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The Braves: Where Do They Go From Here?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta BravesWell, after a very extended hiatus (one so long, in fact, I needed a short tutorial on how to work WordPress again), I’m finally back. For those who care (all three of you), the absence was brought about by spending an exceedingly high amount of my spare time doing things that brought no immediate benefit, but will hopefully pay dividends in the future. Additionally, I was also able to be published on ESPN.com once or twice, as well as get a few things on Football Outsiders. Between those, my limited well of creativity was tapped. But I’m back and better than ever here at last.

In my absence, one of my two favorite sports teams, the Atlanta Braves have embarked on what can be best described as a child’s roller coaster ride. After a blistering start that saw them sprint out to a 13-2 start, the Braves battled mediocrity for the following three months, going just 44-43 from April 19th to July 25th. Amazingly, the Braves have actually gained ground on their newly anointed foe, the Washington Nationals, who have managed to go 40-46 during the same time span. So even though the Braves had an eight game lead starting July 26th, they had done little to convince their critics that they were nothing more than an average team relying on a hot start to keep them in front.

What has transpired since has seemingly put the nail in the Nationals coffin while waking up a sleeping giant.

On July 26th, the St. Louis Cardinals came into town for a three-game set sporting the majors’ best record, road record, run differential (by a staggering 43 runs) and the NL’s best offense. The Braves proceeded to allow only three runs and 14 hits combined in the three games, sending the Cardinals into what would become a seven-game tailspin while igniting the Braves homer-or-strikeout offense in one of their best homestands in Turner Field’s history.

After using dominating pitching to shutdown the mighty Cards, Atlanta relied on its offense to top the Rockies (no pun intended, I swear!). In the four-game series, Atlanta scored a total of 40 runs and one of only nine times in the team’s history that it scored nine or more runs in four straight games. What’s scary is that the Braves needed only seven homeruns to amass that total. This season, the Braves relied on the homerun more than any other team in the National League, save for the Cubs, with a homerun-to-run ratio (a way to measure a team’s reliance on the long ball) of 1-to-3.71. Only the Chicago’s 1-to-3.6 was worse.

So what does that mean for the rest of the season?

Obviously, the Braves won’t be averaging 10 runs per game the rest of the way. Nor do they need to. Heading into the weekend, the Braves have the NL’s second-best offense, creating 4.53 runs per game. However, they must be more consistent. The Braves are tied for the second-most offensive shutouts in baseball, trailing only the inept Miami Marlins.

Luckily for Atlanta, their pitching staff is equipped to keep them in almost any game. Their starters have combined for an NL-high 67 quality starts (trailing only Detroit’s 70), while earning the league’s sixth-best ERA for starters. What’s troubling for the Braves’ opponents is that that’s actually the worst part of the Braves pitching staff. Their bullpen, despite the myriad injuries it has faced, has been lights out, featuring the league’s best ERA at 2.55 (Kansas City is second at 2.90). In other words, your best bet is to get ahead early and hope for the best, because scoring on their bullpen isn’t a safe bet.

With two months left, the Braves find themselves with their biggest division lead they’ve had in 10 years and easily the biggest in baseball (nobody else is more than 3.5 games up). With only 53 games left, they have a magic number of only 43 and according to ESPN.com have a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. Even an epic collapse similar to 2011 won’t be enough to derail the Braves from finding games to be played in October. But then what?

While the Braves lead the NL in quality starts, they don’t exactly have a rotation that scares teams in the playoffs. Kris Medlen was dominant down the stretch in 2012, but has been hard-pressed to replicate anything close to those results in 2013. Thanks to Eric Young Jr.’s foot, Tim Hudson is lost for the year. Paul Maholm had an ERA over 5.5 in his last 10 starts before landing on the DL himself. Brandon Beachy was lighting the league on fire before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in 2012. Time will tell if his first start of the season against the Rockies (3.2 IP, 8 H, 7 ER) is an aberration or the new norm. That leaves two pitchers who have pitched well of late (Mike Minor and Julio Teheran), but are hardly the definition of consistency. While both can shut down opposing offenses when focused, no team would want to start a playoff series with these two at the top of the rotation.

The key to the Braves fall success will lie on a consistent offense. Jason Heyward seems to have found a new home at leadoff. He’s hitting .286 and slugging .500 in this spot after putting up a slash line of .226/.330/.385 in his customary second slot. Justin Upton’s power stroke is showing signs of life after hitting just one dinger in July and Andrelton Simmons is starting to find his stroke, hitting .393 with four extra-base hits in his last seven games to go along with his All-World defense. Evan Gattis has helped solidify the cleanup role whie replacing B.J. Upton, providing power between the hot bats of Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. Speaking of Upton, if the Braves can find any production from him or Dan Uggla in the playoffs, the Braves will feature an offense no team will want to face.

As of the All-Star break, the Braves had the third-highest odds of winning the World Series at 8-to-1. They feature a solid, yet not spectacular starting rotation, a stellar bullpen and a boom-or-bust offense. They have stars who’ve under-performed (looking at you, B.J.) and no names who’ve thrived (I still can’t differentiate Chris Johnson from Reed Johnson). They’re a team that no one wants to face but no one really fears. They could be swept in the Divisional Round or win it all. That’s what makes this team so fascinating and has me so excited for October.

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