On the last game of their last road trip this season, the Atlanta Braves finally knocked out the opposition and locked down the NL east.
Granted, it was slightly anti-climactic, as the Nationals squared off against the Marlins in a make-up game and fell 4-2 with 3 innings left to play in Chicago. So a few Atlanta Braves got to celebrate quietly as the rest of the team had to keep the pressure on to beat the Cubs.
Fredi Gonzalez shed a couple of tears as it sunk in that he won his first title since taking the helm from Bobby Cox. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ staff prepped the clubhouse with champagne and plastic sheeting over the lockers, likely for the third time this weekend, in preparation for the post-game celebration.
As the Atlanta Braves enjoy their first division win since 2005, they can also celebrate the fact that they upset almost every pre-season prediction against them.
ESPN asked their “experts” to list out their October probables and only 5 of 43 put the Braves winning the east. And only 3 put the Braves in the World Series. Sports Illustrated had their experts make their picks and not one of the seven picked the Braves. Now, predictions are simply guesses and I can’t necessarily blame anyone, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel good to shove it in all of their faces when they turn out to be so wrong.
Now, even though the champagne has been sprayed and the plane ride home will certainly be excitable and provide some much-needed relief, the Atlanta Braves still have work to do.
The offense is still having trouble being consistent, but there is a glimmer of hope there. As my loyal readers will recall, I said that Jason Heyward was the unspoken leader of this team. He’s a catalyst, providing an important spark to the lineup and the Braves are lucky to have him back so soon. Once again, look at the numbers: in the two games of the three-game set, the Atlanta Braves played in Chicago, they outscored their opponents 13-7.
In the one game they lost, they put up one run on the board. Alright, I admit, that’s a small sample size, sure, but it works in my favor! I can’t say for sure that Heyward makes the rest of the offense better, but I’m going to stick with it until proven wrong. As their last seven games play out at home, I’ll be looking to see if the momentum keeps up and the Braves’ offense continues to raise their runs-per-game average.
On the flipside of that coin, the bullpen, which was nearly untouchable for most of the season, has struggled of late, including a blown save by Craig Kimbrel in Washington. He hasn’t done that since May, when he had a bit of a losing streak and I know I wasn’t the only one who was worried. Even in their wins, the bullpen has given up more runs than Atlanta Braves fans are used to doing in the last few weeks. The players could be effected by a heavy workload over the course of the season; regardless, it’s worrisome with October right around the corner.
The starting pitching has been pretty solid, with the exception of Paul Maholm. David Hale was nothing short of stellar in his major league debut and Alex Wood seems to have benefited from an extended rest. Kris Medlen continues his dominant September and Julio Teheran has to feel a major boost by winning the clinch game in Chicago. Or at least the game on the day of the clinch. Mike Minor looks to improve when he squares off against the Brewers back in Atlanta.
This week could be big for the starters, as these last performances will heavily influence the rotation order in the playoffs. Right now, Medlen looks to be the frontrunner, allowing four runs in his last 35 innings, while going 4-0 with one no-decision. Oh yeah, and he also collected 32 Ks during that span as well. Add to that, he has more postseason experience (one game to everyone else’s zero), and he’s definitely the best candidate to take the mound in Game 1.
With the division title monkey off their back, the Atlanta Braves need to focus on winning.
Heading into Sunday night, when the Cardinals take on the Brewers, the Braves are one game up in the hunt for the best record over those same Cardinals, and 2 1/2 over the NL west winning Dodgers. They also have season wins over both teams, so in the case of a tie, they still win the coveted home field advantage. But that only works if they’re as good or better from here on out.
I’ve talked about their unbelievable record at home, so they have their best shot as they come back to Atlanta to play their last seven games against sub .500 teams. Their biggest road block will be the Phillies, who have four games to trot out their top three starters, including Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. But if the Atlanta Braves can at least win both series’, they stand a good chance to remain on top of the National League and be in their best position to do well in the playoffs.
Don’t be fooled, Braves fans, Atlanta still has important work to do, and some demons to exorcise. But winning the east and proving the experts wrong is a good way to get started.