Braves end with big rally
The Braves took three out of four against the Giants, proving once again they are a team not to be overlooked.
Big Series: San Francisco (72-61) at Atlanta (76-54).
Big Finish: The Braves plated two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday afternoon Monday to beat San Francisco closer Dustin Hermanson and the Giants, 7-6. Julio Franco tripled home J.D. Drew to tie the game, and Andruw Jones singled home the game-winning run. Barry Bonds was used only in a pinch-hit appearance, grounded out, and the Giants dropped to a half-game behind the Cubs and Padres in the NL wild-card race. San Francisco has a questionable bullpen, rotation, a lineup that lacks depth -- and they are right in the thick of playoff chase, because of their two stars.
Big Barry: A common question during the All-Star break was whether Bonds could reach 700 career homers by the end of this season. Now we're wondering if he can reach that mark by Labor Day, after Bonds crushed his 695th and 696th homers as part of his one-man show in Atlanta Sunday night. The Braves pitched to him the entire game, rather than walk Bonds, and he had four hits in his first four at-bats, raising his average to a major-league high .368, and drove in six runs in the Giants' 9-5 victory. Bonds struck out in his last at-bat. He's forgiven.
Big No-Brainer: Says here that Bonds should be an easy pick for the NL MVP award, because of the way he impacts each game and each situation. Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen are each surrounded by great players; Bonds carries his offense, transforms it into something much more than it is, and it's remarkable that the Giants are still in contention, given their roster. In only 304 at-bats, he's generated 88 RBI and 38 homers; if he were to have a season of 500 at-bats, he'd finish with 63 homers and 145 RBI. He'll probably never get that close to 500 at-bats because he is walked so much -- 183 base on balls so far this season. He could reach 200 by the middle of next week. He's got an .822 slugging average, a .607 on-base percentage. He and Jason Schmidt have, for all practical purposes, carried this team.
Big Problem: Schmidt won 15 of his first 19 decisions. But after missing a start because of a strained groin early last week, Schmidt was knocked around for 10 hits and 6 runs in 3.2 innings in Saturday's 9-3 loss to Atlanta. Schmidt spoke positively after the game, saying he didn't feel that far away from having his normal stuff, but the problem for San Francisco is that its margin for error in pursuit of a playoff spot is as thin as a baseball stitch, and they need Schmidt to win just about every start he makes.
Big Runaway: The Braves were struggling so badly early in the year that even closer John Smoltz mused about whether this simply would be the year they wouldn't have enough. Now they are tied for the second-best record in the National League and have a nine-game lead in the division.
Big Little Men: Rafael Furcal had four hits and drove in four runs for the Braves Saturday, pushing his totals to 51 RBI in just 436 at-bats -- excellent for a lead-off hitter. Atlanta's Paul Byrd allowed a run over six innings and added a couple of RBI singles, improving his record to 5-4.
Big Mistake: In Atlanta's victory Friday, Jaret Wright allowed six hits, a walk and struck out four over seven innings, making only one serious mistake. With the game still scoreless in the top of the sixth, the Giants had runners at first and third and Bonds coming to bat. The Braves elected to pitch to Bonds. Sort of. Wright threw three straight balls out of the strike zone, then pumped a 97-mph fastball over for a strike. With the count 3-1, Wright then tried throwing a fastball high and away, and Bonds seemed to anticipate the pitch, went with it, and smashed it down the left field line and into the stands for a three-run homer. It was the 694th homer of Bonds' career, and gave the Giants a 3-0 lead.
Big Words: "That was great," San Francisco manager Felipe Alou said after Sunday's game. "They pitched to (Bonds). I didn't believe they were trying to groove it, but they were pitching to him." The Braves might be the last to do this year, after Bonds' incredible display.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," was released Aug. 17, and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.