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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Time's running out as Braves try to avert epic collapse

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Derek Lowe's Braves were 10 1/2 up on the Cards for the wild card on Aug. 25. (US Presswire)  
Derek Lowe's Braves were 10 1/2 up on the Cards for the wild card on Aug. 25. (US Presswire)  

So little time left in the season, so many riveting collapses. ...

Josh Beckett (as in "Wreck-It") and the Red Sox? So yesterday. Where it's at now is with the quickly developing story over in the Junior Varsity League, where the Braves, at the moment, are up to their ears in quicksand ... and taking on more sand by the hour.

While idle Chipper Jones and Friends had the day to stack more sandbags Thursday, the Cardinals signed Lance Berkman to a one-year extension for 2012. Of course they did. They re-signed ace Chris Carpenter last week. Who's next, Albert Pujols?

The way things are going in St. Louis, a rejuvenated Bob Gibson will be re-joining the rotation soon. And I'm quite sure that Tony La Russa has found homes for every single stray dog currently housed in his Animal Rescue Foundation headquarters.

The Cardinals have won 12 of their past 15 games and tomahawk-chopped 8 1/2 games off of Atlanta's wild-card lead since Aug. 25.

The streaking Redbirds seemed on pace to knock Atlanta from the playoffs by your local 11 p.m. newscast tonight, until blowing a 6-1 lead in a crushing 8-6 loss to the Mets on Thursday afternoon. The Braves hold onto this thing, Christmas cards are in order to St. Louis relievers Jason Motte, Marc Rzepcynski and Fernando Salas for not rising to the task in the ninth.

Now the Cards trail Atlanta by two games in the wild-card chase instead of one, though the Braves still aren't in position to enjoy Friday morning's oatmeal. The Cards get to finish the season with three games at home this weekend against the Cubs, then three in Houston. Talk about a cupcake schedule the rest of the way. Red Velvet, please.

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Meantime, guess who draws Stephen Strasburg on Friday night in Washington? Uh-huh. Then after things settle down there for the final two games, the Braves conclude their season -- for better or for worse -- with three at home against the Phillies next week.

For better? The Phillies long ago wrapped up the NL East. Maybe Atlanta gets Charlie Manuel's scrubs for much of those games (Philadelphia's scrubs still present a much more formidable opponent than the Astros, so, advantage, Cards).

For worse? Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Co. still need to get their work in to stay sharp for the playoff opener next Friday. The Phillies can't bank on Roy Halladay throwing a Game 1 no-hitter every October.

That we are even considering these various angles is incredible, because Atlanta had all but formally punched its October ticket weeks ago. The Braves led the NL wild-card scramble by nine games on Aug. 30. They led by 8 1/2 games on the morning of Sept. 6.

On Aug. 25, St. Louis was third in the wild-card standings, 10 1/2 games behind Fredi Gonzalez's Braves.

But with starter Derek Lowe losing his touch and Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) long ago having gone MIA, the Braves didn't just hit the wall ... they smacked into it in the comical fashion of a cartoon character who lands ass over tea kettle, winding up with little stars above his cartoon head.

The descent has been dizzying: Atlanta has lost seven games in the wild-card standings in 16 days, watching its lead melt from 8 1/2 games to two games.

St. Louis' surge has been so unexpected that, a week before the playoffs begin, the Cardinals don't even have media credential application forms available. Other playoff-hopeful teams made them available two or three weeks ago. Playing from behind in all areas, St. Louis is scrambling to get the forms ready before the weekend.

Even without Jurrjens and Hanson, there's been a fierce debate in Atlanta as to whether Lowe should even be included in the playoff rotation. The beleaguered veteran is 0-4 with an 8.24 ERA over his past four starts and 3-9, 5.94 over his past 12.

If the Braves don't pull their parachute cord soon, that debate is going to wind up as ludicrous as you and I discussing whom we'd take to a deserted desert island, Minka Kelly or Marisa Miller.

Maybe even more alarming than the state of what's up behind Tim Hudson in Atlanta's rotation is the sudden inconsistency at the back end of the bullpen. Until this month, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty were nails. But the fact that Atlanta's pen has blown five saves and absorbed seven losses this month leads to legitimate fuel-tank questions. As in: Are they out of gas?

Venters leads the majors with 82 appearances. Kimbrel is third at 77. O'Flaherty is tied for fifth at 75.

By comparision, today's gold-standard closer, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, never made more than 74 appearances in a regular season.

As if all that's not enough, the Braves' high-flying offense, with sensational rookie Freddie Freeman, powerful Dan Uggla, All-Star Brian McCann, Chipper and more, has scored only 79 runs in its past 23 games, an average of just 3.4 runs per game.

It all adds up to a colossal landslide, and with St. Louis suddenly on solid ground and gaining steam, the Braves are in an old-fashioned street fight while working to avoid one of the worst collapses ever.

The cool Web site www.coolstandings.com put the Braves' chances of making the playoffs back on Aug. 25 at 99.2 percent. Even as late as Sept. 17, Atlanta checked in at 95 percent. Five days later, Thursday, the percentage was down to 63.9. This side of President Obama's approval ratings, the economy and the Red Sox, not much is on a downhill luge run like that.

The Braves can take comfort in that they've been in the same area code fairly recently: Last Sept. 1, they led the Phillies in the NL East and held a comfortable three-game lead in the NL wild-card. By the last weekend of the season, they had to wait three hours after their final game for a result to arrive from a West Coast precinct (San Diego at San Francisco) before clinching the wild-card slot.

Maybe that harrowing finish will help pull the Braves through this year. Because right now, the alternative is too doomsday to dwell upon:

That 99.2 percent chance of making the playoffs given the Braves by coolstandings.com back on Aug. 25? Based on that, if Atlanta doesn't make the playoffs, it would tie the fourth-worst collapse ever.

Of course, the Red Sox, at 99.4 percent on Sept. 6, would be right there, too.

Six games left. Lace 'em up, fellas.

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