Braves realize now's the time to shine

ATLANTA -- History.

We hear a lot about history this time of year. You may have noticed that. We hear so much about it, in fact, we expect some night to tune in one of these Cubs-Braves games and find that Doris Kearns Goodwin has replaced Joe Morgan in the booth.


It's one giant history lesson, this Cubs-Braves series. Because there is no postseason history like Braves postseason history. Unless, of course, it is Cubs postseason history.

On one level, it seems almost humorous to hear people in Atlanta complain about the sad history of the Braves over the past dozen Octobers. So the poor Braves have only won one World Series since 1991, huh? You think that's a disaster, try rooting for a team that hasn't won a World Series since the invention of the pop-up toaster.

But then come games like Wednesday night at Turner Field, games that remind you that the burdens of history actually weigh much heavier on the Braves this time of year than they do on the Cubs.

To Sammy Sosa and Carlos Zambrano and Mark Grudzielanek, to all these Cubs, the problems of the 1945 Cubs and the 1938 Cubs and the 1929 Cubs are about as relevant to their lives as the Spanish-American War.

"What happened in 1945 really has no bearing on us," said Cubs catcher Paul Bako. "This group of guys here, we really don't know anything about all those times when the Cubs didn't win. This is a different group of players. We've got a new coaching staff. Dusty (Baker) breeds a lot of optimism here. And we feed off that."

Many of these Braves, on the other hand, don't need to blow the cobwebs off any history books to find out what happened to the Braves of 1997 and 1999 and 2002. They were there. They saw it. They lived it.

"It's different for us, for obvious reasons," said Chipper Jones, very late on a Wednesday night, after a 5-3 win over the Cubs that saved the season, evened the NL Division Series at a game apiece and kept the quasi-dynasty in business. "Most of the guys in this clubhouse have been doing this for a long time. We've been part of it. Those guys over there, in that clubhouse, don't know much about their team's history. We have to hear about ours constantly."

Every October is a history lesson for the Braves. But every October is also a chance to rewrite that history. From the moment Jim Leyritz's home run turned the 1996 World Series spinning out of the Braves' hands, this has been a team on a never-ending quest for one more title.

Just one.

Just one title. Just one parade. Just one more call to the ring-making factory that will stop the whining, stop the history lessons and validate the greatness of what this team has strung together since 1991.

Their story has been the same story for so many years now, we tend to think of all these Braves Octobers as being practically indistinguishable from each other. And in many ways, they are.

Until this one.

They play this one knowing that Greg Maddux is a free agent, and Gary Sheffield is a free agent, and Javy Lopez is a free agent -- and that it's totally possible that none of them will be back.

So they play this one with more urgency than they have ever felt, because this time, that boulder on their shoulder really is feeling kind of older.

"Our team knows what's before us," closer John Smoltz said. "Our team knows the passion we have to play with and the desperation we have to play with to win a World Series.

"It used to be an underlying feeling that we would get it right the next year. But now there is absolutely a 100 percent, across-the-board understanding that this probably could be it. If we do not win it all, this team is going to change greater than it's ever changed."

That is the backdrop for the game played Wednesday in front of the biggest home postseason crowd in the history of the franchise (52,743). This wasn't just a game this team needed to tie this series before heading out on the road. This was a game in which the life of the entire franchise passed before their eyes.

The foreboding presence of a gentleman named Mark Prior hung over this game all night long. If the Braves lost this one, it meant they would be down 0-2, after playing the first two games at home. And of the 68 previous teams in baseball history to lose the first two games of a five-game series, only six of them survived to play in the next round.

But it was even worse than that. Losing this one would have meant the Braves were down, 0-2, with Prior waiting for them in Game 3.

So it was simple, really. As basic as a 3-and-0 "take" sign: It was win ... or else.

Which is why it was so easy to see the relief in their eyes after Mark DeRosa's two-run, two-out double in the eighth inning broke a 3-3 tie and rescued the season. Which is why Chipper Jones could stand at his locker afterward and say, with no hesitation: "This was huge.

