Mark Wiedmer: Last year's slide aside, Braves still in good spot

Mark Wiedmer: Last year's slide aside, Braves still in good spot

August 20th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - It's ... just ... two ... games.

You could almost hear Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones begging his teammates to dismiss Saturday's and Sunday's losses to the Los Angeles Dodgers in just that way.

Never mind that it also was two losses. Focus on the positive. The Braves are still a robust 19 games over .500 (70-51) after their first series setback in exactly one month.

Never mind, too, that should Washington rudely welcome Atlanta to our nation's capital tonight by handing the Braves their 14th Monday loss in 16 Monday games, the Bravos would be on a three-game skid for the first time since June 18.

(Side note: If you're the Nationals tonight, are you not blaring the Boomtown Rats' classic "I Don't Like Mondays" over the loudspeaker each time Atlanta comes to bat? And if not, why not?)

Even if the Braves lose tonight, they'll still be 18 games over .500 with just 40 to play. No worries, right?

"I see guys with that look on their face, you know, at the plate," Jones said after Sunday's 5-0 loss. "They're scuffling. We've got to get 'em going."

If all this sounds eerily and queasily familiar, it should.

On the morning of Aug. 20 a year ago, the Braves were 22 games over .500 (74-52) after defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks the previous night. They would win their next four games to reach 78-52, the high-water mark of the season.

They closed August at 80-55. Despite trailing Philadelphia by 7 1/2 games in the East, they looked all but certain to win the National League wild-card berth.

Then it began. Loss. After loss. After loss. Nine losses in 13 games to open September. Six losses in their last eight to close September and the season. It was arguably the worst collapse over a final month ever.

So even if this year's wild card looks more certain -- Atlanta is at least three up on the field and there are two wild-card spots in this year's playoff instead of one -- nothing's certain in baseball. Especially when you play 25 of your final 41 on the road.

"We need to stay on the Nationals' heels," said Jones, who sat this one out because of his tender knees. "Focusing on the wild card instead of the division is the last thing I want to do. We all know about last year."

Most experts thought it would be the other way by now in the NL East. They thought the Gnats' inexperience would do them in, and it yet might. But the Braves are five games in back of Washington with six meetings yet to be played between the two.

It's not hard to do the math and realize that Atlanta desperately needs to win at least four of those final six to give themselves a chance to hang high a division flag for the first time since 2005.

"We've got our three guys lined up against Washington," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen. "Hopefully we can close the gap."

But much as Jones doesn't want to admit as much over the final six week of his career, closing the gap on the Nationals is not nearly as important as holding the wild-card gap over the rest of the National League.

And this is where this year's stretch run looks nothing like last year's stretch run.

Regardless of what happens on this week's brutal road swing to Washington and San Francisco, beginning a week from today the Braves will play 28 of their final 34 games against teams that currently own losing records. A three-game home series Sept. 14-16 against Washington and the three-game season-ending trip to Pittsburgh are the only games remaining against playoff-caliber teams beginning next Monday at San Diego.

So even if this year could begin to resemble last year over the next seven days, those similarities should end quickly. Especially since the Braves entered Sunday with the best record in the majors (29-12) since July 3.

Said Jones, sounding more hopeful than confident: "We learned from last year. We're playing hard. Baseball can be kind of cruel sometimes, though."

If this year ends like last year -- one game shy of the playoffs -- it will be the cruelest ending possible for Jones and his Hall of Fame career.