Well, 'here we go again ...'
It's always something. And this year the bullpen is a big reason why Atlanta is once again one game from elimination, writes Jayson Stark.
HOUSTON -- What those Atlanta Braves need at times like this is a new federal law.
Yeahhhhh, that's the ticket. They just need a law banning the use of the phrase, "Here we go again," along with any combination of the words, "Braves" and/or "Atlanta," in the same sentence.
Would that save these guys a whole lot of trouble, or what?
And if it saved them from the questions, then it would be logical to think it would save them from the answers. And if it saved them from the answers, then outfits like ours wouldn't have to publish those answers at times like this.
And if we were spared from all of that, then the world would be a better, more blissful place. Or at least the portion of the world known as "Chipper Jones' House" would be a better, more blissful place.
"Actually, I really don't care what you guys write about all our playoff failures," the Chip Man was saying Saturday night, after a 7-3 loss to the Astros that drop-kicked the Braves into a position they have found themselves in for 13 of the last 14 postseasons.
And that position would be (you can sing it along with us if you want): One game away from elimination.
One game away from having six sensational months of baseball mangled, trampled, crumpled and forgotten -- all because of one lousy week in October.
It's all way too familiar. But the details this time go like this:
The Braves trail Houston, 2 games to 1, in a series in which three losses send them to the fishing boats. So those Braves who have been around long enough know all too well that in way too many places in America, people are saying what they always say about the Braves this time of year:
Here they go again.
"Yeah, but they were saying that after Game 1, too," Jones retorted. "And look what happened in Game 2 (which the Braves won). That's why we're so quick to put this out of our heads. I said after Game 1, 'At 8:19 tomorrow night, it will be back to zero-zero.' And tomorrow at 12:05 p.m. (Central Time), it will be zero-zero again. So we'll just go out and do what we always do -- give it all we have the way we always have."
But how come doing what they always do and giving what they always give never seems to make it all turn out right in the end? That is the part that makes no sense.
If these guys are good enough to win 14 division titles in a row, then why should their Octobers always turn out to be about as much fun as getting boiling water poured all over their toenails?
That ain't right.
But for 13 of the last 14 postseasons, it's always been something.
And this year, the technical term for that something appears to be: "The Bullpen."
The Atlanta bullpen this year had a 4.74 ERA. Oof. That was the ninth-worst bullpen ERA in baseball. It was the worst of all the National League playoff teams (and more than a full run higher than any of the others). And here's what you really need to know:
It was the worst bullpen ERA of any Braves team since 1990, which was before they became The Braves.
But 4.74 would look pretty attractive to this particular team right now -- since the bullpen's ERA in this series is now (hide the women and children) 12.80.
And that ERA took a particularly excruciating beating Saturday, in a gruesome seventh inning in which, at one point, Bobby Cox's relievers-to-outs ratio stood at 4 (relievers) to 0 (outs). Which tied Cox's record for most relievers trotted out in one postseason inning -- previously set in the 1992 World Series and 1999 NLDS.
Heading into that seventh inning, the Braves trailed by just a run, 3-2, after six innings of terrific tightrope tiptoeing by starter Jorge Sosa. But in marched one of the more dependable members of this bullpen, Chris Reitsma, to start the seventh. And what happened after is rated For Mature Audiences Only.
Craig Biggio whacked Reitsma's fourth pitch to left for a double that made Biggio just the 10th player in history to hit three doubles in one postseason game.
Then Willy Taveras -- a guy who needs a Tale of the Ruler to measure his hits instead of a Tale of the Tape -- failed to get a bunt down, almost struck out and then beat out a tapper over the mound. It was Taveras' 72nd infield hit since Opening Day, 25 more than anyone else in baseball.
So out came the manager. And off went Reitsma. But it was just the beginning of the avalanche.
|“||Sometimes, you feel like you want to turn around and run right into a brick wall. But the good thing about this game is that there's always another chance for redemption. So hopefully, we can go back out there tomorrow and get some of that redemption. ”|
|— Braves reliever Chris Reitsma|
Out came Cox again. In came rookie Joey Devine, who has gone from North Carolina State to the NL playoffs in four amazing months. He lasted three batters: Double, intentional walk, single.
