9/23/2013 2:42 P.M. ET
Consistency put Braves back on top of East heap
Lead hardly challenged as Atlanta claimed first division crown since '05
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
We're taking a tour of October as the playoffs approach, with an in-depth look at those who are postseason-bound.
On April 4, the Braves lost to the Phillies. They managed just three baserunners off Cliff Lee, paving the way to a tough-luck 2-0 loss for Kris Medlen.
With that loss, the Braves fell to 2-1, a game behind the 3-0 Nationals. They wouldn't trail in the division again.
A 10-game winning streak immediately followed that April 4 defeat, and Atlanta used it to build an NL East lead it would spend the rest of the season securing.
Within the context of preseason predictions, the Braves' division title is certainly surprising, as the Nats were the heavy favorites. But the outcome is more impressive when one considers all the adversity that surrounded it.
Indeed, the losses of two key cogs in the bullpen (Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty ), the gruesome Tim Hudson injury, the extended absence of Jason Heyward, the regression of Paul Maholm, the first year of the B.J. Upton contract, the sub-.200 struggles of Dan Uggla were all developments that, in hindsight, wouldn't have led many to believe Atlanta would be runaway winners of the club's first division crown since 2005.
But the 2013 Braves were steeled by their impressive stash of starting pitching, a Craig Kimbrel-led bullpen that, though recalibrated, has remained one of the best in baseball, the great gains of the Justin Upton /Chris Johnson addition, the hug-worthy output of Freddie Freeman, the defensive magic and power of Andrelton Simmons, the steadiness of Brian McCann and, yes, the Legend of Evan Gattis.
All these things combined to make Fredi Gonzalez's club an elite one in the first year of the post-Chipper Jones era, and the sting of the way his career ended -- in a Wild Card Game gone awry -- was avoided by the dutiful trek toward division glory. Once summer came, the Braves were never up by fewer than four games, and they essentially sealed the deal with a 14-win parade that began at the end of July.
Now that the Braves have again locked up a division that used to routinely belong to them, they can focus on October, a source of continual franchise frustration. Only one of the 14 consecutive division titles in the Bobby Cox era resulted in World Series pay dirt. More to the point, Atlanta hasn't captured a postseason series since the 2001 NL Division Series sweep of Houston.
Reversing the trend will require fortitude from a rotation largely untested on this stage, and that's what makes this installment of the Braves so interesting. With Hudson out of the picture, a rotation led by Medlen, Mike Minor and rookie Julio Teheran has a combined 6 1/3 innings of October experience -- all logged by Medlen in the Wild Card Game loss last year.
But don't mistake inexperience for ill-preparedness. The Braves have had one of the best rotations in baseball this season, with Medlen surging in the second half, Minor taking a huge step forward and Teheran and Alex Wood making major rookie contributions. By and large, Atlanta has the ability to protect leads early and late. And we've seen the success of this club come in bold streaks when the bats get hot.
With the potential for home-field advantage at hand, this could be the year the Braves not only crack the first round of the playoffs, but make like the 1995 club and go the distance.
After all, this is not a club accustomed to being anything other than the lead horse in the race.
The bats: The Braves rank fifth in the 15-team NL in runs per game (4.26). Their bread is buttered in the power department, where they have five players -- Justin Upton, Freeman, McCann, Uggla and Gattis -- with 20 or more homers this season. With great power, though, comes great strikeout totals. And Atlanta's susceptibility to the strikeout (only the Astros have struck out more frequently this season), along with the team's middling .248 average with runners in scoring position, is something that will have to improve on the October stage.
The arms: The names aren't nearly as nationally recognizable as they were in the days of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, but the Braves have an impressive assortment of weapons and the best overall staff ERA (3.19) in the game. The exact alignment of the rotation is the question at hand. Wood will be moved to the bullpen, a proactive move that will limit his innings and keep him fresh, and he could possibly provide some length in the middle of games, if need be. It remains to be seen if Gonzalez will go with a three-man rotation or if Maholm, who has really struggled this season, might get the nod in a Game 4 setting.
The MVP: Ninth in the NL in batting average (.314), eighth in on-base percentage (.392), eighth in slugging (.500) and third in RBIs (105), Freeman has been Atlanta's most steady offensive presence in a season of extremes. He's the MVP, though special consideration is also given to Simmons (who, because of what some consider an historic defensive season, ranks ahead of Freeman in WAR) and Kimbrel, who would be worthy of some NL Cy Young Award love if not for the sensational season of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
The ace: The Braves lost their time-tested ace when Hudson went down. Gonzalez hasn't publicly announced who his Game 1 starter would be. Minor might be the most deserving choice based on 2013 track record, though Medlen is finishing the season stronger. Whatever the case, the true ace of the Braves is not a starter but the pitcher who routinely thrives in the ninth. Kimbrel has a 1.27 ERA, an absurd 93 strikeouts in 64 innings and 49 saves.
The unsung hero(es): Atlanta's bullpen -- and, ergo, the season itself -- could have really gone off the rails when Venters and O'Flaherty got hurt. But right-hander David Carpenter and lefty Luis Avilan have been instrumental in patching those holes. Carpenter has had a breakout season at 28, posting a 1.84 ERA in 63 2/3 innings. Avilan has a 1.57 ERA and, like Kimbrel, a sub-1.00 WHIP.
The pressing question: Heyward really sparked the offense when he moved to the leadoff spot in late July, and that's what made his broken jaw such an unsettling sight on so many levels. But Heyward has recovered in time to rejoin the lineup, and the question is whether he'll find his footing in time to spark the Braves again. He went 1-for-7 in his weekend return in Chicago.