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Young staff helps Braves bounce back from 2011

ATLANTA -- Considering how the 2011 season concluded, the Braves took a step in the right direction this year. But there was still a sense of disappointment as they concluded this past season and bid adieu to Chipper Jones' storied career.

"Any time you get this close, you don't know what is going to happen next year," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Chipper is not going to be here. We don't know if we're going to re-sign [Michael Bourn]. We don't know how healthy we will be."

After winning 94 regular season games, their most since 2004, the Braves had the misfortune of being eliminated in the one-game National League Wild Card that was instituted this year. Three errors, a controversial infield fly call and struggles to take advantage of multiple scoring opportunities doomed the Braves in this do-or-die game against the Cardinals.

"I think we all felt all season long that we had a real good team and had a chance to take it into the postseason and do well," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "How well? You never know. We had everything going in our direction."

Despite the disappointing conclusion, the Braves could certainly view the 2012 season as one in which progress was made. While Jason Heyward started to show his superstar potential, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor provided reason to believe they could help Brandon Beachy anchor the Atlanta rotation for many years.

When the Braves arrived at Spring Training this year, they were committed to moving past the collapse they had endured the previous September. They were able to do so with the help of a productive April and the success they extended through the early weeks of May.

An injury-plagued eight-game losing streak near the end of May raised some questions, but the Braves kept their head above water in June and began a six-week surge in early July.

Their success was aided by the post-All-Star break addition of Ben Sheets and the acquisition of Paul Maholm just before the All-Star break. Their additions were influenced by the fact Beachy had to undergo season-ending Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in June.

But the decision that most influenced the starting rotation was the one to move Medlen from the bullpen to the rotation in late July. With Medlen proving to be one of the game's best pitchers over the season's final two months, the Braves could better deal with Tommy Hanson's extended struggles on the mound.

While the Braves tinkered with the starting rotation throughout the year, the bullpen looked much like it had the previous season. Jonny Venters experienced some struggles through the early months. But closer Craig Kimbrel improved his command and proved even more dominant in his second full season at the big league level.

The offense was led by Martin Prado's impressive bounce-back season, as well as the success Heyward produced during the season's final four months. Though he was not nearly as productive in the second half, Bourn served as an effective leadoff hitter.

By the time the Braves rolled through September and clinched the NL's top Wild Card spot, it appeared they were primed for a strong run through October. But all that had been accomplished over the course of the previous six months seemed to go to waste with the loss in the one-game Wild Card playoff. Here is a look back at the season's highs and lows:

Record: 94-68

Defining Moment: With the Braves staring at the possibility of losing for the 11th time in a span of 15 games, Chipper Jones capped a five-run ninth inning with a three-run walk-off home run against the Phillies on Sept. 2. Had Jones not come through with the two-out shot, he and his teammates would have been hounded about the 9-19 September they had experienced a year earlier. This home run propelled the Braves toward a 19-8 September this year.

What Went Right: After committing himself to making changes both mechanically and physically after the 2011 season, Heyward slowly began to see results. By June, the work he had done with new hitting coach Greg Walker started to pay off and allow him to move toward the first 20/20 season of his career. His late-season success provides reason to wonder if his power/speed talents could vault him to a 30/30 season soon ... Kimbrel recorded 116 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings, and converted 42 of his 45 save opportunities ... rookie Andrelton Simmons arrived on the scene in early June and immediately established himself as one of the game's top defensive shortstops. Unfortunately, Simmons missed two months with a broken finger ... Medlen posted a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts and drew comparisons to Greg Maddux along the way ... Jones delivered a number of key hits, including two walk-off home runs against the Phillies and a memorable home run on his 40th birthday at Dodger Stadium.

What Went Wrong: Other than going on a tear that included hitting nine home runs in July, Brian McCann endured a frustrating season, marred by a cyst that led to right shoulder discomfort much of the season ... Dan Uggla was hitting .276 with a .876 OPS on June 5, but despite showing some signs of life after getting benched in early September, he batted .185 with a .644 OPS the rest of the way ... After leading the NL with a .986 fielding percentage, the Braves made three costly throwing errors in their one-game playoff against the Cardinals ... The Braves hit .208 with runners in scoring position after Aug. 1, and stranded 12 runners in their Wild Card playoff loss.

Biggest Surprise: When Mike Minor finished June with a 6.20 ERA, some fans were crying for him to be sent back to the Minors. When he posted a 2.21 ERA in his final 15 starts, some Major League scouts were heard saying there are not many Major League left-handers who can do what he does. With Medlen, Minor, Maholm and Tim Hudson, the Braves have the foundation for a solid rotation as they plan for the 2013 season.

Atlanta Braves, Brandon Beachy, Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward, Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones, Paul Maholm, Brian McCann, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Martin Prado, Ben Sheets, Andrelton Simmons, Dan Uggla, Jonny Venters