Sports Outside the Beltway

Braves Hoping for 2nd Half Comeback

While most gave the Braves up for dead after a horrible June, their recent progress is giving fans some hope.

On Sunday, the last day before the All-Star break, Jeff Francoeur wore a T-shirt that proclaimed: “I’m a country music song waiting to happen.” The young right fielder and his Braves teammates don’t want that song to be something like “Out of the Postseason Blues” for the first time in Atlanta since 1990. That’s why the 10-game trip that begins Friday night in San Diego is so important for the Braves, who want to build on momentum they established before the All-Star break.

They were 13 games behind the NL East-leading New York Mets at the break, but only 6 1/2 behind wild-card leader Los Angeles.

“I think we’ve got more of a sense of confidence now than we’ve had all year,” pitcher John Smoltz said Sunday, when Atlanta beat Cincinnati to complete a 7-3 homestand and 10-6 run before the break. “We’re literally a click away from being right in the thick of things.”

That’s pretty remarkable, considering they lost 20 of 23 from May 29 to June 22. They finished that stretch with a 10-game losing streak, three longer than the previous worst in Bobby Cox’s 25-year managerial career. “We need to get a little steadier in everything we need to do, but I think it can be done,” said Cox, who isn’t ready to concede the NL East title, and certainly not a playoff spot. “Nine or 10 games out at the All-Star break, the tendency is to give up. We’re not going to do that.”

Two weeks ago they were coming off a 6-21 record in June, the worst full month by a Braves team in 71 years. Now, Braves players are doing the math to figure out what it might take to win the wild card.

It would require a collapse by the Mets for anyone else to catch them in the NL East. But the wild card’s a different story. The Braves went to the break on a better run than any of the eight teams ahead of them. The team that wins the wild card could be the one that shores up weaknesses before the trade deadline, or gets overwhelming performances from a player or two in the second half. Or both.

The Braves are looking for bullpen help, first and foremost. The team has about $6 million available to add to payroll, some of that left over from the failed pursuit of a closer last winter. But general manager John Schuerholz never spends just because he can. He’s been on the phone for weeks but has yet to make a trade. “We were more active than people might have assumed we would have been or should have been [during the losing stretch], talking to clubs about moves,” Schuerholz said. “It’s not as if we shut it down. But the reality is, where we are in the standings. We’ll see how things go. “We feel good about the way our team played toward the end of the first half. What we’re trying to do is things we can do to win in ’06, get to the playoffs and win in the playoffs. We’re still going to try to do that.”

It’d sure be nice. I’d hate to have mirror end finishes to the Braves’ remarkable division championship streak, pairing a “Worst to First” 1991 season to a “First to Worst” 2006. That, at least, no longer looks likely.

It would be rather ironic, too, after watching the Marlins (twice) and Mets (once) go from Wild Cards in their own division to the World Series to returning that favor. It’s better to be hot late than consistent all year. I’d certainly trade a couple division titles for another World Series Championship during that run.

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