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Braves enjoy magical 2012 despite Wild finish

ATLANTA -- The season's conclusion was abrupt and frustrating. But when the Braves look back on their journey through 2012, they will have fond memories of Chipper Jones' memorable farewell tour and their ability to rebound from 2011's collapse.

Proving that they would not be negatively influenced by the previous season's disastrous finish, the Braves compiled 94 regular-season wins and earned the chance to play the Cardinals in the first one-game National League Wild Card playoff.

After leading the NL in fielding percentage over the course of the 162-game regular season, the Braves committed three errors in their do-or-die game against the Cardinals. The one-and-done trip to the postseason unceremoniously ended Jones' career and left the Braves to wonder what might have been. Armed with a solid rotation and reliable bullpen, they had visions of making a deep run into October.

Now the Braves can simply look forward to 2013 feeling good about what they saw this past year from the likes of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor.

While Heyward was living up to his tremendous potential, Medlen was drawing comparisons to Greg Maddux as he went through the regular season's final two months in perfect fashion.

Craig Kimbrel's continued dominance in the closer's role and shortstop Andrelton Simmons' impressive arrival to the big league level served as other regular-season highlights. The year became even more eventful in late November when the Braves signed B.J. Upton to the richest contract in franchise history.

Here is a look at the top five storylines from 2012:

5. Finding the right rotation:

With Tim Hudson recovering from back surgery and Jair Jurrjens barely earning a roster spot in Spring Training, the Braves began this year attempting to piece together their rotation. Jurrjens was sent to the Minors by the end of April, and Tommy Hanson steadily declined as the season progressed. Still, by the end of the year, Atlanta had a strong rotation.

After enduring some growing pains through the season's first three months, Minor proved to be one of the game's top young pitchers in the second half. But the rotation really took shape at the end of July, when the Braves acquired Paul Maholm from the Cubs and made Medlen a starter. Medlen posted a 0.97 ERA in his 12 regular-season starts.

4. A different September:

When the Braves arrived for Spring Training this year, manager Fredi Gonzalez said his team would not be haunted by the fact they had blown a 9 1/2-game Wild Card lead during the final month of the 2011 season. His hope was tested when the '12 club lost its first four games. But things quickly changed in April and the Braves started to position themselves for a postseason appearance.

Everything seemed to be fine until Atlanta suffered its 10th loss in a span of 14 games on Sept. 1. Suddenly there was concern about the possibility of another disastrous finish. But everything changed on Sept. 2, when Jones' three-run walk-off home run capped a five-run ninth inning and gave the Braves a thrilling win over the Phillies.

That comeback provided the first of the 19 wins the Braves notched in 27 September games. One year after grounding into a double play to end a must-win regular-season finale against the Phillies, Freeman hit a walk-off home run to secure a Wild Card berth with a Sept. 25 win over the Marlins.

3. Ugly and unexpected conclusion:

The Braves entered their one-game playoff against the Cardinals feeling good about the fact that they were sending Medlen to the mound. They had not lost any of the previous 23 starts he had made dating back to 2010. But this picturesque Oct. 5 evening at Turner Field would prove odd for Medlen and all involved.

Jones' throwing error helped the Cardinals complete a three-run third inning and gain a lead they would not squander. The Braves were attempting to rally in the eighth inning when what appeared to be a defensive miscue in left field led to a near riot. Moments after thinking the bases would be loaded with Brian McCann coming to the plate as the go-ahead run, fans were shocked to learn left-field umpire Sam Holbrook had signaled for the infield fly rule. Many acted in disgust, and the game was delayed for 18 minutes as the field crew picked up bottles and other objects that were thrown on the field by fans.

2. Chipper's farewell tour:

While the ending might have been much uglier than could have been envisioned, Jones' final season proved to be both memorable and magical. One day after announcing in March that he would retire at the end of the season, Jones learned he would need to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and miss the start of the regular season. The veteran third baseman was activated from the disabled list for the season's fifth game. With his parents sitting behind the dugout at Minute Maid Park that evening, Jones singled in his first at-bat and homered in his next.

Jones also homered in his "personal" home opener and again on his 40th birthday at Dodger Stadium. Adding to the magical memories of his final campaign, he hit a pair of walk-off home runs against the Phillies and singled in his last All-Star Game at-bat.

During his farewell tour, Jones gained a sense of how much he was loved both in and outside of Atlanta. Then to cap off a memorable year, the Players' Association elected him the Marvin Miller Man of the Year.

1. Heyward's rise toward stardom

One year after enduring the most frustrating year of his young career, Heyward began to live up to the tremendous expectations that have surrounded him since he was drafted in 2007. He lost 20 pounds during the offseason and arrived at Spring Training determined to work with new hitting coach Greg Walker to make any necessary changes. His patience and dedication were rewarded as he battled through some rough early-season stretches and hit .284 with 21 home runs and a .845 OPS after the start of June.

With career-high totals in home runs (27) and stolen bases (21), Heyward joined the 20/20 club and gave reason to believe that he could eventually join the more exclusive 30/30 club. The athletic right fielder also garnered his first Gold Glove Award and seemingly positioned himself to sit in the third spot of the Braves' lineup for many years to come.

As Jones was bidding adieu to his legendary stint in Atlanta, Heyward was providing every indication that he is quite capable to now serve as the new face of the Braves' organization.

Atlanta Braves