the stage for what had to be the two worst back-to-back defensive freeze frames of Maddux's career.
With runners on first and third, Reggie Sanders one-hopped a ball right back to the mound. Maddux turned, found Craig Counsell dancing between third and home, and started right at him.
Then, however, Maddux had a brainstorm. To try to "just bluff him a little" into breaking for home, Maddux took a quick look toward Sanders, as if he were going to ignore Counsell and throw to first. But Counsell didn't go for it and burst back toward third. Jones had broken for the ball after it was hit and couldn't get back to the bag. So Maddux had no choice but to eat the baseball and load the bases.
With one out, though, all he needed was a double-play ball by Steve Finley, who grounded into eight of them this year. Finley smoked a liner right into Maddux's glove -- and right out of it.
"I thought I had it," Maddux said. "I didn't realize I dropped it."
When he did, he lurched after it, tried to nail Counsell at the plate and misfired. By the time Bako had chased it down, it was a tie game.
In retrospect, Maddux probably shouldn't have thrown it at all. But "you've gotta realize," he said, "that when you look and see the runner two-thirds of the way down the line, you have to think you've got a play. And even if you think you don't have a play, you've got to try. It's like telling the shorstop not to make the throw across the infield on a groundball if he isn't sure if the guy's going to be safe or out."
But Maddux, too, said the ball was wet, and when he went to throw it, "it was just a spitball."
Next thing he knew, singles by Matt Williams and Mark Grace had turned this debacle into a four-run inning. And this game was never the same.
"It was one of those things, man," Jones said. "We came back after that inning was over and said, like, 'Where are we -- the Twilight Zone or something?'"
Must have been. Three more hits off Maddux to start the fourth ended his night and kicked off another two-run inning by an Arizona team that had scored exactly 13 runs in the entire postseason before these two games (when it scored 18).
And eventually, the Diamondbacks made sure it was safe for America to watch "Saturday Night Live" with four unearned runs in the ninth, all of them coming after Sanchez made another wild throw to first with two outs.
So now the Braves find themselves down, 3 games to 1, and needing to win three in a row against Aces Inc. The good news is that, of the last 17 teams that have trailed in a best-of-7 series by this same margin, the only one to come back and win was the Braves, against St. Louis in 1996. The bad news is, they didn't have to beat Schilling and Johnson in two of those three games back then.
"You know, since I've been here," Jones said, "I felt like maybe only one time we got beat by a team I didn't think should have beaten us in the postseason. Every other time, we got knocked out by a team that was very hot or played a very good series against us and just outplayed us.
"But this is a little different. I feel like if we didn't make all these blunders tonight and last night, that possibly these games could have turned out a little different. And what disappoints me is, we might never know if we're better than them -- because we never gave ourselves a chance to find out."
That wasn't quite a concession speech. But it sure had the makings of an eloquent preamble. And if the Braves do have to make that speech Sunday night -- or Tuesday or Wednesday, back in Arizona -- for the first time in a long time, they have to wonder if they'll be back in this great Octoberfest next year, trying to make it turn out right one more time.
"You might say the window is starting to close," Jones said, "just for the simple fact that we've ridden Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz for much of this run. And now they're in their early-to-mid-30s. And we don't know how many more opportunities we're going to have all together.
"Obviously," he said, "I think we all realize that at some point, this is going to end. But I also know this: The guys in here don't want to be on that team that ends it."
Oh, maybe this won't be the end. But their road to survival starts Sunday night, against a famous 6-foot-10 left-hander -- who hasn't shown much sign of be feeling real nostalgic about the waning days of that Atlanta Braves dynasty.