8/18/2014 12:42 A.M. ET
Braves sweep aside doubters with big weekend
By taking three games from A's, Atlanta reasserts itself as a postseason contender
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- Anybody who had written off the Atlanta Braves as postseason contenders had all weekend to consider a retraction.
The Oakland Athletics arrived at Turner Field three nights ago with the best record in the Major Leagues. They left in a virtual tie for first place in the American League West after three straight losses to the Braves.
True, the Braves had lost 12 of their previous 15 games and their offense had struggled mightily in the process. This slump, combined with the improved play of the Washington Nationals had left Atlanta six games out of first place in the National League East.
But they didn't look like mere also-rans this weekend. In their three victories, the Braves produced strong pitching, timely hitting and solid defense. In other words, they played the way they should play.
When this series started the Braves had slipped to 61-60. They looked a lot better than that against the A's. They particularly looked a lot better than that to Oakland manager Bob Melvin.
"Seems like they're a lot better than their record," Melvin said. "Their lineup is deep. They play good defense. They have some guys that can do some things. You know, they've got certain guys who can hit for power, certain guys who can hit-and-run, certain guys that can run a little bit.
"We've seen them obviously good and we haven't played our best. They've got some guys in the bullpen, too. That's a pretty good team."
After 7-2 and 4-3 victories in the first two games of the series, the Braves faced their biggest challenge Sunday night. Recently acquired ace Jon Lester was on the hill for the Athletics, and he was 3-0 in three starts for Oakland. Atlanta had a left-hander of considerable potential, Mike Minor, going on the hill, but Minor's performance this season had been erratic (4-8, 5.33 ERA in 18 starts).
But this one didn't go at all the way the numbers suggested. Lester was chased in the seventh. He gave up a two-run homer to Justin Upton in the fourth and a home run to Chris Johnson leading off the seventh.
Minor, meanwhile, pitched seven innings, giving up two runs on four hits, with two walks and seven strikeouts. He gave up two solo homers to A's first baseman Nate Freiman, but nothing of substance to any other Oakland hitter. For the second night in a row, the Braves won, 4-3.
This was the 86th quality start by an Atlanta pitcher this season. The Braves lead the Majors in that category. They are fourth in team ERA in the NL. This is, once again and typically, the underpinning for whatever success this club will have.
And the pitching was the difference in this series. The Braves controlled the Oakland offense, an offense that leads both leagues in runs scored. It may be that the A's are not quite the same offense since Yoenis Cespedes was traded to Boston in the Lester deal. But Atlanta's pitching accomplished something worthwhile here.
"For me, it all starts with the starting pitching," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We've had some really good starting pitching this series. And Mikey had a terrific game.
"I thought we had a helluva homestand facing three division leaders [Nationals, Dodgers and A's], and we come out of it 6-4."
Minor looked like he had turned a corner, and maybe his team had, as well
"I feel like I'm in a different mindset," Minor said. "I really don't feel like anything bothers me anymore. I just want to go after hitters and if things happen I want to pick up my teammates, because they pick me up all the time.
"Oakland coming in here, we wanted to win two out of three, realistically, and then we sweep them. It's huge. I feel like we've always had the confidence. I don't think anybody's been down. We've played some close games and finally they've gone our way now."
The last two nights the game finished the way so many Braves games finish -- with Craig Kimbrel getting the last three outs. Kimbrel, who had 50 saves in 54 opportunities last year, is encoring with 37 saves in 41 save opportunities this season.
The energy level, the decibel level, and the Braves' winning percentage all tend to increase when Kimbrel shows up in the ninth inning throwing 98-99 miles per hour. He ended the evening getting two strikeouts and a groundout Sunday. It was a one-run game, and yet, with Kimbrel throwing the way he can, there didn't seem to be a lot of doubt about the outcome.
It was a big series and a major revival for the Braves. They'll need more of this level of play. Maybe they don't beat the Nats for the NL East crown, but even now, they're just 1 1/2 games out of a Wild Card berth. Giving up on Atlanta would be either premature or wrong, or probably both.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.