The Atlanta Braves have quietly been one of the best teams in baseball all year. Why quietly, you ask? The Braves have the misfortune of sharing a division with the perennial giant that is the Philadelphia Phillies, who attract the vast majority of the spotlight in the NL East and the league as a whole. The Braves also lack the big-name superstars of other big market teams. If you haven’t been living under a rock, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Ryan Howard in Subway commercials. But have you seen Dan Uggla or Brian McCann singing the praises of eating fresh sandwiches on national television?
In a sport where statistics are relied on religiously, the Braves offense does little to pop up off the paper. In fact, they appear to do just the opposite, as they are in the bottom half of baseball in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. This is largely because they have gotten less than nothing from young star Jason Heyward all year, and, until about a month ago, Dan Uggla was being mentioned in the same sentence as Adam Dunn. Uggla has since been scorching hot (including a much publicized 32-game hit streak) and every bit of the clean-up hitter they thought they were getting.
Somewhat overshadowed by Uggla’s resurgence is the great trade deadline pickup of speedster Michael Bourn, who has been one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball all year. These two factors, coupled with the return of Martin Prado from the Disabled List, and the continued solid hitting of Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and NL Rookie of the Year candidate, Freddie Freeman, have gotten the Braves offense firing on all cylinders over the last month.
Hitting is not to be overlooked, but for a team with World Series aspirations, having a strong frontline for your rotation is more important than anything else. Rotation depth becomes irrelevant in the postseason because in any series, you’re only going to be throwing out your top three guys. The Phillies may have the much publicized big four of Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt, but the Braves rotation is not too far behind.
Tim Hudson, a veteran who is no stranger to the postseason, is busy being his characteristically solid self. Hudson doesn’t have the stuff to shut you down like a Roy Halladay or a Justin Verlander, but he’s tied for sixth in MLB in quality starts and is someone that is always going to keep you in the game. He has a good postseason track record as well, so he can be trotted out in a playoff start with confidence.
Though he has come back down to earth after pitching out of his skull for the better part of the year, Jair Jurrjens has become a legitimate ace. He’s not flashy, as his low strikeout total suggests, but his newly-added sinker that he learned before this season from none other than lights-out set-up man Jonny Venters is a legitimate weapon. With a 2.71 ERA and 13-5 record, Jair Jurrjens has been every bit as good as Halladay, Lee and Hamels. The name recognition might not be there, but his skill certainly is.
Tommy Hanson is another true ace, though his numbers on the season cloud the full picture. Having been out since August 6 with a torn rotator cuff and suffering rough outings in three of the previous five starts, it’s easy to forget that at the beginning of July, Tommy Hanson was in Cy Young conversations. He possesses an overpowering fastball and deadly slider and has the power to shut a team down. If he can get healthy and return to form (all indications are that he will be back in a few weeks), Hanson is one of the last pitchers you want to face. The Braves also possess very strong insurance policies in the veteran Derek Lowe, who is putting up what would politely be called mediocre numbers this year but is a proven entity in the playoffs (23 starts, 3.21 ERA and a World Series ring), and Brandon Beachy, a kid who has been the model of consistency all year.
With the double-headed monster of set-up man Jonny Venters and closer Craig Kimbrel (both All-Stars) to handle the eighth and ninth innings respectively, the Braves can feel pretty darn confident they’ll hold down a lead past the 7th inning.
The Braves are a lock to win the NL Wild Card, but if they’re to make it out of the NL, chances are they’ll have to get past the Phillies. Alhough the Phillies are undoubtedly the favorite, the Braves have all the ingredients needed to make a run in the postseason. The Brewers may just be in the same position, but their pitching staff is much less proven and lacks postseason experience. With an offense hitting its stride and three top-of-the-rotation pitchers that can duel with any pitcher in baseball on any night, the Braves have more than a fighting chance to make it to and win the World Series. Now go out and put what you’d spend on second semester tuition on the Braves to win it all. You’ll thank me later.
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