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Braves and Yankees still fighting for zombie crown

The Braves and Yankees are zombie teams that will never die. Only one of them can be the true zombie king, though.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the year, I wrote two articles about the Yankees: One had a title of "The Yankees are completely screwed" but ended with an acknowledgment that the Yankees were a zombie franchise that was going to feast on us and live forever. One had a title of "The Yankees will be absolutely fine" but ended with an acknowledgment that they were probably screwed. This is known, in writer's jargon, as "being a weasel" and "having it both ways."

In the comments of the "completely screwed" piece (which did 30 times the traffic, in case you were curious), a reader noted that the Braves are the real zombie franchise, specifically mentioning Aaron Harang, who is enjoying his best season in years. If you're a believer in fielding-independent pitching (FIP), note that his FIP is the best of his 13-year career. Of course it is. There's something to the zombie Braves, too.

Here we are with less than two months left, and the Yankees and Braves are both in the mix for a playoff spot, groaning, staggering after the first-place teams with a slow, exaggerated gait. Except there's a difference, which I'll attempt to explain in a Braves-centric way.

The Yankees really are absurd and undead. They have more good pitchers on the 60-day DL than most teams have on their roster, and that's not including Masahiro Tanaka, who hasn't officially been transferred to the 60-day yet. Considering the Yankees weren't flush with majors-ready prospects for the rotation, they should be several games under .500 by now. No team can withstand that kind of loss.

In a way, the Yankees haven't. Based on the runs they've allowed and the runs they've scored, they should have something like a 53-59 record — they're far, far closer to the Cubs' Pythagorean record than they are to the Blue Jays'. Yet they're ambling about, looking for brains, and pestering the Blue Jays and others for the second wild card spot. It's ridiculous. Did you know that Derek Jeter is 40 and still starting at shortstop, even though he has the range of a beach umbrella, and the Yankees are still contending? Unreal. Unholy.

The Braves are also hanging in there, but just barely. They've lost seven in a row coming into Wednesday, falling further and further behind the Nationals in the NL East. Like the Yankees, they shouldn't be here, not after losing the bulk of their rotation before Opening Day. Yet they've done remarkably Braves things to keep everything afloat, plugging in young players to replace disintegrating veterans (Tommy La Stella) and plugging in veterans to replace disintegrating young players (Harang). It's kept them in at least one playoff race.

The difference between the two zombie teams: I can't help but be terrified at what the Braves would look like if everyone did what they were supposed to.

Take yourself back to the beginning of the season, and pretend your job was to be optimistic about the Braves despite the injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Make a list of the things a reasonable person could have expected. Here's what I would have gone with:

  • B.J. Upton moving from the worst player in baseball to someone who belongs on a major league roster

  • Chris Johnson continuing to be a successful average-dependent player

  • Andrelton Simmons recapturing his rookie ability at the plate and becoming a more well-rounded player

  • Jason Heyward rediscovering his power stroke and turning into a veritable force, rather than a player whose WAR and dWAR are necessary for everyone to fully appreciate him
Jason Heyward

Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, the Braves were going to have to hit their way out of the mess. This isn't to suggest they've been nothing but unlucky this season — the seasons from Justin Upton, Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, Evan Gattis, Harang and most of the key bullpen cogs have helped the Braves contend in the first place. But when I look at the Braves, I don't wonder why the team is where they are, fighting for a playoff spot, but not as convincingly as they might like. I wonder why they aren't better. They seem like a well-run machine that's spitting out chocolates just a little too fast for Lucy and Ethel at the moment, but is still impressive in its efficiency.

The Yankees make no sense. Chris Capuano is currently in their rotation because he has to be. The lineup is overstuffed with over-30 hitters on the way down because it has to be. They've been outscored on the season because of course they have, look at the roster. Yet they're still contending. It's taken about two decades for the Royals to get to a spot where they can contend quite like this. The Yankees contend like this even after they trip over a tricycle and get their foot stuck in a bucket. It's effortless and freaky, even when everything goes wrong.

the Yankees and Braves are both in the mix for a playoff spot, groaning, staggering after the first-place teams with a slow, exaggerated gait.

Perhaps 10 years ago, I would have appealed to luck over process, suggesting that the universe would correct for this run of good cards eventually. Except I'm pretty sure there's something tangible masquerading as intangible, here. The Yankees are the Road Runner, who isn't going to fall into the canyon because he doesn't look down. It doesn't make sense, but it's almost like there's something to the idea that a belief that they're going to contend, no matter what happens, is contagious. There's an earned arrogance that translates into things like one-run wins and outperforming Pythagorean records. Maybe.

All I know is that the Yankees are still zombies, and they're going to chew our noses off before coming back for more next year. The Braves are a good team that's made the best of extenuating circumstances. The Yankees are undead and at your door. Don't bother with the science or the explanations. Just run.