So let’s not overdramatize this. The Braves aren’t exactly Willy Loman, schlepping from town to town, dragging their suitcases, enduring pay cuts and worn out loafers in the dying days of their career.
They’re rich. They stay in five-star hotels with freshly fluffed pillows. They travel in luxury, on charter planes with seats like Barcaloungers. On those rare occasions when they touch their suitcases, it’s to reach for clean socks. No baggage check-in lines for these pampered souls.
But after Sunday’s 9-4 win over the New York Mets, which capped a full week in which players didn’t have to walk past a check-in desk at least twice a day, the Braves headed back out on the road. They will have their second-10-game trip in a span of four weeks, which even for the coddled traveler can leave a guy kind of punchy.
This also is noteworthy because after a 12-2 start this season, the Braves went 3-7 on their last trip in an unseasonably cold spring through the blue part of the weather map: Pittsburgh, Colorado and Detroit.
They didn’t handle it well. After opening the trip with a win over the Pirates, they dropped seven of the next nine games and were outscored in those losses 44-15. Suddenly, they were channeling the Astros.
The emotional/mental toughness aspect tends to get played up more in football than baseball. But it was apparent to even to the Braves’ Reed Johnson that players seemed mentally worn down by the end of the trip. And, you know, that really shouldn’t happen four weeks into a baseball season.
It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest we’re about to find out something about this team.
“Toward the back end of the road trip it felt like it was the dog days of summer,” Johnson said. “We were exhausted. Then we walk up the stairs in Detroit for the last game and it’s ESPN, a night game, get-away day, raining. It was like, really? This is how this is going to end it? Every team is going to go through that at some point in the season. But we have to do a better job to find a way to compete. In that Detroit series, I don’t think we really competed in those last couple of games. They just walked all over us.”
The Braves are 18-12. They’ll take it.
They lost Jason Heyward (appendectomy) for likely a month and haven’t had Brian McCann available yet (he’ll return on this trip). Their bullpen is getting dinged. The starting has been just fair (notwithstanding Tim Hudson’s 7.1 strong innings against the Mets). The lineup is on a record-pace for strikeouts. They have four starters who are hitting .233 (Andrelton Simmons), .184 (Dan Uggla), .154 (B.J. Upton) and .121 (Heyward, before he went on the disabled list).
So relatively speaking, 18-12 is Willy Loman selling out his entire stock of whatever it was Willy Loman sold.
But now they leave for 10 games. This time it’s Cincinnati, San Francisco and Arizona, so at least it should be significantly warmer than the rain and snow the team encountered on the last trip. Most players say they have never experienced an early schedule like this ever in their careers. Just who did the Braves tick off in the league office?
Uggla’s summation: “You’re gone for six weeks in spring training, came home for a week, gone for a week, home for two days, gone for a week and a half, home for a week, gone for another week and a half. Man — uncle. … But it doesn’t matter. Whether you’re on the first leg of a long road trip or the last leg, you have to find a way to compete and battle through it. We didn’t do that last time.”
Said Johnson, “Those two Kansas City games at home were like a blur. It’s almost like you were on the road because you come home, unpack your bag and before you know you load everything up in your bag and you’re out again.”
When reminded that they travel in comfort and are not going to elicit much sympathy from fans, Uggla smiled and said, “Yeah, I know. We’re going to complain because that’s what baseball players do. Before long, we’ll be complaining that it’s too hot.”
Sunday was an encouraging sign, at least offensively. The Braves beat up Mets starter John Niese (four-plus innings: seven runs, seven hits, six walks and three blown organs). They also struck out 17 times in the last three games after 31 in the first three.
It’s still too early to know how good this team is and whether it can hold up in a pennant race. But road performances are telling and the Braves need to be better this time.
“Hopefully we have a little better focus this time,” Johnson said.