MIAMI -- Given they spent most of this season fighting an uphill battle, would it have really been fitting for the Braves to waltz into Miami and immediately claim the one victory needed to secure a fifth consecutive National League East title?
Highlighting the fact nothing has been guaranteed, the Braves brought a little suspense back into the NL East race by suffering a 4-0 loss to the Marlins on Monday night at loanDepot park. Atlanta is now 1 1/2 games in front of the second-place Mets, who still have three games remaining after their series opener vs. the Nationals was postponed by rain.
“It’s kind of a big deal, we wanted to win,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You can’t just go out and win a baseball game. It’s hard. There are a lot of moving parts. We’re going to come back and give ‘er hell tomorrow.”
Still buzzing from the big three-game sweep completed against the Mets on Sunday night, the Braves arrived in Miami early Monday morning and were unable to extend the momentum. Bryce Elder allowed four runs through the first three innings and Marlins starter Jesús Luzardo silenced a lineup that had conquered both Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer over the weekend.
“I think you always have to find a reason to play,” Luzardo said after notching 12 strikeouts over six scoreless innings. “I always internally had reasons. But being a spoiler gives you a little giddy-up. It gives you another reason to go out there and do your best. I’m glad we were able to spoil a little bit and put that champagne on ice for at least another day.”
When the Braves returned to their clubhouse after Monday’s loss, they saw the protective plastic covers sitting on top of their lockers. Their hope is to soon see those covers draped in front of them instead.
The Braves’ magic number remains one with two games to go. One more Atlanta victory or Mets loss would end the NL East race fittingly within the regular season’s final two days.
To end the race on Tuesday, the Braves may need a strong start from Jake Odorizzi, who gets another chance to be the reliable starter they had envisioned before he arrived via an Aug. 2 trade with the Astros. Odorizzi has posted a 5.66 ERA while completing five innings in just three of his nine starts for Atlanta.
Kyle Muller wasn’t eligible to return after being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Wednesday and the Braves chose Odorizzi over the option of using one of their relievers as an opener.
“I like where we’re at,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “Obviously, we would have liked to have clinched tonight. But it is what it is. This team can do it. I’m not worried whatsoever.”
So the best division race of the season will last at least one more day. The Braves have won more games than every team other than the Dodgers since June 1. But they may need to notch their 101st win of the season to increase their MLB record to 22 division titles.
Would it have been nice for the Braves to clinch on Monday? Sure. Along with erasing any remaining suspense or stress, Atlanta could have given its regulars another day off and chosen how it might use any starters or relievers who need work over the next couple days.
But sometimes the reality of the long 162-game season delays satisfaction. After expending a lot of energy against the Mets this past weekend, the Braves enjoyed a happy flight to Miami and may have understandably entered this series opener somewhat fatigued or flat.
“It’s tough after the past three days and night travel,” Riley said. “We just didn’t score runs. There’s no panic. We’ll come back tomorrow and lock this thing down."