It’s easy to forget when your favorite team is mired in one, but every team, except maybe the 2001 Mariners, slumps during the course of a season. Good teams can usually overcome these losing bouts. It’s the beauty of a 162-game season. But when those slumps come in September it can become threatening to a team’s playoff chances. As the remaining games dwindle a team has fewer chances to recover. That can render fatal an otherwise innocuous slump. The Braves appear to be in one of those slides.
A day after watching Derek Lowe pitch perhaps his best game as a Brave, the team crumbled at the feet of Livan Hernandez. That’s not all bad, considering this has been Hernandez’s best season since the Expos still existed, but when viewed in the context of the Braves’ slump it looks that much worse. The loss incensed Crag Calcaterra, noted Braves fan, who said, “I guess that means the Braves still lead the wild card race, but it’s a fact: you are not deserving of a playoff spot if you go out and get shut the hell down by Livan freakin’ Hernandez in mid-September.” When I first read that I thought it was an overreaction, but after looking at the Braves’ woes of late I’m not so sure.
Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds report still gives the Braves a 77 percent chance of making the playoffs, whether by winning the division, 32 percent, or the Wild Card, 45 percent. That gives them far better odds than the next closest Wild Card contender, the Giants, who have a 44 percent chance of entry. An average of a million simulations gives the Braves 91.8 wins the rest of the way, which tops the Giants by 1.7 wins and even the Padres by 0.4 wins. But the simulations don’t know the exact nature of the Braves’ slump. Is it something they can battle through? Or is it of the 2007-2008 Mets ilk?
The rest of the Braves’ schedule contains plenty of opportunity. After finishing their series with the Nationals today they’ll head to New York, Philadelpha, and then Washington. That means two series against the sub-.500 teams and one against the team that sits just two games ahead of them. Philly won’t make it easy for Atlanta, though, as they’ll send Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt to the mound next week. After that, the Braves finish the season with two series at home, one against the Marlins and the final one against the Phillies again. That final series could be the key to the season.
The Phillies also finish the season with an NL East circuit, but they get Washington twice and Florida not at all after today. That probably leaves Atlanta to the Wild Card, which should still be in play during those last three days of the season. The Giants will do battle with the Padres, and there could be a playoff spot on the line there, too. The Braves, though, will be facing a comfortable Philly team that will probably want to line up its playoff rotation and make sure its starters are rested. That could give the Braves just the advantage they need.
A lot of this, of course, depends on how the Braves play in the 13 games before that final Philadelphia series. It doesn’t help that they’re down 4-0 to the Nationals as I write this. But if they can hold on and keep their lead in, or at least remain tied for, the Wild Card race between now and the season finale they could certainly make the playoffs — deservedly or not.
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