Wiedmer: Could Braves still reach the playoffs?

Wiedmer: Could Braves still reach the playoffs?

August 18th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Mike Minor delivers to the Oakland Athletics during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

If the National League playoffs began today, the Atlanta Braves would be dusting off their golf clubs. A mere three games over .500 heading into Sunday night's 4-3 win over Oakland, losers of 12 of their last 17 before ESPN's television cameras arrived for the series finale, the Braves currently stand third for the NL's two wildcard spots, and they've been going backwards.

Yet here was Atlanta's Chris Johnson after last Wednesday's win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, a win greatly aided by his unselfishly bunting of Evan Gattis from second to third after the Braves had fallen into an early 2-0 hole.

Said Atlanta's hottest hitter at the moment: "We've been struggling, no question. But baseball's weird. You get to play almost every single day. Just as fast as you can go cold, you can get hot. We've still got a lot of baseball left."

What they've got is a very high mountain to climb, beginning with tonight's game at Pittsburgh, which starts an almost unfathonable run of 19 road games in the next 25 contests. As easy as the schedule seemed through most of July, it has become the grim reaper in August and beyond.

Yes, the Braves are home for 10 near the end before a final three-game road trip to Philadelphia concludes the regular season, but with a 27-32 road mark at the moment -- only the Pirates' 25-35 road record is worse among those teams above Atlanta for the two wildcard spots -- the Braves' playoff chances would seem slim trending toward none.

In fact, things had grown so dismal before that solitary win over the Dodgers last week that rumors were circulating of a possible coaching shakeup, hitting coach Greg Walker the most likely casualty, if only for the fact the Braves entered the weekend ranked 13th in the 15-team NL in both runs scored and RBI.

As ESPN analyst John Kruk noted early in Sunday's telecast: "[The Braves] are a lineup predicated on home runs. When they're not hitting home runs, they struggle to score runs."

Yet as if on a mission to save Walker's job, Atlanta has suddenly performed with both intelligence and diligence, apparently determined to improve their dead-last ranking in sacrifice flies and No. 10 slot for runners left on base.

"We haven't been hitting like we're capable of," said Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons after that 3-2 win over L.A. and before its weekend wins over Oakland. "We took advantage of people getting on base and moving them over and just doing the small things right, and we got a win."

Added Johnson when asked about his bunt to advance Gattis, "We needed a run, no matter how we got it. We had to have a run. We couldn't let a lead-off double go to waste."

Just doing the small things right. Getting a run, no matter how you get it. It's always seemed so hard for this franchise, even in the good years. Some of it was Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox's fondness for Baltimore Orioles managing great Earl Weaver's love of the three-run homer. Some of it is the modern baseball player, who seems so allergic to bunts, sacrifices and singles to the opposite field.

After all, as former Braves pitcher Greg Maddux said it in the famous Nike television ad, there's no doubt something to the belief that, "Chicks dig the long ball."

Yet there's also something to be said for the fundamentals, for making sure you get one run instead of none anytime you've got a runner on third with less than two outs. If a single moment sums up what's too often been wrong with Atlanta, it came in an extra inning loss at San Diego, when the Braves had bases loaded with no one out and Evan Gattis at the plate, the same Gattis who was batting .455 in such situations.

Only this time Gattis grounded to third, which not only took out the runner going home, but erased Gattis headed to first. The Braves got no runs and eventually lost. Bases loaded. No one out. But no runs. Inexcusable.

But bad as they've been of late, shaky as their playoff hopes have been for most of the last decade, Atlanta's still in this thing -- still fighting hard, still giving great effort every day -- because baseball can be such a weird game.

Does this mean they'll reach the postseason for a third straight autumn? Who knows? And if they don't, what should they attempt to do in the future? Part company with Walker, who's actually made former hitting coach Terry Pendleton look pretty good? Try to convince Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston to forsake Florida State football for baseball, offering him a lifetime supply of Publix crab claws? Maybe shore up the pitching staff by luring 13-year-old Mo'Ne Davis away from her Philadelphia little league team to become the major leagues' first female?

(Future ad campaign for some lucky MLB team -- "We've got women, see us roar!")

Or maybe it's something as simple as Braves closer Craig Kimbrel's words to MLB.com last week: "Every game we play, we're going to be playing as hard as we can. We know what kind of hole we're in and what kind of baseball we need to play to get out of it. We can't let games get away from us."

Doing the little things right the rest of the way, getting runs no matter how they're earned just might dig them out of this hole. Or at least show them the best way to avoid falling into another one next summer.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com