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Braves ready to finish the job this September

ATLANTA -- There is a popular saying, "lightning never strikes twice in the same spot." It seems safe to assume this myth has been passed down through the years by those who have never been struck by lightning.

Like those who have lived to tell the tale about being struck by lightning, the Braves will not enter this season's final month with the assumption that they will be protected from enduring a crushing late-season collapse for a second straight season.

"I'm not thinking about last year," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "I'm not thinking about yesterday and I'm not thinking about tomorrow. I'm just going to go out and play the game. I'm going to go out and play it the best that I can and let the chips fall where they may."

As Jones prepares to end his storied career after this season, it would be a crushing blow if the Braves were to submit a repeat of last year -- when they blew the 9 1/2-game Wild Card advantage that they carried into September. It would have been the most significant collapse in the game's history had the Red Sox not simultaneously squandered a more significant advantage in the American League.

Since then, Boston has cleaned house while looking toward the future. As for the Braves, they have made a few minor changes and positioned themselves for a chance to finish what they started last year.

Despite losing eight of their past 12 games, the Braves are still leading the National League Wild Card race. Atlanta sits five games behind the Nationals in the NL East and has a 3 1/2-game cushion to secure one of the two Wild Card entries available this year.

"I just think we try to learn from what happened last year," center fielder Michael Bourn said. "We know what happened last year. You can't take nothing for granted in this game."

With 31 games remaining this season, the Braves are essentially at the same point they were last year when the slide began. They were 8 1/2 games ahead in the Wild Card race after being victimized by Chris Capuano's two-hit shutout in their 133rd game last year. They would win just 10 of their next 29 contests and be passed by the eventual World Series champion Cardinals -- courtesy of a 13-inning loss to the Phillies on the regular season's final day.

"Honestly, I don't think anyone is really concerned with last year at all," right-hander Tim Hudson said. "Last year was last year. We're a different team than we were last year. All we can do is just go out there and control how hard we play and try to do our job the best way we can. We did that last year. We just didn't win last year. But I feel we're a better team."

Workload of Braves relievers in 2011 vs. 2012
2011 App. Inn.
Venters 70 73 2/3
Kimbrel 65 63 2/3
O'Flaherty 62 67 2/3
2012 App. Inn.
Venters 53 44 2/3
Kimbrel 48 48
O'Flaherty 51 45 2/3
While it was remarkable that the Braves blew the significant lead, there were some signs of decay as September approached. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens struggled mightily in the second half, and both were shut down by the end of August. The rotation consisted of Hudson, three rookies -- Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado -- and Derek Lowe, who had lost all confidence in himself by the end of the season.

Adding to the pitching woes was the fact that the club's three top relievers -- Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters -- were all affected by fatigue. As for the offense, it sorely missed the consistent production of Brian McCann, who was a shell of his normal self after returning too soon from an oblique strain.

With Jason Heyward moving toward his potential of an elite player, the Braves are better equipped to deal with the inconsistencies McCann has continued to battle this year. As for the pitching staff, the rotation is much more experienced and the bullpen is better rested.

"We're better prepared to stop those kinds of skids," Hudson said. "It was embarrassing what happened last year. Baseball players, we're prideful players. We know that we're much better than what happened to us. It was a kick in the stomach. Our attitudes aren't any different this year. We still have a lot of pride in what we do. I feel like we're not going to let something like that happen again."

The bullpen is definitely in much better shape, as the Braves have played far fewer extra-inning and one-run games this year. Kimbrel, O'Flaherty and Venters had all made at least 62 appearances and completed 57 2/3 innings through 131 games last year. This year, none of them have made more than 54 appearances or completed more than 48 innings.

This year's rotation has been significantly strengthened by the additions of Paul Maholm -- acquired from the Cubs on July 30 -- and Kris Medlen, who has gone from middle reliever to co-ace with Hudson over the course of the past month. There is, however, legitimate reason to doubt what the struggling Hanson might contribute over the final month.

But if Ben Sheets, a valuable bargain pickup in July, proves healthy after resting his arm for at least another week, the Braves could entering the final weeks with a solid rotation -- or at least one that would be deemed much more dependable than the one they possessed at this point last year.

"I think team has grown a little bit. I think we've grown from last year," Bourn said. "I think we're more experienced than we were last year. I think we've got a chance to be real good going down the stretch. I hope we make the playoffs and I hope we do some damage once we get there."

Atlanta Braves