Out came the manager again. In came Jim Brower. A sac fly later, the Braves trailed by five runs (7-2). And it was time for everyone to start working on the same old questions and the same old answers.
Asked how painful that seventh inning had been, Reitsma painted a vivid picture.
"You don't understand how painful unless you've been out there," said a man who has allowed hitters to bat a scary .524 against him in his two postseasons as a Brave. "Sometimes, you feel like you want to turn around and run right into a brick wall. But the good thing about this game is that there's always another chance for redemption. So hopefully, we can go back out there tomorrow and get some of that redemption."
Well, there's a real good chance you'll be seeing that bullpen in Game 4, if that's what he means -- because Cox announced after the game that he'll do what he almost always has done in crises like this:
Bring back a starting pitcher (in this case Game 1 starter Tim Hudson) on three days' rest.
That strategy worked great for Cox in his first postseason in Atlanta (1991) -- when Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz combined for a 2.95 ERA on short rest in an epic World Series. The Braves, in fact, would have won all three of those games if Jack Morris hadn't outdueled Smoltz, 1-0, in Game 7.
But since then, Cox has tried this 20 more times. His starters are 6-10 with a 4.77 ERA in that span. Since 2002, they're 1-3 in four starts, with a 6.98 ERA.
Nevertheless, Cox said he was "leaning that way" even if his team was up, 2 games to 1. And he said of Hudson: "He's fine. He's absolutely fine."
Hudson seconded that pronouncement, of course, saying: "I'm fine with it. I did it one time earlier in the year, and I threw the ball real well. So I'm not worried about any physical limitations. ... I really don't have a problem with it."
Hudson did shut out the Mets for eight innings on short rest on May 24. But the two times he tried starting on three days' rest in the playoffs with Oakland, it didn't have quite as happy an ending.
The first time, in 2002, he gave up seven runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Twins. The next time, a year later against Boston, he lasted an inning, then left with a strained oblique muscle.
This is his first October go-round in Atlanta. But he admitted there is something verrrrrry familiar about it.
"In Oakland," he said, "it seemed like we were always playing these types of games. We always had our backs to the wall and we were trying to hurdle that wall to get to the next round. So I've always pitched in these types of games. And I look forward to it."
No one remembers, by the way, that in each of the last two postseasons, the Braves were in this very spot and actually won Game 4 on the road (beating Matt Clement and Roger Clemens) to force a Game 5 at home. So there's an excellent chance they'll show up for this Game 4, too.
But if they get this to Game 5, Cox admitted, John Smoltz won't be physically capable of starting it on short rest. Smoltz was seen wheeling his shoulder around on the field over and over before the game Saturday night, trying to get loose enough to play catch. So about all he would be capable of Monday, Cox said, might be "an inning or two" in relief.
But before they can get to that matchup, they have to survive Game 4. And it's hard to say whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that their clubhouse is populated by so many rookies who weren't around for those other 13 postseasons.
"I won't say anything to them," said Chipper Jones, buttoning his shirt in a very quiet locker room late on a downcast Saturday night. "The more you talk about it, the more they'll feel the pressure. And I'm not going to do that to these guys. So we'll just go out, have fun and hope it's not our last game of the year.
"That's the only way you can do it. Regardless of the circumstances, you come in and have fun like you always do. Then, once the horn sounds, it's all business."
The Chipster has been practicing these speeches for years now, of course. So he has them down to pure eloquence -- uh, just about. The only flaw in this one is that, best we can tell, in baseball, there is no horn. So it won't be sounding.
This being Minute Maid Park, however, there is a train whistle -- which sounds after every Astros homer.
"OK, whatever," Jones laughed. "But hopefully, that whistle won't be sounding too much tomorrow."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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