Faced with a must-win situation, the Atlanta Braves stayed in the race for a wild card birth in the N.L. playoffs with a three-hit shutout pitched by Chops’ ace Javier Vazquez. Vazquez was brilliant in his nine inning, 4-1 complete game outing, though John Lannan was nearly as good: the Nats’ hard luck lefthander pitched seven innings of six hit ball, giving up runs to errors and a hit lost in the lights. The Nats had one chance to give Vazquez something to think aboutÂ — in the fourth inning,Â but RyanÂ Zimmerman was stranded at second as Josh Willingham and Pete Orr flied out. The only Nats’ run came on a solo shot by Josh Bard.Â The Nats were once again victimized by poor play: an error by Pete Orr, a ball lost in the lights, a fly ball that should have been caught but wasn’t. This was the Nats 101st loss of the season, but the win leaves the Braves just three games behind the Colorado Rockies, who have lost two.
Down On Half Street: Nats 320 has a transcript of Josh Willingham’s fan appearance at ESPN Zone (a public service,Â that).Â Willingham’s comments on the differences between playing at Sh-tiÂ Field as compared toÂ Shea StadiumÂ are interesting. He can’t quite admit that he thinks the new home of the Mets isÂ a terrible park, but he comes close. “I didnâ€™t get to play in New Yankee Stadium because I was home. But as far as Shea Stadium and Citi Field, there is absolutely no comparison. Citi Field is so big. The wall is so tall. And like I was saying, when you are running for a ball in the gap in left centerfieldâ€”it never ends” . . .
It’s old news, but Nats Farm Authority has Nationals roster for the Instructional League. AllÂ eyes are already on Stephen Strasburg — and Drew Storen. But, there are others to watch, including forgotten fireballer Josh Smoker. Once upon a time, in a draft far far away, Smoker was a left handed fireballing supplemental first round prodigy: and all things to all men. Then he wentÂ 0-4 at Hagerstown, before ending up in the Gulf League. He reported a little tightness in his shoulder and endedÂ upÂ under the knife with a couple of bloody bone spurs rolling around on the shinyÂ steel table beside him.Â It’ll be interesting to see how he does. The Nats insist that he’ll be ready for spring training. With all the attention on Strasburg, it’s easy to forget Smoker, who’s only 20 . . . Â
Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The TomahawksÂ are on a run — they have won three in a row and 13 of their last 16. Vazquez has carried the team on his arm — in his last four outings he’s 4-0 with a 0.72 ERA. Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens have provided the Braves with an almost unbeatable one-two punch over the last two weeks, just in time to challenge the Rockies.Â With all the buzzÂ about the L.A. and San Francisco pitching staffs, theÂ troubles withÂ Phuzzy closer and emergent head case Brad Lidge, the oohing and ahhing over Carpenter and Wainwright and the very predictable Gammonization of Dice-K (isn’t he wonderful, isn’t he fantastic, isn’t he justÂ something), Jurrjens has been lost in the chaff. He’s had one bad outing in the last ten games and has the sixth best ERA in baseball. The heat of the September wild card race has made him pitch better: like Vazquez, he’s won three in a row. If you squeeze your eyelids together real tight and furrow your brow and think real hard you can imagineÂ what he might become: he’s 23.
If you’re from my generation (those of us born before the Reformation), it’s hard to think of the Braves as a pitching dependent team. The franchise has a history of breeding legendary sluggersÂ : from Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews to Bob HornerÂ and Chipper Jones. Even when the Braves were bad they could count on the bat of at least one slugger to make headlines — with aÂ Rico Carty or Dale Murphy or Chris Chambliss (or Sarge, for that matter) providing the lumber.Â Even in the 1990s, when the Braves were on their historic run, the triumverate of Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux were complimented by a trio of titans,Â all “hitterish” — Chipper and Justice (that bane, that bum) and (of course) Fred McGriff.
But not this year.
The Chops’ top ’09Â on base guy is Adam LaRoche (a mid-season acquisition), their dominant long-ball artist is catcher Brian McCann (with a measly 20) and theirÂ spark plug is slash-and-burn singles hitter and glove man Martin Prado. Ryan Church, brought aboard to provide some spark (as well as a warm bodyÂ stand-in for dearly departed Jeff Francoeur — whom the Braves couldn’t wait to dump) is slumping –Â with just four dingers.Â Worse yet, the normally dependable Chipper Jones has 17 home runs, well below his average, and is struggling at the plate. Finally, Nate McLouth, the former Ahoy and mid-season “steal,” not only looks average, he is: he’s hitting .264. That leaves the hopes of a post-season pinned firmly on Vazquez, Jurrjens and all-around clutch pitcher and tantrum throwerÂ Derek Lowe. Add rookie phenom Tommy Hanson and a solid bullpen (saves leader Rafael Soriano — andÂ set-up artist Mike Gonzalez) and you can see why Braves’ fans are excited. With a handful-plus games to go the Braves’ll needÂ some help from the suddenly wobbly Rockies, but don’t count ’em out.