Around the 7th inning on Sunday night, I was feeling the walls closing in on the Braves like the Death Star trash compactor. ("What a wonderful smell you've discovered.") Smoltz was petering out, as he does just about every time he gets to 80-90 pitches. (Bobby might not have figured out to lift him if his spot didn't come up second in the bottom of the 7th.) The Braves were six outs away from losing their fourth in a row on a homestand that should have seen them salt the division away and had instead seen the Phillies and Marlins close to striking distance. The offense wasn't scoring and the bullpen inspired little confidence. To make matters worse, the Braves were heading out on the road this week for a road trip that had doom written all over it: three games in Chicago, with a hot Carlos Zambrano opening the series and John Thomson and Mike Hampton pitching (and I use that term loosely, the way they've come off the DL) the next two nights, followed by a series in Milwaukee against a team with a good pitching staff that took two of three in Atlanta back in July. The end was nigh.
Lo and behold, Bruce Bochy bailed the Braves out by inserting Akinori Otsuka, who was running on fumes after throwing two stressful innings on Saturday, instead of leaving in Scott Linebrink, who mowed through the Braves on 12 pitches in the 7th, and with a little help from our friends named Damian Jackson and Mark Sweeney, the Braves rallied for a win and then made it two in a row tonight with two of our high-priced, but oft-injured stars - Chipper and Hudson - showing why they have enough money to be Bond villains. (By the way, I just watched Moonraker and started thinking what sort of hare-brained plot I would hatch if I was a fabulously wealthy industrialist. Since destroying the world to create a new one in the sea has been taken, as has a new world in space, what's left for me? New world in a volcano? No, that's been taken as well. Maybe in the center of the earth? I digress.) Hudson threw very well tonight, although he was somewhat lucky late because his location suffered, but his movement was good enough to make sure that the average Cubs bats couldn't tee off. Chipper provided all of the offense one night after he had the big hit. The guy has never missed the playoffs on any level and he's showed why for the past two games.
Other random notes:
1. After a wretched start to the year, Rafael Furcal is second among NL shortstops in VORP (value over replacement player). He's played the best defense of his career this year and his offensive surge has neatly coincided with the Braves' surge as a team. He's going to be worth at least $10M per season this off-season, but I'm coming close to thinking that he might be worth that money more than Giles, although Marcus seems to be growing into a team leader role, or at least the court jester. I'm hoping that the Braves have a plan to sign one of them, if not both.
2. The fact that Bobby let Hudson throw over 120 pitches tonight with a two-run lead tells you all you need to know about his confidence in the closing situation right now. And anyone notice that he had Farnsworth, not Reitsma up in the pen? Maybe Bobby was channeling Dusty in the home dugout.
3. Can the Braves win one of the next two? Hampton or Thomson: which one is more likely to get off the schnide first? Or are the Braves going to have to have a ten-run outburst to win one of these games? And can we see if Farnsworth can come in against his former team in an emotional situation and pitch well? Is this the test for him in advance of the October crucible? I want the truth!