"I've played nine years in other teams' ballparks in the postseason," Jones said. "It ain't easy. It ain't easy to win. But this would have been doubly tough. The odds would have been stacked against us -- down 0-2, facing an 18-game winner and one of the best young starters in the league? I'll be honest. It would have looked awfully bleak."

When last the Braves saw Prior, he and Marcus Giles had just played Roller Derby with each other on the base paths in Chicago on July 11. Prior's shoulder was so bruised from that pileup, it was another 25 days before he could pitch again.

But he is 10-1, with a 1.52 ERA, since he returned. He racked up 37 strikeouts in 23 innings in his last three starts. And, at age 23, he has already ascended to a mountaintop where only the best pitchers on earth get to climb.

"We know he's lingering out there, and he's one of the top five pitchers in the game," DeRosa said. "Going down, 0-2, with anybody pitching the next day isn't good. But he definitely added a little incentive for us to win tonight."

So in the first inning, when a Sammy Sosa rocket to center field thunked off the yellow line at the top of the fence and turned a three-run homer into just a two-run inning, that was more than just a little break. It was a potentially dynasty-saving break.

"I thought it had a chance to go out," said Mike Hampton, who gave it up. "But then I remembered taking batting practice, and (Greg) Maddux said, 'Hey, the wind is blowing in. That could be good.' And it was. If the wind is blowing out, that ball goes out. But it was blowing in, and it still used every inch (of the park)."

So the Braves were able to chink away. And cut that lead to 2-1. And then tie it at 2-2. And then go ahead in the sixth, 3-2. And then open those bullpen doors in the top of the eighth and summon the theoretically omnipotent Smoltz -- to try for his first two-inning save since June 16.

Before they could even announce his name, the eruption of noise when those doors opened told you exactly what this meant -- to these players, to these fans, to this franchise.

"That's just the way it is this time of year," Jones said. "I guarantee you, if the New York Yankees have a one- or two-run lead in the eighth inning tomorrow, they will go with Mariano (Rivera). If you're in this situation, if you're going to get beat, you're going to get beat with your best guy out there."

But it quickly became apparent this was not Smoltz at his best. He has thrown just seven innings in eight weeks. And even though he put a bunch of 97s up there on the radar board, the hitters told you all you needed to know. He threw 28 pitches. Only two of them were swung at and missed.

When the real John Smoltz is out there, you don't see hitters hang in there for 10 pitches in one at-bat and then pound a 96-mph smoke ball into center for a hit. But that's what Eric Karros did in the eighth, launching a game-tying rally that once again pushed those dynasty dreams to the edge of the plank.

"You play this game with a desperate mentality, anyways," Smoltz said. "We had to have this win."

They got it. On a walk, Smoltz's first sacrifice of the year, a two-out intentional walk to Rafael Furcal and then, with a 1-and-2 count and the ballpark almost eerily silent, the most important hit of DeRosa's 275-game career.

It roared off DeRosa's bat, flying toward the gap in left-center. DeRosa wasn't sure it had enough steam to make it. As he pumped up the line, he looked up and saw Moises Alou sprinting, staggering, lunging after it. "And I was saying, 'Don't catch this ball,'" DeRosa laughed.

Well, Alou didn't catch it. Two runs scored. And then Smoltz came out, dialed up a 1-2-3 ninth and let loose a sigh of relief that probably blew down a few tree branches in Savannah. It's amazing how different a 1-1 series feels from an 0-2 series. Especially when you're a team that knows the history seminar that goes with that 0-2 territory.

"A lot of guys here," said Chipper Jones, "have a lot to prove."


It comes in all shapes, all sizes, all colors. Once, almost a decade ago, history put DeRosa in a football uniform at the University of Pennsylvania. His team was one win away from its second straight undefeated season. He was the quarterback. With a minute left in the final game of the season, Penn trailed Cornell by four points, on the road.

Mark DeRosa then engineered the touchdown drive that won the game, finished the unbeaten season, carved that team's name in Ivy League history. So he understands all about sports and the history lessons they can teach.

"I remember that was a pretty memorable bus ride back from Ithaca. But somehow," Mark DeRosa chuckled, "I don't think it will match this plane flight to Chicago."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.