Wiedmer: Vols' misery spreads all the way to Braves Country

Associated Press photo by John Amis / Atlanta Braves starter Mike Soroka pitches during Sunday's game against the visiting Washington Nationals.

ATLANTA - Michael Smith has been the Atlanta Braves' security services officer for 17 years. A native of Chattanooga, Smith has long worn his University of Tennessee loyalties on his sleeve, which has occasionally earned him a bit of needling from those who don't necessarily share his love for the Big Orange.

So as he kept watch over the SunTrust Park press box entrance Sunday afternoon, a lot of friends and acquaintances were quick to inquire about his mental state in the wake of the Volunteers' 29-26 loss to BYU in double overtime Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

"You OK?" asked Braves broadcaster Chip Caray.

Added another friend who cheers for Alabama: "The worst part is, it's just going to get worse from here."

Said Smith, who graduated from Red Bank High School in 1967: "I can't say I wasn't expecting (a UT loss) during the week. But I was quite upset with the finish. I didn't think it could possibly turn upside down that quickly in front of all those fans. I felt the worst for all those women who were in tears."

photo Mark Wiedmer

Then, as if to pour gasoline on his fire of frustration, Smith had to watch the Braves fall 9-4 to the Washington Nationals, which kept Atlanta from sweeping its four-game series against its closest pursuer in the National League East.

"After winning 13 games in a row here before today, this is tough," Smith said. "But you could sort of expect that with (Nationals starter Max) Scherzer on the mound. He's a world-class pitcher."

Which is tougher for Smith to rebound from: a Vols loss or a Braves defeat?

"I'd say I hurt equally," he said. "I'm still smarting over the Georgia State loss, and that was over a week ago. But in baseball there are so many more games, you kind of have to move on."

The Braves move on to Philadelphia for a four-game series against the Phillies followed by a three-game set at Washington. Now nine games clear of the Nationals in the division standings, Atlanta would appear to have a stranglehold on the East title, though, as Smith noted, "We need to clinch this as quickly as possible."

With but three weeks left in the regular season and 18 games remaining for the Braves, a quick clinch would certainly allow them to rest a few key players here and there, which would theoretically be beneficial come the playoffs.

But at least a few of those players - including shortstop Dansby Swanson and outfielders Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis and Austin Riley - could probably use as much work as possible to knock off the rust from extended stays on the injured/inactive list. Markakis is still dealing with a left knee injury.

"I'll take an eight-win home stand in nine games anytime," Braves skipper Brian Snitker said. "It was great."

Indeed, Atlanta's overall record of 89-55 entering Monday night's game at Philly is the fourth-best in the majors this season, trailing only the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, who have all passed the 90-win threshold. Moreover, the Braves are the NL's only team so much as 10 games over .500 on the road, currently standing 42-27 away from home.

One reason for that success may be the road warrior mentality that permeates the roster.

A single example: Despite losing Sunday's start, 22-year-old Atlanta right-hander Mike Soroka said of his next scheduled meeting with the Nationals in D.C.: "It's going to be fun to get back at them next week."

With three starting position players 25 or younger, it's been fun to watch these Braves all season.

Three interesting stats from this red-hot summer:

1. When the Braves score first, they're 69-21.

2. When the opponent scores first, they're 20-34.

3. Yet they're also 20-14 in games decided on the final at-bat.

"It still stinks, losing today's game," Atlanta catcher Tyler Flowers said. "But it was a great homestand. And this road trip could be another big week for us."

Smith hopes it will finally be a big week to be a UT fan, what with the supposedly overmatched University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs visiting the Vols at high noon Saturday.

"I just hope I live long enough to see us get back to being the kind of program we used to be, when we were winning national championships," said Smith, who will soon turn 70.

But if not, he and his wife Jackie intend to spend more time among their UT friends in the Scenic City thanks to the house they inherited from her mother, Muriel Brown, who passed away this past May at the age of 96.

"We'll get back more now," he said. "Chattanooga's still home. We love grabbing a burger at Armando's or eating at Texas Roadhouse, because it always has so much UT Orange stuff in it."

As he wrapped up his postgame thoughts late Sunday afternoon, Snitker reflected on the series win over the Nationals, as well as those 13 straight home wins prior to Sunday that set a modern-era franchise record.

"Probably as good a series win as we've had all year," he said. "We played a really good weekend of baseball."

Now if the Vols could find a way to play a really good Saturday's worth of football, if only to halt the tears of all those female fans in the Neyland Stadium stands.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.