Braves overcome inconsistency, injuries in first half
Atlanta comfortably leads NL East despite vets struggling at plate, players on DL
ATLANTA -- The journey has been much more turbulent than expected. But after spending the past few months dealing with the staggering offensive struggles of several trusted veterans, the Braves still stand in a better position than most expected when the season began.
Despite going 41-39 over the last 80 games, the Braves entered the All-Star break with a six-game lead over the second-place Nationals and a 6 1/2-game advantage over the third-place Phillies in the National League East.
"Once you get comfortable, that lead's going to be gone or you're going to be shipped somewhere else," Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. "We're definitely not satisfied. But right now, looking back, we're happy with where we are."
While the Braves might be satisfied with their position, they certainly are not comfortable with the fact that B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman suffered injuries in the four days leading up to the All-Star break.
Heyward (strained right hamstring), J-Up (strained left calf) and Freeman (bruised left thumb) are hoping to avoid stints on the disabled list, which B.J. (strained adductor muscle) began on Sunday.
If Jordan Schafer were available, the Braves would feel more comfortable about spending the next couple of weeks without B.J., who has hit .177 with a .565 OPS since signing his franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November.
But Schafer, who has proven to be the club's best leadoff hitter, will be likely be sidelined for another month with a stress fracture in his right foot.
"It was unfortunate that we had the guys go down that we did," Uggla said. "All in all, it was a good first half. We came together when we needed to. We learned a lot and made some good adjustments throughout the half."
MVP: Freddie Freeman His powerful, compact stroke has made him the most feared hitter in a lineup filled with veterans that have not yet lived up to expectations.
Cy Young: Mike Minor A few rough outings in June were all that prevented this talented southpaw from earning his first All-Star selection.
Rookie: Evan Gattis It won't be long before a movie is made about this rookie catcher, who worked as janitor and ski lift operator before grabbing the attention of the baseball world with his tremendous power.
Top reliever: Craig Kimbrel Luis Avilan might have earned this honor if he did not inhabit the same bullpen as All-Star Kimbrel, the game's top closer.
If J-Up, Heyward and Freeman are able to make quick recoveries over the break, the Braves could enter the second half with a chance to realize the potential of an offense that hasn't yet clicked on all cylinders, let alone most of its cylinders.
Had the Braves began the season knowing that four of their regulars -- Andrelton Simmons (.243), Heyward (.227), Uggla (.200) and B.J. (.177) -- would enter the break hitting below .250, they wouldn't have expected to be sitting in first place in their division. Their current position is largely a result of the pitching staff, which owns the second-best ERA in the Majors (3.29).
When the Braves lost Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters to season-ending elbow injuries within a five-day span in the middle of May, there was little reason to believe that the pitching staff would continue its success. But the contributions of Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden have strengthened a bullpen that was destined for the disaster that looms over the offense if Heyward, J-Up and Freeman are forced to miss more than just a couple of days.
"You feel good any time your back's up against it like we were, and the other guys respond. You feel good about your club," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez felt great about his club when it won 13 of its first 15 games, a stretch that was significant considering the three months of mediocre results that followed. While the pitching has been consistent, the offense is a different story.
The offense has lived up to expectations, leading the NL in both home runs (114) and strikeouts (826). This was projected even before B.J., Uggla and Heyward hit below .200 through the end of May.
Heyward's early struggles were influenced by the fact that he missed a month recovering from an appendectomy. But he has hit .290 with an .825 OPS in his past 36 games. Likewise, Uggla has experienced more success since he began wearing contact lenses nearly a month ago. He has hit five of his team-high 18 homers in his past 19 games.
Players to watch in second half
B.J. Upton His tremendous first-half struggles have the Braves hoping that this streaky outfielder gets healthy and catches fire like he did while hitting 19 homers in his last 57 games for the Rays last year.
Brian McCann The seven-time All-Star catcher will attempt to enhance his value on this year's free-agent market while playing what will likely be his final months with his hometown club.
Brandon Beachy If he can be effective after he returns from Tommy John surgery, he could provide the Braves with a legitimate ace for the season's final two months.
J-Up has experienced the highs and lows this game can bring through his first 3 1/2 months with Atlanta. After hitting .298 with 12 homers in April, he went through a 46-game stretch in which he hit .208 with three homers and a .619 OPS. In the final 16 games of the first half, he hit .313 with one homer and an .857 OPS.
"I think the best is still ahead of us, offensively," Gonzalez said. "We've recently seen spurts where some guys are starting to swing the bats and drive the ball. That's always a good sign."
Of course, if Heyward, Freeman and J-Up are all forced to miss extended time with their injuries, their recent upswings may be stunted.
Either way, the Braves will spend the next couple of months hoping to benefit from the tremendous power of Evan Gattis, who has collected 14 home runs and compiled an .873 OPS through the first 187 plate appearances of his big league career.
The only encouraging injury-related news that the Braves received over the past week came courtesy of Gattis, who missed three weeks with a strained right oblique muscle before being activated in time to play first base against the Reds on Sunday.
While Freeman, who won the All-Star Final Vote before his injury, is widely considered the club's most valuable player thus far, the Braves know they might be staring at a disastrous season without the contributions of Gattis, who helped Atlanta overcome the absence of All-Star Brian McCann in the season's first five weeks.
While posting numbers reminiscent of his performance before he started suffering from right shoulder soreness in 2012, McCann has strengthened his much-maligned offense and proven that he is still one of the game's top offensive catchers.
Despite being ridiculed as a club that strikes out too often and has been far too inconsistent, the Braves entered the break ranked third (415) in runs scored. The teams ahead of them -- the Cardinals and Rockies -- play in two of the game's most offense-friendly stadiums.
"In terms of the general perception of our team ... we are a lot better than what people realize -- a lot," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. "It's not even close. I've told my friends for years, 'If you put blinders on and watch one team for an entire year, it will drive you crazy, because there is so much failure in this game.'"