We need to tread lightly. The Braves led the 1993 National League Championship Series 2-1, having outscored Philadelphia 23-7 in Games 2 and 3, whereupon Milt Thompson snagged Mark Lemke’s screamer at the wall. They were one out from a 2-1 lead over San Francisco in the 2010 NL Division Series when poor Brooks Conrad made another error. They led Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS in Houston with five outs to go when Kyle Farnsworth yielded five runs’ worth of homers.
Oh, and there was that time when they outscored their pinstriped opponent 16-1 over two games in the Bronx, prompting some nut to wonder how those mighty Braves might fare against ’27 Yankees. I forget what happened after that.
From decades of grim experience, Atlantans know not to break into our happy dance too soon. The local NFL team never looked so golden as when it led 28-3 in Houston. The Braves, working in that same city, have given every indication that they’re the better team in this NLDS. They trailed Game 1 by three runs and won by four. They led after two innings in Wednesday’s Game 2 and won 2-0. They have three chances — triple match point, as they say in another sport — to book passage to the NLCS, which will be staged in a Texas ballpark 257 miles north.
What could go wrong? This time, maybe nothing. Probably nothing. The 2020 Marlins aren’t the 1996 Yankees. The Fish were 31-29 over a truncated-by-COVID season. They’ve gone 15 innings without scoring. Braves opponents this postseason have scored in two of 40 innings. Then again, they’ve needed only two starting pitchers — plus one fabulous bullpen — to win four playoff games. In Thursday’s Game 3, they’ll turn to Kyle Wright, who not long ago was stationed at their alternate training site. (Then again, so was Ian Anderson, who for the second consecutive Game 2 yielded nary a run.)
We around here live in the constant fear/expectation of the other shoe dropping, but there came a moment Wednesday when you thought, “Maybe this October isn’t like other Octobers.” The eighth inning began with a shifted-over Dansby Swanson flubbing a grounder. Jon Berti lifted a dying quail to short right. If it falls, the starved-for-runs Marlins have men on first and second with nobody out. Nick Markakis pulled up and let the ball drop, and just as you were about to yell, “You’ve got to dive for that!”, you saw the brilliance of what the right fielder was doing.
Gloving the ball on one hop, Markakis threw to second base, where Swanson completed an extraordinary force-out of Corey Dickerson. There would be no Miami rally. The remaining Marlins batters couldn’t drive the ball out of the infield. The Braves, who went 19 years between series wins, are one step from two in one October.
Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: “The great thing is that Nick has wherewithal to not try and dive for that ball. If he dives, they have men at second and third.”
Said Swanson: “He really made the perfect play.”
On a day when Ronald Acuna struck out four times and the top of the Braves’ batting order went 0 for 10, the Marlins still couldn’t win. More to the point, Markakis’ bit of improv stands as such a glistening counterpoint to so many regrettable moments — Lonnie Smith dallying at second base; Mark Wohlers throwing his third-best pitch to that rat Jim Leyritz; poor Conrad making three errors in one game — that it’s possible to wonder if this really might be the year.
Anderson has worked 11 2/3 playoff innings. His ERA is 0.00; he has 17 strikeouts. The Braves themselves mustered only four hits Wednesday, but two of them flew over Minute Maid Park’s left-field wall. Swanson crushed his second home run of the NLDS in the second, turning on a 1-2 fastball from Pablo Lopez. In the fourth, Travis d’Arnaud hit his second of the series, this off a Lopez change-up. The Braves have seven home runs in the past three games. To borrow from the baseball writer Joe Sheehan: “Ball go far, team go far.”
Before Game 2, Marlins manager Don Mattingly recalled watching “The Last Dance,” which chronicled the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan: “They fought and fought to get past the Pistons. There’s a team you’ve got to overcome at some point. Atlanta has been that team for a lot of teams, not just us. Atlanta has been the team that beats us up. Atlanta has been the cream of this division. We’ve got to overcome Atlanta … They’re a good club and we respect them. But for us, they’re in the way.”
The Marlins haven’t played badly. They’ve just been outclassed. Over the past three seasons, the Braves are 37-13 against Miami. The last time the Braves lost three in a row to this opponent was in September 2017.
We note that the Braves likewise stood one win from the NLCS last year, and with two out in the eighth of Game 4 they were four outs away. Then Yadier Molina fought off a Shane Greene pitch and pushed it toward right field. It ticked the top of Freddie Freeman’s mitt and fell safely. The score was tied. In the 10th inning, it was gone. (Molina again.) Game 5 was lost before the Braves came to bat.
These Braves, however, aren’t those Braves, nor are these Marlins those Cardinals. Even the naysaying part of me can’t see this team letting this series slip away. Full disclosure, though. That sound you just heard was some nut knocking on wood.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)