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Free-falling Braves can't hide any longer

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

The Atlanta Braves maybe hoped you hadn't noticed, and certainly wish the St. Louis Cardinals hadn't noticed, what with the Boston Red Sox hogging so much of the market on over-wrought catastrophe.

But, it's bad. Real bad. Red Sox bad, maybe without all the neuroses in the stands or glee spread across the rest of the country. Still, bad.

A ballclub can't leak away 10½ games over a month and two days and expect any better. So, on a Tuesday night in late September, 24 hours from the end of the regular season, the Braves – exhausted and defenseless – were caught.

Locks to draft into the playoffs behind the National League East champion Philadelphia Phillies only a few weeks ago, the Braves had it all go wrong. Into their worst offensive month (3.2 runs per game), they've feathered their worst pitching month (4.25 ERA), which maybe wouldn't have been problematic in a vacuum.

Cardinals nation abhors a vacuum, however.

While the Braves were losing 19 of 29, the Cardinals were winning 22 of 31.

"It's like we're living out a bad dream," Chipper Jones(notes) told reporters in Atlanta.

Jones, by the way, is limping to the end, that right knee that required surgery in July begging him to shut 'er down. He can't, of course, not with the lead gone and Brian McCann(notes), Freddie Freeman(notes) and Martin Prado(notes) fading, too, and not with the rotation being propped up by rookies and the Derek Lowe(notes) horror show.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, in his first term succeeding Bobby Cox, had nothing, either, saying, "It is what it is," again and again.

"We've done it to ourselves," he finally said. "There's no excuse there."

From the delirium of five months well spent, followed by one month of lethargy, the Braves lost, 7-1, to the Phillies on Tuesday night and fell into a tie for the NL wild card.

From the discouragement of five so-so months, followed by a month of dynamic baseball, the Cardinals beat the Houston Astros, 13-6, and here they are, having risen to a tie for the NL wild card.

Games 162 await, ace Tim Hudson(notes) for the Braves (against Joe Blanton(notes) and, presumably, many others for the Phillies) in Atlanta, lingering ace Chris Carpenter for the Cardinals (against Brett Myers(notes)) in Houston.

Both win or both lose and there'll be a game Thursday in St. Louis.

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In his post-game comments at Minute Maid Park, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa looked back over the month and called it, "Playing our season back together."

"This," he said, "is one of those historic runs to tie. There's a different story between tying and finishing it off."

While the Braves were getting run off the field again, Lowe finishing a dreadful September by failing to get out of the fifth inning and losing his fifth consecutive decision, the Cardinals were down 5-0. So, maybe it wouldn't matter. Maybe the worst team in Astros history would save the Braves.

Albert Pujols(notes), who'd helped carry the offensive for three weeks, hadn't hit for a week for the Cardinals. Matt Holliday(notes), who can't seem to stay on the field, left Tuesday night's game in the third inning because of a nagging hand injury. Rafael Furcal(notes) strained his hamstring, so was too sore to play.

And then the Cardinals scored 13 of the game's next 14 runs. Allen Craig(notes), who replaced Holliday in left field, drove in four runs. Nick Punto(notes), who started for Furcal at shortstop, had four hits and two RBIs. Skip Schumaker(notes) had a three-run double.

By the seventh inning, when Craig, Ryan Theriot(notes) and Punto had the big hits in a rally that turned a 6-5 deficit into a 9-6 lead, it almost didn't matter that Jake Westbrook(notes) in Houston had actually pitched worse then Lowe had in Atlanta.

So, six months in, 161 games out, the stalkers and the quarry deserve each other.

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Having stared at each other for this long, they should line up Thursday, winners take all in games 163. Wouldn't that be justice?

With barely 24 hours remaining in the regular season, the two wild card races are dead heats.

Nine games apart on Sept. 3, the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox are tied at 90-71.

Separated by 7½ games on Sept. 6 (and those 10½ 11 days before), the Cardinals and Braves are 89-72.

A game in St. Pete, followed by a game in St. Louis, the first double tie-breaker day ever, the chasers and chased together again. Momentum hounds redemption, salvation whips certainty, however it goes.

The Braves, of course, never thought it would come to this. Then, neither had the Red Sox.

But, that's what bad dreams are made of.

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