For the Atlanta Braves, all is not lost

Andrelton Simmons catches his breath for the second half of the season. (Kevin Liles/USA Today Sports)

Looking at my recent posts, it occurs to me it’s been way too long since my last one. For that, I apologize. But if you want my honest opinion, there hasn’t been a whole lot to write about.

I mean, there could be worse things for a baseball team than to finish the first half of the season tied for first place in the division. It could be worse than being nine games above .500. It could be a whole lot worse than to still be in contention for a postseason run.

But this season has been weird from the perspective of an Atlanta Braves fan. After a 17-7 start, with a starting rotation that played way over its head, the Braves seem to have just enough to be where they are. Obviously, they’ve had some help with an injury-depleted Washington Nationals lineup. And they’re within two games of every first-place team in baseball except for the magical Oakland A’s.

Yet, for some reason, it feels as if this year has been one long struggle.

There are certainly some things to be happy about. Dan Uggla has been granted his unconditional release, which is a really nice way of saying “you’re fired.” (Even though he still will be paid by the organization until the end of time). Aaron Harang continues to amaze by being one of the more solid rotation options. Even B.J. Upton has become a fairly decent option in the leadoff spot.

Maybe it’s because there was a chance to bury the Nats back in May, when they were a sub .500 ballclub. Sure, it was by only two games, but the Braves were four games above .500 at the same time. But the Nats were at the tail end of dropping 6 of 7, which could have been an excellent time to really put the hammer down. Unfortunately, the Braves dropped 5 of 6 in the same week and lost the chance to gain some real ground.

For me, though, it’s been a terribly anemic offense. Being nine games above .500 is great. Up until Tuesday’s game, they were in first place. And I can certainly call into question the performance of some of the Braves’ starting rotation, but the glaring problem is their run total, which is 378. Now, that works out to about 3.81 runs a game. It’s also good for 27th place in the majors. Just above the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers have scored 491, most in the majors, but their record is 56-45, one game better than the Braves.

We know the Braves’ lineup is going to strike out a lot. But the tradeoff was supposed to be buckets of home runs, not scoring the fourth fewest runs in baseball. In fact, the Braves are fourth in strikeouts, behind the Miami Marlins, Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox. But the White Sox, who have 16 more K’s, have scored 50 more runs, good for eighth overall. So it’s not just punch-outs that are responsible for the lack of production.

For the Braves, all is not lost. Home runs have been down lately, but the Braves have improved their runs per game by one in the past two months. That’s certainly a positive note. And based on the fact they’ve been hitting  fewer home runs means they’ve been playing more small ball, manufacturing runs with more regularity. Their team ERA isn’t as good as it was in May, but it’s still sixth in the majors, only .23 points behind the first-place Nationals.

No, I think many Braves fans are afraid of a similar October to last year.

The thought of this offense running into a buzzsaw like Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright for at least one game, probably two, isn’t very confidence-inspiring. And though getting baseball in October is an awesome gift anytime, being mowed down in the first round is a serious bummer.

So where does that leave the Braves?

July is arguably one of the more interesting months of the season, as teams take an honest look at where they stand in the playoff hunt and make moves based on the result. Frank Wren has proved himself to be fairly wily when it comes to making moves, but it really depends on what he’s willing to move. Ideally, he’d pick up a lefty reliever or a more reliable bench bat.

I was tempted to blame the lineup for being unreliable, but the bats are picking up. Jason Heyward and Justin Upton have seen an uptick in their averages. Chris Johnson has experienced a recent boost in power. Tommy La Stella has exploded into the majors with a .288 average and a .361 OBP. Actually, it’s only Freddie Freeman, who’s usually hugely reliable, who has been struggling of late. His average has dropped 16 points in the past two weeks, and his slugging percentage has dropped 22 points in July.

Frankly, if I’m still being honest, I still think the Braves definitely have a shot at getting into the postseason, and possibly further than the first round. I know, you’re rolling your eyes. But I’ve seen crazier things happen! And so have you.

If this team gets hot and starts clicking at the right time, preferably mid-September, it has a legitimate shot. But that’s about it. As they stand, this team will not have a great go of it, especially after dropping the first two games to the Marlins.

Whatever. Crazier things have happened.

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