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Braves stay in driver's seat on playoff road

Nats might be too tough to catch, but schedule sets up nicely for Wild Card @matthewhleach
Despite a needed win in Wednesday night's series finale, the Braves left Washington with seemingly more questions than answers. In its second-to-last opportunity to gain ground head-to-head on the Nationals, Atlanta instead lost ground, heading west with a six-game deficit in the National League East.

That gap seems to be the story around the Braves. Even after the win, much of the talk was of the losses that had come before it, making the sense in the clubhouse one of relief as much as reveling.

"We've got to keep playing good baseball ourselves, which we haven't these two series," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "Hopefully this win will get us going in the right direction."

But don't lose sight of the fact that there's a lot to like about the East's second-best team. Gonzalez's team has every chance to take advantage of the season's final six weeks and play itself into the postseason for the second time in seven years. It may well have started with Wednesday's win, which was extremely welcome in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, though the keys are bigger and less ethereal.

"If nothing else, we get a chance to just go, 'Whew,' take a deep breath," said Chipper Jones. "A win like this kind of rejuvenates us."

Most fundamentally, they're in playoff position right now. The Braves currently hold the first NL Wild Card, three games up on the closest team, St. Louis. They're four ahead of third-place Pittsburgh, which is the key number. The division is a long shot, but the Wild Card playoff looks very likely for Atlanta this year.

The pitching remains stout, with a rotation receiving some excellent unexpected performances from Ben Sheets and Kris Medlen. The biggest culprit in last year's fade, an exhausted bullpen, shouldn't be a factor. Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty have all worked much less than they had at this point last season. They ought to be strong for the stretch run.

The lineup is deep, with power and on-base ability. They catch the ball pretty well, and will get better at that particular facet of the game when Andrelton Simmons returns.

Atlanta is third in the league in runs scored, fourth in runs allowed and second in run differential. The website rates them with an 89 percent chance of making the postseason, the third highest of any team in the NL and fifth-highest in all of baseball.

And maybe most important, the schedule is friendly. If the Braves could draw up a schedule for the final 5 1/2 weeks of the season, they'd create something a lot like what they have. It's tough in the short term, with four games against a good Giants team -- but even so, it's a compromised San Francisco club, down one of its best hitters due to Melky Cabrera's suspension.

Once the Braves leave San Francisco, it's a lot of smooth sailing. Their next 16 games come against teams with losing records, followed by a three-game home series against Washington. As things shake up now, they might not even face Stephen Strasburg in that one.

After Washington leaves, it's another 12 in a row against losing teams. That's 28 out of 31 against teams out of contention, broken up by a single series against the one good team the Braves want to be facing. The only real problem on the schedule is the final three days, when they host the Pirates. It's the only time that any of the other Wild Card contenders get a head-to-head matchup with the Braves.

So even if someone else gets hot, they'll have to gain ground the more difficult way -- by winning and waiting. Nothing is guaranteed; Atlanta knows that better than anyone. But there are a lot of teams that would happily trade places with the Braves right now.

Matthew Leach is a writer for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.

Atlanta Braves