Heading into All-Star break, are the Braves a playoff team?
I could say fans of teams everywhere are asking themselves this question right about now, as we pull into the All-Star break, but that’s not the case. A good handful of fans are already looking to next year, maybe that will be the one when their teams can get it together. In fact, one team is wondering how they’ll fare in a new league. But for the rest of us, it’s time to take a hard look at our teams and try to picture them playing in October.
Do that for me, if you’re a fan lucky enough to still have a shot. Picture your team in October, playing against another of the teams that are pushing down the stretch. How do they look? Do you feel good about your chances? Will your pieces still be on the board? Will they still be playing the way they have been?
For Atlanta Braves fans, this is an experience we’ve gone through a lot over the past two decades. A team that looks so good in the regular season, but seems to drop back when it really counts. Last season is well behind us, but I’m not the only one who still cringes a little when I think back to the final series of the season and watching our playoff hopes evaporate right before our eyes. So, as we scorch into the break, let’s take a quick gander at the Braves and see if October looks likely.
First, we have to consider our division. I know no one thought it would shake out like this. The Phillies in hard last? The Mets fighting tooth and nail with the Braves right behind the Nationals?! Until interleague play started, it was still anyone’s division for the taking. But, like the NL, the AL East is just as grinding a division. So, the two best divisions in baseball have been at it, head-to-head. Let’s not kid ourselves, folks. This could be a good preview of what late September and early October could look like. Two east division teams from both leagues are in the top three in the wild card standings, and with the addition of one more wild card, it’s possible that three teams from each East division will go to the playoffs. Is that not crazy?
Needless to say, it’s going to be an interesting stretch from here on out. Will the Nationals have the stamina, having never been to the postseason before? Will they take Stephen Strasburg out of the rotation when he hits 160 innings? Are the Mets still considered a fluke or are they the team to beat? Can Ozzie Guillen guide the Marlins back into the standings? And will the Phillies break out if/when both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley return?
Think about those for a minute while we consider the Braves. It’s been a roller coaster season for them already, dropping the first four games of the season, then going on an enviable stretch in May-June, becoming the second-highest scoring team in baseball, then losing the best pitcher in the NL, losing eight games straight before finally righting the ship.
It hasn’t been easy being a Braves fan this year; I’ll definitely attest to that.
That said, the revenge series in New York against the Yankees showed some good signs, beating an impossibly hot team in their home ballpark. But that was before the hammer fell: Brandon Beachy goes under the knife and the Braves lose him for at least a year. Right when he and R.A. Dickey were tied for the best ERA in the NL. All of a sudden, the team that seemed like they had more pitchers than they knew what to do with, found it hard to close out games. To get their starters into the fifth inning. All of a sudden, it was looking fairly grim.
All eyes went to Fenway Park Friday night, when the Braves took on another red-hot AL team in the Red Sox and game one was to feature Jair Jurrjens, the heartbreak story of 2011. A pitcher who dominated the NL the first half of the season, going into the All-Star break with a sparkling ERA and the world in front of him. From there, shoulder injuries, a fall in confidence and a struggle at the triple-A level all pointed to another Steve Avery story; a pitcher who could’ve been great but never made it that far.
Back to Friday. Jurrjens takes the mound for the Braves, not only to give the Braves a chance to start the series right against the Sox, but playing for his very career with the Braves. Not to mention the Braves need to find a pitcher on the market to fill the gaping hole left by Beachy. But Jurrjens seemed to take it all in stride as he went out and absolutely dominated the Sox, limiting them to three hits and one earned run.
Needless to say, Atlanta breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Not that one game means the difference in the entire season (although it arguably could; we’ll see), but before the 2012 season started, Jurrjens was an ace in our pocket, a reason to feel confident in the strength of our rotation. If he keeps up this level of performance, it will go a long way to pushing the Braves towards a shot at the postseason.
But that’s just pitching. The Braves’ offense has experienced a similar roller coaster, going up and down as the lineup has gone through its share of bumps and bruises. Chipper Jones has been on the DL, Brian McCann missed a good string of games with the flu and Freddie Freeman has battled some strange injuries himself. And with the absence of each player, the offense has struggled to maintain.
In the meantime, Michael Bourn is putting together a season to remember, a constant threat at the top of the lineup, finding ways on base and making the opposing defense nervous. Martin Prado is swinging the bat like he did two years ago and is playing with his usual level of sportsmanship and competitiveness that could serve as a shining example to any Little Leaguer with aspirations of pro ball. Jason Heyward is finally playing with that same level of intensity that I’ve wanted to see out of him since he took his first swing for the Braves. He’s showing real desire to play and be a competitor in the field, at the plate and on the basepaths, and is starting to look like the player everyone expects him to be.
My concern is in the rest of the lineup. Dan Uggla isn’t in a slump like last year, but he also hasn’t showed the prowess we saw from him in the second half last year. McCann is pulling his usual trick where he has two different seasons in one; one where he bats well and one where he doesn’t. But it’s never the same. So, hopefully, if he’s had a so-so first half, the second will be better. What I do know is the Braves will have a much better shot if McCann is swinging the bat well. Andrelton Simmons has been an excellent addition to the team, both on the field and at the plate.
I’ll go ahead and wrap this up before I review every player on the bench.
I’m not really sure about the Braves chances as it stands today. They need to win Sunday’s game in the series against Boston, and the vision of the next series against the Nationals looms large. I can say the Braves are on their way and if they continue to execute and play small ball, which is really their strong suit, they could easily find themselves atop the NL East before the break.
October is still a whole lot of baseball away, but the Braves have to start playing their game right now, today, in order to build the confidence they’ll need to perform when that time comes.