Wiedmer: Loss or not, Braves still looking better

Wiedmer: Loss or not, Braves still looking better

August 21st, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole pitches during the baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 20, 2014, in Pittsburgh.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

If you've spent most of the summer wondering what happened to that Atlanta Braves team that won 17 of its first 24 games to open the season, well, it appears those guys just may be baa-a-a-a-ack!

Or at least they looked that way until Wednesday night's 2-0 lead at Pittsburgh in the bottom of the eighth became a 3-2 loss an inning later thanks to a fielding error charged to Justin Upton.

Nevertheless, with five wins in their last six games, this is the best the Braves have looked since April. And while they would obviously like to catch the Washington Nationals in the National League East, all they really need to do is pass the San Francisco Giants in the wildcard race to reach the postseason for a third straight autumn. They're currently within a game and a half of SF. They were 2 1/2 games behind the Giants a week ago.

And the South's favorite boys of summer certainly appeared to move closer than that on Wednesday at Pittsburgh, which actually entered the week with the best home record in the NL. But that was before Atlanta scored six runs in the opening inning of a 7-3 Monday win, followed by an 11-3 victory on Tuesday.

That made five straight victories for the same befuddling Braves bunch that had lost 11 of 13 eight days ago. Even with Wednesday's late loss, they've now they've claimed 6 of their last 8, have firmly returned to the playoff hunt and suddenly have the look of one of those wildcard wrecking balls that so often ruined Atlanta's postseasons in the late 1990s.

Or as the white-hot Jason Heyward told MLB.com on Tuesday evening: "It's nice to string together a few nice games and be at ease and have some fun again."

The funny thing is, Braves skipper, Fredi Gonzalez, looked completely at ease eight days ago, despite a second Los Angeles Dodgers win in two days at Turner Field moving the negative needle about as far right as it could go.

To walk among the players that late Wednesday afternoon was to sense tension and torment. They couldn't get a key hit or a crucial out. They couldn't catch a break, as sometimes happens in this sport. And with both the Dodgers and Oakland A's in their immediate future, they couldn't have much hope of a quick reversal of fortunes.

But Gonzalez was all smiles in the dugout as he met with the media. He spoke of communicating with former Brave Dan Uggla, "just to make sure he's doing OK. I think he's fine. He and his brother were playing golf."

Because the Braves would be facing Vanderbilt product Sonny Gray on Saturday (they won that one, 4-3), the fourth-year Braves manager observed, "Vanderbilt used to be the place you went to get a great education. Now they've got six or seven guys in the big leagues and just won the College World Series. They're quite a story."

Finally, shrugging off his club's recent hitting woes, he offered a line to make Atlanta's retired Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox proud.

Said Gonzalez with a small smile, "We're facing a little bit different [level] of pitchers right now."

It's a long season. And when you're struggling, those 162 games seem like 1,620. But the beauty of that schedule is that it tends to weighs slumps and streaks equally. Nobody wins them all. Most hover somewhere within 10 games of .500 one way or another.

And for all the justifiable frustration bordering on anger regarding the Braves' offense -- Atlanta entered Wednesday 24th in runs scored among all major league teams and 21st in batting -- the pitching has been more than adequate, ranking fourth in the NL in ERA at the moment.

And with Heyward, Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman all hitting over .330 the past two weeks, the offense is suddenly showing the promise of a year ago, when it briefly seemed as lethal as any in the NL before Jason Heyward's jaw was broken in late August. Those Braves were never the same after that and these Braves have spent too much of this season looking like those guys.

"The pitching's been good all year long," said Braves announcer Joe Simpson at the start of Wednesday's telecast. "Now the hitting's starting to come around."

Indeed, in the five games prior to Wednesday, Atlanta had scored 33 runs. The key going forward is to put Wednesday in the rearview mirror, start a new string of nice games, remain at ease and keep having fun, beginning tonight in Cincinnati.

"We've just got to keep plugging along," said Justin Upton. "We've got to put this one behind us."

And he's right, but if nothing else, there now seems realistic reason to keep wishing and hoping, which was more than even the most optimistic citizen of Braves Nation could say this time last week.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com