The Atlanta Braves Owe The Boston Red Sox A Thank-You Card

Michael Bourn of the Atlanta Braves walks off the field after flying out against the Washington Nationals in the sixth inning at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. The Washington Nationals won, 3-1. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Braves are in the midst of a massive late-season collapse. Thankfully, because of the Boston Red Sox, few people have noticed.

At the beginning of September, the Boston Red Sox were 83-52, 1½ games up on the New York Yankees in the AL East, and a full nine games up on the Tampa Bay Rays for the Wild Card. CoolStandings.com listed their playoff odds at a comfortable 99.4 percent, and anyone who suggested that they might miss out on the postseason would've been looked at all weird-like.

Baseball Fan A: So what do you think?
Baseball Fan B: I think the Red Sox might miss the playoffs!

Baseball Fan A: So what do you think?
Baseball Fan B: Cauldrons! Spinning yellow cauldrons!

--> These would've drawn the same response.

Of course, you know how things have gone since. The Red Sox have gone 6-18. The Rays have gone 14-10. Entering the regular season's final series, the Sox are clinging to a narrow one-game Wild Card lead, and Sunday night they came a timely hit away from falling into a tie. Boston's collapse has captured the entire baseball world's full attention.

And that's just fine with the Atlanta Braves, because oh by the way, the Braves have kind of been doing the same thing. Now, granted, the Braves aren't the Red Sox. They can't compete with the media following, and they weren't considered a near preseason lock to advance to the World Series. Additionally, the Braves haven't fallen on their faces to quite the same degree as the Red Sox have.

But here are the facts: as recently as the morning of September 2, the Braves had CoolStandings.com playoff odds of 97.8 percent. They were 81-55, 8½ games up on the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Wild Card. Remember that, not too long ago, we were all lamenting the lack of compelling playoff races down the stretch.

Well, the AL has given us a playoff race, and the NL has, too, because since the morning of September 2, the Braves have gone 8-15 while the Cardinals have gone 15-7. The gap now, in both leagues, is down to one single game, and while the situation in the AL has been getting the bulk of the coverage, the situation in the NL is comparably improbable.

With the Red Sox, the biggest problem has been that they haven't been able to pitch. Injuries have contributed, but so has general ineffectiveness. With the Braves, the biggest problem has been that they haven't scored. They were blanked by the Washington Nationals Sunday afternoon, and over that 23-game stretch, they've scored a total of 76 runs, or 3.3 runs per game. That's a 535-run full-season pace.

So what now? Instead of getting to rest their regulars to prepare for the playoffs, over the next three days the Braves will need to focus on keeping their slim Wild Card lead and making it to the playoffs. And, about that:

September 26
Phillies @ Braves
Cardinals @ Astros

September 27
Phillies @ Braves
Cardinals @ Astros

September 28
Phillies @ Braves
Cardinals @ Astros

The Braves get their final three games at home, but they play the best team in the league. The Cardinals have to play their final three games on the road, but they play the worst team in the league.

It seems like a bad schedule break for the Braves, but it's their own fault they're in this situation in the first place. They might take solace in the fact that the Phillies have lost eight of nine, but they're still the Phillies, and the Braves still have to face Cliff Lee on Monday and Roy Oswalt on Tuesday. They won't have to face Cole Hamels on Wednesday, as Charlie Manuel has settled on a bullpen day, but those are two tough matchups at two critical times. Rookie Randall Delgado will go Monday, and he's pretty obviously never pitched a bigger game.

As for the Cardinals, they'll oppose Wandy Rodriguez, Henry Sosa and Brett Myers with Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Chris Carpenter. Though the Astros are 12-14 over their last 26 games, which is incredible for them, they're still terrible, and the Cardinals can legitimately be thinking sweep. Not that you can ever plan on a sweep, but the Cardinals couldn't be playing a more sweepable team.

I'm not in the business of predicting baseball games. You aren't, either. Or at least, you shouldn't be. Predicting baseball games is impossible, and for all I know the Braves could sweep the Phillies and the Astros could sweep the Cardinals and this could all turn out anticlimactic. But the odds are that we get something more interesting than that, and this could very easily come down to the final day. If things break right, it could even come down to the day after that.

The AL Wild Card race has been making the biggest headlines. That's probably fair - the Red Sox are a major, major team that's been collapsing in a major, major way. But the picture in the NL has been just as insane, and now we're all set up for the incredible final week that for so long looked so unlikely.

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