Two weeks ago, suddenly overwhelmed by concern for the Atlanta Braves' playoff future after dropping four of five road games to the New York Metropolitans, yours truly wrote the following opening sentence to a column regarding their difficult closing schedule:
"Now that the Braves have laid a really big egg in the Big Apple, is it fair to ask if their near-certain lock on the National League playoffs isn't quite so certain anymore?"
It may still not be completely certain, given that Atlanta has 39 games to go in the regular season, but it sure seems like all but a lock after the Braves followed that lost weekend by winning 11 of their next 12 games, that run ending with Sunday's 5-4 home loss to the Houston Astros.
Especially since Atlanta also heads to a three-game series at Pittsburgh on Monday night having taken three of four from those same Mets and two of three from the Astros, two teams that just happen to have the second- and third-best records, respectively, in all of baseball behind the ridiculously efficient Los Angeles Dodgers.
Said Braves skipper Brian Snitker after Sunday's loss to the Astros, whom the Braves defeated to win the 2021 World Series: "I was looking at this homestand (New York and Houston) last Sunday and thinking, 'This is going to be rough sledding for seven games.' So I'm really proud of what we did."
What they did was deliver as good a week of work as anyone could have thought possible before it began, and even then it's possible to argue that the 5-2 record could have been 7-0, given the seven runs the Braves scored in their 9-7 loss to the Mets and the two ninth-inning runs they put on the board Sunday against the Astros after entering the inning down 5-2.
And while Sunday certainly delivered a lackluster finish to what had been a remarkable week of Braves baseball, the 11-inning, 5-4 victory on Saturday night over the Astros is not only what makes baseball special, but also why this team can repeat as world champs and also be a serious threat to win it all for seasons to come.
Thanks to some wonderful pitching from Braves starter Spencer Slider and Houston counterpart Cristian Javier, the first nine innings ended in a 1-1 tie, which meant baseball's fun house was about to begin.
You can curse the sport's current extra-innings gimmick of placing a man on second base to start each team's at-bat. For a sport so deeply steeped in tradition — save the designated hitter rule — it does seem just a wee bit (if not over-the-top) wrong.
That said, it certainly puts fans on the edges of their seats and sofas from the first extra-inning pitch forward.
And so it was that Atlanta came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th trailing 3-1 and to the bottom of the 11th trailing 4-3 and lived to tell the tale.
In fact, ahead 3-1 in the bottom of the 10th, Houston's win probability was 89%. Yet with one out and Guillermo Heredia on second, Michael Harris II hit an RBI double to make it 3-2. Then Robbie Grossman singled home Harris to tie it.
However, the real fun began in the bottom of the 11th, the Astros again on top, this time 4-3. With Dansby Swanson starting the inning on second, Austin Riley walked against Houston ace reliever Ryne Stanek. The most unlikely of Matt Olson doubles — his attempt at a check swing produced an exit velocity of 73 mph as the ball rolled through the left side of the infield — brought home Swanson and moved Riley to third. After William Contreras was intentionally walked to load the bases, Travis d'Arnaud sent a similar dribbler through the right side of the infield to score Riley and make Atlanta a winner.
Said Olson afterward, a grin spread across his face: "I was not happy to make contact. Then I saw no one was standing there. I actually started laughing pretty quickly. Somehow, I wind up with a double."
It is often said that the breaks, good and bad, even out over time. Unfavorable calls by game officials are negated by favorable ones. The rockets off your favorite team's bats that are caught are canceled out by the slow rollers that become singles.
If there really is justice in baseball, Saturday night's win on Olson's and d'Arnaud's finesse hits were at least partial paybacks for all those seeing-eye singles the Mets turned into runs in New York two weeks ago.
Or as former Braves great and National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz noted at the close of the broadcast of Saturday's classic: "It ended with two exit velocities (Olson's and dArnaud's) that couldn't add up to (Houston's Jeremy) Pena's exit velocity (on his home run in the fifth). But that's the beauty of this game. Hit them where they're not. Get it in play. Put pressure on the defense. These are two great teams. They could very well meet again."
Nothing's certain until it becomes fact. Atlanta's schedule is still daunting, and as Braves analyst and former player Brian Jordan noted Sunday, the series with woeful Pittsburgh "could be a trap" after seven pressure games in a row.
Yet playing as they have since leaving New York, the Braves could very well return to the World Series and quite possibly win it if they can somehow get by the Dodgers and Mets in the National League playoffs. For as Atlanta proved against all odds to to one and all a year ago, that's the inarguable beauty of baseball.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.