It’s almost August, the trade deadline looms and the Atlanta Braves have an eight-game lead in the division.
Naturally, it’s time to start panicking ... or at least sweat a little.
Despite a 95.9 percent chance of making the playoffs – the second highest degree of likelihood in baseball – the Braves got relegated to white-knuckle status when veteran pitcher Tim Hudson got carted off the field in New York on Wednesday night. That “spidey sense” of imminent dread started tingling in every Braves fan as Hudson was writhing in pain after having his ankle crushed under the spikes of Eric Young Jr.
“That’s a big blow,” Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said of the season-ending loss of the most experienced and reliable arm on the staff.
Of course, it’s not really as dire as all that. The Braves enjoy the largest divisional lead in the major leagues, which would be very comforting if the franchise hadn’t suffered more than its share of late-season and postseason misery in recent years.
The Braves are not quite two years removed from one of the most epic collapses in major-league history. You never forget the time you lost an 8½-game lead in September.
On Aug. 26, 2011, Atlanta held a 9½-game edge in the National League wild-card race – a status that led Baseball Prospectus to calculate the Braves’ odds of reaching the postseason at a whopping 98.99 percent. You would have bet the mortgage. Only three prior teams in history had ever failed to close the deal with better odds at that stage of the season.
We all of course know that the 2011 Braves failed in excruciating fashion – right down to the last blown save by Craig Kimbrel, who had arguably been the best closer in baseball that season. Braves fans no longer sleep well after the All-Star break.
This Hudson situation is the kind of loss that induces insomnia – especially if you watched the gruesome footage of his ankle being mangled between Young’s cleat and the first-base bag. Not only is he one of the team’s most consistent pitchers, the 38-year-old veteran is the only one with any substantial postseason experience. He’s a clubhouse leader whose presence every day as he recovers from eventual surgery will be sorely missed.
Hudson’s injury came just a couple of days after left-hander Paul Maholm was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained left wrist. Until those losses, the Braves had enjoyed enviable health and admirable depth in its rotation.
Rookie Alex Wood is the only guy outside of the five-man core to make a previous start this year, and only once at that. The former Georgia Bulldog was already slated to take the mound in place of Maholm against the Mets on Thursday. New York tagged him for four runs and eight hits in 4.1 innings.
Right-hander Brandon Beachy could return to the rotation soon after recovering from Tommy John surgery last summer. Beachy is already making impressive rehab starts at Triple-A Gwinnett. His strikeout prowess could actually provide quite the upgrade for the Braves.
Atlanta’s front-office isn’t nearly as anxious as those of us watching from the stands at Turner Field or on television. The trade deadline looms next Wednesday, but it’s doubtful Atlanta will be willing to give up what it would take to acquire a starter who could fill Hudson’s shoes. Is it worth much to seek inconsistent bargains like San Diego’s Edinson Volquez or San Francisco’s mercurial Tim Lincecum?
Unless the Phillies or Nationals wake up and show signs of putting pressure on the Braves, the postseason remains as likely as the 95.9 percent predictors indicate. But how far the Braves can go without any significant postseason experience on the mound is enough to keep everyone a little uneasy.
Hudson’s grisly injury was the kind of thing that tends to trigger trouble. Like the two-out error that ignites an unlikely rally, losing a team leader can take a mental toll.
Here’s hoping the Braves don’t let that happen. The fragile psyche of a too-recently-burned fan base can’t handle the stress.