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Cardinals Vs. Braves: October, It Just Doesn't Matter

The Braves just finished a thoroughly satisfying season. Whatever happens today and in the days that follow, we should not lose sight of that fact.

Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

There are two stories that bear repeating as the Braves prepare to face the Cardinals in the first one-game wild card playoff in baseball history. The first is Book XII of the Odyssey in which Odysseus orders his men to lash him to the mast of their ship as they pass the Sirens so he can hear their music, but he will not be lured into steering the ship into the rocks. The second is from one of the few artistic works in Western Civilization that surpasses the Odyssey: Meatballs

The Braves have had a terrific season. Of this there can be little dispute. The team came into 2012 on the heels of a dispiriting, historic collapse at the end of 2011. Braves fans then had to watch as the team that pipped them for the last wild card spot - the same Cardinals team that visits the Ted tomorrow - won the World Series in improbable fashion. (OK, that's not entirely true. Being Southerners, most Braves fans immediately turned the page and dove fully into college football after the baseball season ended.) The offseason was a damp squib, as the team did not acquire any players of note and went into spring training with a major question at shortstop.

Braves fans could be forgiven for having a sense of pessimism coming into the season, but that foreboding just made the 94-win campaign even sweeter. After dicking around with Tyler Pastornicky and Jack Wilson at shortstop, the Braves found a long-term solution in the defensively superlative and offensively surprising Andrelton Simmons. Thanks to rebound seasons from Martin Prado and Jason Heyward and a great contract season from Michael Bourn (one that will unfortunately price him out of a future in Atlanta), the team assembled its best outfield since moving to Atlanta. This is a demonstrable fact if you use WAR as a yardstick; the current Braves outfield is 16.9 wins above replacement level and that beats every other unit. It's better than the Chipper-Andruw-Sheffield outfield of 2003, the Gant-Nixon-Justice outfields of the early 90s, and even the Aaron-Alou-Carty outfield that won Atlanta its first divisional title in 1969.

On the mound, Brandon Beachy started the season as one of the best pitchers in baseball and Kris Medlen has ended it as the best. In a serendipitous surprise (one that clearly caught the team's management unaware, as they had exhausted every other option before moving Medlen into the rotation), it turns out that Medlen does a tidy Greg Maddux imitation. If Beachy recovers from Tommy John surgery and Medlen and Mike Minor can keep pitching in the same zip code as their second half performances, then the Braves will have a great young pitching nucleus, just not the one that we expected when Arodys Vizcaino, Julio Teheran, and Randall Delgado were coming up through the minors.

At the back end of games, we had the pleasure of Craig Kimbrel. For those of us who lived through Jeff Reardon pitching to Ed Sprague, Mark Wohlers pitching to Jim Leyritz, Kerry Ligtenberg pitching to Ken Caminiti, and Kyle Farnsworth pitching to Brad Ausmus, the experience of watching a dominant closer with a tomahawk on his chest is like a sincere apology from the baseball gods. Tumbling down from Mount Olympus has been Kimbrel and his unprecedented level of dominance in 2012. I found myself in the position of having to make mental notes to the effect of "these are major league hitters that our closer is making look like arthritic old timers.

And then there was Chipper. By OPS or WAR, this was Larry Wayne Jones' best season since 2008. Moreover, his trajectory tracked that of the team. In the first part of the season, the Braves scuffled along and Chipper was out of the lineup as much as he was in it. In the second hand, the team caught fire (first half record: 42-39; second half record: 52-29) and Chipper was in the lineup more (plate appearances by month: 55, 59, 58, 86, 95, 95). Ultimately, this became Chipper's season. This was a fitting farewell as the team says goodbye to the last link to the 15-year dynasty.

Nothing that happens today should change the way that we view what has transpired over the last six months. If there is one thing that I took from the great summers and increasingly disappointing falls of 1991-2005, it was that the American emphasis on playoff results is irrational. What was the point of getting upset that the 1993 Braves won one of the greatest pennant races in baseball history and then lost in six games to a flabby Phillies team that finished a full seven games worse? Or that the Braves beat the Marlins in 1997 by nine games and then got Eric Gregg'd out of the NLCS? Or that the 101-win Braves of 2003 lost to the 88-win wild card Cubs as Dusty Baker destroyed the arms of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood? Why should I care more about five games than I do about 162? And isn't the case even stronger when the playoff is one game instead of five or seven?

As the Braves futilely chased the Nats over the course of the summer, I got grand visions of revenge in my head. For all of those years in which the Braves lost to inferior teams (often teams that did not win their divisions), they would get their revenge this year by turning the tables. Then it occurred to me that these dreams made me a hypocrite. If it was wrong to view the Braves as a failure for winning 106 games and then losing in the NLCS, then it would be no better to proclaim them kings for beating a team that finished ahead of them, fair and square. Winning in the playoffs would be a nice coda to the season, but it should not be the end-all, be-all. Playoff success is mostly about luck and just because our coin kept coming up tails when we called heads, that means neither that our odds are suddenly better on the next flip, nor does it mean that we should be too emotionally invested in a game of chance.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.