Atlanta Braves fighting for their playoff lives

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 3:07 PM

ATLANTA - The sound began as a low, persistent hum, audible to the Atlanta Braves all summer, home and away. It was coming from somewhere below them, but it was getting louder, even when they held a seven-game lead in the National League East division in late July. And then the sound exploded into a roar, and now it is growing fainter again, a freight train passing them by.

The sound, of course, was the Philadelphia Phillies, launching their annual late-season playoff push. And even though the Braves knew it was coming, it made it no less jarring when it actually arrived.

The Phillies' run "isn't something we didn't expect," said Billy Wagner, the Braves' veteran closer. "That's a good team up there in Philly, and they're playing their best ball of the year. Nobody here expected anything else but for this thing to go down to the last week of the season."

But it is difficult to spend any time around the Braves these days and come away with any other impression than this: Right now, they are a team trying to hold on for dear life, in the face of some increasingly dire odds.

In the span of just two weeks, the Braves have seen a three-game lead over the Phillies turn into a three-game deficit. They are just 6-9 this month (while the Phillies are 12-3), having just lost two of three games at home to the last-place Washington Nationals-only the second time all year (and first since April) the Braves have lost a series at Turner Field.

And now, the Braves, a team with a lousy 31-41 road record, are embarking on a season-defining, nine-game road trip beginning Friday night at New York's Citi Field. On Monday, they will travel to Philadelphia for the first of six head-to-head matchups between the teams in the season's final two weeks.

The Phillies, two-time defending NL champs, this week juggled their rotation so that their formidable trio of aces - right-handers Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt and lefty Cole Hamels - were lined up to start the three games against the Braves in Philadelphia next week.

But outgoing Braves Manager Bobby Cox, entering the final days of his final season on the bench, did no such thing. And really, what could he have done? Right now, the reeling Braves don't have even one ace - all-star right-hander Tim Hudson would have qualified at one time, but he's 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA this month - let alone three.

Alas, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, it appears, are going to stay retired for now.

"Some of our guys," Cox acknowledged, "have pitched better than they are right now."

Having played all summer with one eye on the Phillies, the Braves now realize their best hope may come from the wild card, which they led by a half-game over San Francisco entering Thursday. The "Postseason Odds" report at BaseballProspectus.com, based on 1 million simulations of the season, still gives the Braves a 68 percent chance of making the playoffs (though just a 22 percent chance of winning the division).

"If you hold your own fate in your hands, it's up to you to play well," Braves catcher David Ross said. "We just need to play well. We need to win. You can't wait for somebody else to play bad. I don't think anyone in here is focused on the wild card as much as we are the Phillies."


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