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Ten reasons the Braves are NL East champs

ATLANTA -- While the Braves entered this season with hopes of returning to the postseason for a second straight year, it is safe to say they did not envision the journey that unfolded. Significant injuries and disappointing performances provided by projected key contributors made the road much more bumpy than envisioned.

Despite the injuries and poor performances by some, the Braves more or less cruised to a National League East championship. Manager Fredi Gonzalez guided his club through the rough patches and managed to push the right buttons at the right time.

Consequently, the Braves led the NL East for all but one day and ended up clinching their first division title since 2005 on Sunday. Here is a look at 10 key reasons Gonzalez's club is now anxiously awaiting the chance to extend its success during the postseason.

First baseman Freddie Freeman spent this season proving why hitting coach Greg Walker has spent the past two years touting him as one of the game's top young hitters. Freeman thrived in run-producing opportunities while notching the game's second-best batting average with runners in scoring position as of Monday. His ability to hit for power to all fields and shorten his swing when necessary helped him compile the first 100-RBI season of his career and become a top National League MVP Award candidate. He is now one home run shy of becoming the first Atlanta player since Chipper Jones in 2007 to tally 25 homers and drive in more than 100 runs.

A defensive wizard's unexpected power
There is no doubt Freeman will get strong consideration for the NL MVP Award. But those who have watched the Braves on a daily basis could argue shortstop Andrelton Simmons has been even more valuable. He has solidified his status as an elite defender while recording more defensive runs saved than any other shortstop since the stat originated in 2003. Along with being a pitcher's best friend, he has also hit 17 home runs as of Monday, the second-highest total ever recorded by a Braves shortstop. Not bad for a guy whose offensive contributions will always be overshadowed by what he can do with his glove.

A red-hot start
Early indication of this club's potential was displayed as it won 13 of its first 15 games. This sizzling stretch was highlighted by a perfect six-game road trip that included the first of the two three-game sweeps completed at Nationals Park this year. Justin Upton tallied nine of the 12 April home runs during those 15 games.

14 straight
The drama surrounding the National League East race evaporated as the Braves claimed another three-game road sweep of the second-place Nationals during a 14-game winning streak that began on July 26 with a series-opening win over the Cardinals. Atlanta's division lead went from eight games to 15 1/2 games during this perfect stretch.

The 14-game winning streak began just two days after the Braves lost their veteran leader, Tim Hudson, to a horrific season-ending right leg fracture. Hudson's absence created a rotation spot for Alex Wood, who responded by posting the second-best ERA (0.90) ever recorded by a rookie pitcher during the month of August. Wood's success mirrored that of Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden and David Carpenter, who combined to fill the significant void that was created when the club's projected top setup men, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters, underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in May.

Kool Craig and the new gang
The Braves have spent most of this season leading the Majors with a bullpen ERA that could end up being the best in franchise history. Much of this has had to do with Craig Kimbrel, who has further established himself as the game's premier closer. But this overall success certainly wasn't envisioned when O'Flaherty and Venters were lost with just a quarter of the season complete. Avilan flourished as he spent his first full season sharing the setup role with Walden, who was rock solid before suffering a groin strain in late August.

Maturation of the rotation
When this season started, Hudson and Paul Maholm were the only members of the rotation who had made more than 53 career starts. But youth did not prove to be a detriment. Mike Minor and Kris Medlen built on the tremendous success they had during last year's second half and Julio Teheran quickly evolved from suspect prospect to legit front-line starter. Hudson and Maholm are the only Atlanta pitchers who have posted an ERA greater than 3.25 while making at least 10 starts.

Moving J-Hey to the top spot
The renewed optimism that surrounds the Braves is a product of the recent return of Jason Heyward, who flourished for the three weeks he spent in the leadoff spot before fracturing his jaw on Aug. 21. Simmons proved ineffective in the leadoff role and Jordan Schafer proved inconsistent when he was at the top of the lineup. Heyward hit .345 with a .418 on-base percentage in the first 23 games he played after moving to the leadoff spot on July 27. It was not a coincidence that Atlanta went 19-4 and averaged 5.0 runs during that span.

Gonzalez's steady hand
After watching the Braves endure their September collapse in 2011, Gonzalez said he and his players would learn from that experience. As his club entered this year's stretch run, he had no problem sitting the club's two highest-paid players -- B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. He might have been more patient than some fans might have liked with the pair of veterans, who hit below .200 most of the season. But during the season's most important weeks, he simply made the moves that made the most sense for the team.

Wren's productive winter
Braves general manager Frank Wren was lauded for his offseason acquisitions of the Upton brothers. While Justin Upton played a key role in this team's success, Wren's under-the-radar winter moves also provided significant value. Two players claimed off waivers, Carpenter and Schafer, became dependable assets. Then there was Ramiro Pena, who signed a one-year deal in December that created little fanfare. But before undergoing season-ending surgery in June, Pena was one of those utility players who thrived after making the move from the American League to the National League.

Wren also benefited from his ability to get a pitcher of Walden's potential in exchange for Tommy Hanson just hours before Hanson would have likely been non-tendered. While Hanson extended his struggles with the Angels this season, Walden regained the successful form he had when he notched 32 saves two years ago.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for

Atlanta Braves