A cold, blustery wind whipped through Turner Field tonight, providing the appropriate setting for two of baseball's best teams to begin settling the race for the National League East championship. If the setting had the look and feel of postseason, so did the game itself as Chipper Jones broke an eighth-inning tie with his second home run of the game to give the Atlanta Braves a tense 2-1 victory over the New York Mets before 43,948.
Jones also homered in the first, giving the Braves enough offense as John Smoltz and two relievers combined on a six-hitter against perhaps baseball's best lineup.
With the victory, the Braves (94-57) maintained the best record in the big leagues and extended their lead over the Mets (92-59) to two games. Including tonight, the Braves and Mets play six times in the final 10 days of the season, so Mets Manager Bobby Valentine took the loss in stride: "Nothing will be settled here."
Valentine probably is correct, especially since the Mets have a safety net -- the National League wild-card playoff berth. Despite the defeat, they still lead the Cincinnati Reds (89-62) by 3 1/2 games in the race for the extra playoff slot.
Still, the Mets would like to end Atlanta's string of seven straight division championships. And the Braves would like to show the world that in a season in which they've overcome a numbing string of injuries and poor performances, they still managed to compile the most victories in the majors.
After winning three pennants and a World Series in the '90s, there's not much left for the Braves to prove. As Houston Astros Manager Larry Dierker said, "Their players kind of feel that winning is their birthright. I'd like to get to the point where our players feel that way."
San Diego Padres General Manager Kevin Tower saluted the Braves in a different way, saying: "They're the best organization in baseball. I know some people would say it's the Yankees or Indians. I think Atlanta does everything right."
Perhaps this is the season when they've proven their greatness once and for all. San Francisco Giants Manager Dusty Baker once said that the worst thing Hank Aaron ever did was hit 755 home runs. "People saw only the home runs," he said, "and they forgot that he was a guy who did everything well. He was a great outfielder, base runner and teammate."
So it is with the Braves, who've won so many games for so long that the full weight of their greatness is sometimes overlooked. If that was true in some other seasons, there's one thing left: a season such as this one when they've proven their toughness and resilence again and again.
They lost their cleanup hitter (Andres Galarraga) and their closer (Kerry Lightenberg) in spring training. They lost their catcher, Javy Lopez, last month to a knee injury. Their top run producer, Brian Jordan, has been limited by a wrist injury.
Smoltz has been to the disabled list twice with a sore elbow, and when he returned a month ago, he dramatically altered his pitching motion to a three-quarters delivery and shelved his once unhittable slider. Now, he mixes fastballs and breaking pitches, and changes speed. He even threw a knuckleball tonight.
With first place on the line, Smoltz (10-8) allowed the Mets one run and six hits in seven innings. The Mets had runners in scoring position three times, but got only one man home, that on an RBI single by Edgardo Alfonzo in the third. "Momentum is everything in a series like that," Smoltz said. "I thought winning the first one was big. Sometimes a game like this brings out the best in guys who've been through it. I couldn't wait for this game to start. Having a day off on Monday was tough."
Braves General Manager John Schuerholz said of Smoltz: "What he has done this season is just remarkable. It would be like Tiger Woods or David Duval changing their swing on the fairway of the ninth hole. I've seen guys make dramatic changes, but it's always in the instructional league or spring training. It's amazing the way he has done it."
If Smoltz didn't have so much company, he might be the story of the year in Atlanta. With Lightenberg gone with an elbow injury, left-hander John Rocker stepped into the mix and harnessed his 98-mph fastball. Rocker got his 34th save tonight by retiring the Mets in order in the ninth.
Right-hander Kevin Millwood filled the void in the starting rotation by winning 18 games. Jones (43 home runs, 100 RBI) and Jordan (22 home runs, 106 RBI) have had huge years. Andruw Jones has developed into one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.
If Galarraga's departure cost them some power, they've made up for it with 138 steals. Despite some problems in the starting pitching, their ERA is still the best in the game.
When the Braves hired Don Baylor to be their hitting coach last winter, Chipper Jones became one of his first students. Baylor told him to stop worrying so much about average and to think about producing runs and hitting home runs. Jones has responded with a season that will have him on everyone's checklist in the National League MVP voting.
Tonight, the Mets threw him change-up after change-up after his first-inning home run off right-hander Rick Reed. When he came up in the eighth, Valentine brought in left-hander Dennis Cook, forcing the switch-hitting Jones to bat right-handed.
"I figured sooner or later he'd throw me a fastball," Jones said. "He threw it in the middle and I got it. We've taken a lot of hits with the injuries, but we're still in good shape. Sometimes you wonder how we've gotten where we are, but we're there."
Although they've done it with a different style than in previous years, the Braves once more expect to be playing deep into October. And they showed the Mets again that they may not be ready to relinquish the division championship to anyone else.
"There were times I wondered if we could hang in," Schuerholz said. "You're talking significant players. You wonder how long the guys could hang in. They've circled the wagons; the circle keeps getting tighter and tighter."