ATLANTA -- It felt like October here on Tuesday night, with the stands full and the hands waving in the air. Something has changed in this city grown ambivalent by winning baseball. They sense a vulnerability in their Braves.
For the first time in a decade and a half, it's almost as if the city is trying to pull them through.
A year or two ago this would have seemed absurd, a late July game with the old Expos, that could fill the stands and make people care again. But this is like the beginning, back before the string of division title flags started to line up at the park by the interstate. A local columnist the other night surmised that this is much like 1991 for these Braves. A young team is growing up together very fast in the middle of a pennant race.
And while Chipper Jones remains, as does Andruw Jones and John Smoltz, the Atlanta clubhouse is starting to fill with more and more unfamiliar names -- players who are simply glad to be in the big leagues but still unfamiliar with what it takes to win a division 13 straight times.
Which is why this week was so important for this Braves team. It's needed to find its defining moment, the game where something big happens and everybody believes.
That game was likely Tuesday night. They were beaten in their home, their ace had been outpitched. Smoltz was going to lose 2-1 to a team that didn't even exist eight months ago. Until they came back, against the pitcher who had been considered the best closer in baseball.
"That was big for us," Smoltz later said.
He is the only one left from the start, the lone player who knows what it was like to see each banner go up on the wall. This has been a different year for him, but it has also been exciting, he said. Everything is new around him. The familiar faces are all gone but this is a new group, players who have to be molded. There is a challenge in that he likes.
Wednesday, a day after the Braves came back on Chad Cordero in the ninth, Smoltz stood in the team's clubhouse and talked about the mystique of the franchise.
"The one thing they do as a ballclub is create an aura that [with the bullpen] the game is over," Smoltz said. "I was like that [as a closer] too. To win a game like that not only gives us confidence, I'm sure it puts a chink in the armor [for Washington].
"That's the thing in sports, people don't think abut the aura. The Florida Marlins are the team we keep talking about as the team to beat. Now they're six out. You can never tell."
Look through the Braves' roster. The names are all unfamiliar: Wilson Betemit, Johnny Estrada, Jeff Francouer, Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans. Together as big leaguers they have been okay, riding up and down on the same trail. But until Tuesday, it hadn't had a moment where everybody ran into the clubhouse whooping and cheering just like two generations of division champions before it.
Not in a really important game.
Then came the ninth on Tuesday.
Later several of the ones who have been here before -- Smoltz and manager Bobby Cox -- were careful to say Tuesday was just another win in July. "It doesn't mean much if we come out here and get knocked around tonight," Cox said before last night's game.
But they did win last night, once again taking advantage of the Nationals' mistakes. And there was a sense here that something was happening with the Braves again, that through all the injuries and the call-ups, with a roster that looks more like Richmond than Atlanta, this new version of the Braves had become like the 13 before it.
"The one thing we want to do is break off seven, eight, nine wins in a row," Smoltz said. "That's what we used to do around here."
That kind of streak, the one that seems to separate everyone from the rest of the division has not come. Even this latest run to push Atlanta into first has the Braves winning seven of their last 11, which is solid but not spectacular. Before yesterday's game Cox conceded that no one may break from the pack in the National League East this year, instead five teams will roll into September in one giant clump.
Still, as August looms, the Braves are in a familiar place -- first. And when you think of things like auras, as Smoltz does, that's something that matters to the rest of the teams who remember the past 13 titles all too well.