WASHINGTON -- At age 21, after pitching most of this season for Mississippi in the obscurity of the Class AA Southern League, rookie Randall Delgado figured he'd be a month into his offseason vacation this week.
Instead, the Panama-born pitcher is key to rescuing the Braves from a history-making collapse: Delgado pitches tonight in Atlanta's Turner Field against the Philadelphia Phillies and one their ace lefties, Cliff Lee.
The Braves entered September with an 8 ½-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League's wild-card race but that advantage is down to one with three games remaining for both clubs. The Cardinals play their final three games in Houston against the team with the worst record in baseball while the Braves will host the team with the best record in the majors. If the Cardinals and Braves wind up in a tie, the one-game playoff will be Thursday in St. Louis.
Though the Boston Red Sox have gotten most of the attention for a similar collapse in the AL, the Braves' struggles are just as shocking. For the first five months of the season they seemed to be in cruising toward a playoff spot. Yet a 9-15 September has cast major doubt on their ability to not only reach the postseason but succeed much if they do.
A strong outing from Delgado, who is 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA, on Monday is critical to keeping the Cardinals from finally catching the Braves. "I have never pitched against the Phillies, but I know they are a good team,'' he said after the Braves lost 3-0 to the Washington Nationals on Sunday. "But I'm going to go as long as I can and keep the ball down. I will try to focus, concentrate and not lose control.''
Delgado wasn't expected to be in the big leagues until at least 2012, but now he's a snapshot of everything that's gone wrong with the Braves in the final month: The Braves have used five rookie starters in September. Injuries have cost them their two of their best starters, Tommy Hanson (16-10, 3.23) and Jair Jurrjens (13-6, 2.96). Their offense has fallen off and their once lights-out bullpen is showing signs of fatigue.
"I don't know if there's ever been a playoff team that's had three rookies pitching every five days,'' Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "With that, there comes inconsistency.
"Jair was an All-Star and Tommy should have been. Starting pitcher is where it is at, and you just don't replace those guys. I dare say things would have been different if Tommy and Jair were healthy. We've got to fight through it. What are you going to do? That's baseball. You have to come to the ballpark every day, thinking, 'This is the day that the momentum is going to shift.' That's all you can do.''
Hanson, battling an injured right shoulder, hasn't pitched since Aug. 6. Jurrjens, whose 1.87 ERA was the lowest in the NL at the All-Star break, made his last start on Aug. 30.
Hanson and Jurrjens are both rehabilitating in the Florida Instructional League, and each could be ready for the postseason, assuming the Braves stop their free-fall. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said that Jurrjens could be ready for the Division Series and Hanson for the NLCS.
"In a perfect world, we'd have them back in the playoffs,'' Gonzalez says. "We'd be happy to have at least one of the two back. You'd hate to have either of them have their first game back be Game 3 or Game 4 of a playoff series, but that's the position we're in.''
Gonzalez doesn't mind talking about the possibility of the postseason. "It's like we've been in the playoffs, playing a lot of significant games, since the start of September.''
Since 1991, the year they went from worst to first and lost to the Minnesota Twins in the World Series, the Braves have always been defined by deep rotations, especially the dominating arms of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.
Now, the Braves' only stability in the rotation is Tim Hudson. The No. 2 guy, Derek Lowe, who was unbeatable in September last season, has an 8.24 ERA in his last four starts. Then, there are the three rookies -- Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Delgado. (Rookies have pitched 59 percent of the Braves' innings this month.)
"We were counting on Delgado for next year, and we knew that Minor could make a spot start here and there,'' Gonzalez said.
The lefty Minor, a seventh-round pick in 2008, throws a fastball, curve and changeup and has made 23 starts big-league starts. This month, he's made it through six innings in just one of his five starts.
Beachy, a 25-year-old righthander, has given up 12 runs in his last three starts, and said he's a victim of one bad inning. Gonzalez said that it isn't easy for a young pitcher to try develop and win at the same time.
"That's the growing pains of a young pitcher,'' Gonzalez said. "Sometimes you're sitting around and forget that this is his first year in the major leagues and he's pitching in a pennant race and trying to learn and trying to get better.''
Beachy is preparing for his next start, which, if it happens, will be in the Division Series. "I already know in my head how to fix some of the things I've been doing,'' he said. "It's just a matter of getting out there and doing it. I'm going to move forward.''
Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said the rookie pitchers have done good damage control, prevented games from getting out of hand and have thrown quality strikes.
"That's a lot to do in this environment,'' McDowell said. "We didn't plan it this way, but we are lucky to have the resources to draw from.''
Certainly, the Braves, trying to be the NL wild card for the second consecutive season, weren't planning to have so much riding on the final three games of the season. But they lost three consecutive series to the New York Mets, Florida Marlins and Nationals, teams that are each under .500. They've also gone a combined 0-6 vs. the Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Braves catcher Brian McCann says the team's September performance shouldn't be considered a choke.
"That's not fair,'' McCann said. "We definitely not playing our best baseball, but in April and September, these things get magnified. If you have a bad streak in May, you have plenty of games to adjust.
"If your bad streak happens in September, there's not much time to get things fixed.''
Throughout this month, the Braves said they had been following the Cardinals via scoreboard watching, but Sunday, first baseman Freddy Freeman said there was too much on the line to be checking the Cardinals' score. (St. Louis beat the Chicago Cubs 3-2 Sunday.)
As the Braves packed to return home, their clubhouse was quiet. There were no TVs on to monitor the Cardinals. Freeman said it was a "brutal'' loss.
Hudson said this month has been discouraging, "But if you ask the Cardinals, they would switch places with us.''
The Phillies are 1-9 since winning the National League East, but that doesn't mean anything, Jones said: "Knowing Philly the way I do, they're going to come out and do all they can to knock us off.''
Across the room, Delgado said that he'll spend most of Monday in his Atlanta hotel room, thinking about the Phillies' lineup.
"I'm just going to make it a normal game,'' he said.
A normal game -- with abnormal pressure.