We remind you that this is baseball, where they play every day. We remind you that, not 72 hours ago, some among us – that’s my hand you see raised – wondered if these Braves might actually be a playoff team. Three losses later, the temptation is great to say, “Never mind.” But this, we say again, is baseball, where a five-game winning streak can change everything.
That said, it’s hard to imagine the Braves winning their next five games, the first four of which will be staged in Dodger Stadium, the tenants of which entered play Wednesday having won 10 consecutive and 30 of the past 34. After L.A., the Braves travel to Phoenix, where they’ll face an Arizona team that just strengthened itself by landing the professional hitter J.D. Martinez.
By the time those seven games are done, the Braves could be further under .500 – they’re 45-48 as we speak – and well and truly done. There is, however, one bright spot amid the gloom: If you’re going to hit the wall, better to do it in the final two weeks of July than in the first two weeks of August.
The trade deadline is July 31. Should the Braves be within reasonable distance of the second wild card, general manager John Coppolella would be torn: Does he devote time and effort to making the sort of deal that would bolster a long shot’s chances, when we all know that the preferred currency in such transactions is almost always prospects? Or does he risk ticking off his clubhouse by sticking to the plan that has fueled the Braves’ rebuild, which is not to trade young for old or cheap for expensive?
That choice looks less thorny today than it did Monday morning. The Braves entered the series 9 ½ games behind the Nationals in the National League East and six games back of a playoff spot. They flew westward Wednesday facing deficits of 12 and 8 ½ games, respectively. In two long nights and one bloodless afternoon, they went from long shot to almost no shot.
We say again: The pendulum could swing the other way. It’s just not apt to swing back in the 11 days before the deadline. And – let’s just say it – nothing in this series suggested these Braves are cut from even .500 cloth. Against the reigning champion, they were outclassed. They were outscored 17-6, outhit 30-19. Of the 54 half-innings over three days, they led at the end of four.
Discovering that the Braves aren’t as good as the Cubs isn’t exactly man-bites-dog stuff. Still, there were signs in Wednesday’s game of a team that had overachieved receding to its level. R.A. Dickey yielded four runs, two coming on crushed home runs from Mike Montgomery, who’s a pitcher and who’d never hit one – he was 1-for-28 as a big-leaguer -- and the former Brave Tommy La Stella, who doesn’t hit many.
The Braves didn’t manage a hit until the fifth. A chance to make it interesting died when, with two on and one out, Dansby Swanson – a starter again after two games of sitting – struck out on a breaking pitch in the dirt. (Swanson was 0-for-3 and is hitting .218.) Freddie Freeman had left the game a half-inning earlier, suffering what manager Brian Snitker deemed “viral” symptoms.
Dickey was pulled after seven not-awful innings with his team trailing 4-2. It became 7-2 when Javier Baez, who swings hard at everything, swung hard at a Jose Ramirez fastball on the outer half and drove it 430 miles. (Actually feet, but you get the idea.) The Cubs won 8-2 on a day when Jason Heyward didn’t start, Wilson Contreras didn’t play and Kris Bryant left after a half-inning having injured his pinkie while being thrown out at third.
In sum, there wasn’t much to say about this game, or this series. The much better team looked like the much better team. To be fair, the Cubs had spent 3 ½ months appearing nothing special, but the season is long and talent invariably surfaces. The lack thereof will likewise be exposed. The Braves got to .500 with the weekend sweep of the Diamondbacks, whereupon they smacked face-first into reality.
Which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Asked Monday what his approach to dealing would be, Coppolella said: “The best thing we can do for our team, our players and our fans is to seek out opportunities that will make us better in both the short and long term. There are options out there for us that fit what we are seeking, but we need to be careful in assessing the cost-benefit analysis."
That seemed a clear signal that the GM with the economics degree from Notre Dame hadn’t gotten all googly-eyed over being at .500 through 90 games. That’s what GMs, even those who didn’t matriculate in South Bend, are paid to do -- make cold-blooded decisions. But it never hurts when a team on the outer cusp of contention does something in July to stamp itself “In” or “Out.” This series went a ways toward affixing such a stamp.
Which isn’t to say the Braves can’t sweep the Dodgers – not likely, I’ll admit – and change the dynamics yet again. As is, Coppolella won’t be looking to acquire anyone who can’t help his team over the next few years, not just the next two months. And Brandon Phillips, Matt Adams, Jim Johnson, Jaime Garcia, Nick Markakis and maybe Julio Teheran are that much closer to being dealt.
That’s reality, which can be harsh. But reality also brings clarity, which is never unwelcome.