Bullpen must step up before handing game off to Kimbrel
ATLANTA -- On the way to winning their first division title since 2005, the Braves accomplished more than could have ever been imagined had they known the obstacles they would have to overcome.
Their two highest-paid players -- B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla -- became backups and their top two projected setup relievers -- Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters -- sustained season-ending injuries two months before Tim Hudson endured his.
Two days after Hudson fractured his right ankle, the Braves began a 14-game winning streak. Without O'Flaherty and Venters, they still led the Majors with a 2.46 bullpen ERA that also stands as a franchise record.
Whenever it seemed like they were destined for doom, the Braves displayed a resilient spirit that could prove beneficial as they enter their National League Division Series against the Dodgers as underdogs.
Unlike last year when they were eliminated in the Wild Card Game, the Braves will have a chance to play more than one game during this year's postseason -- starting with Thursday's Game 1 against the Dodgers on TBS. Here are three keys for the Braves as they attempt to play deep into October and earn their first World Series berth since 1999.
Jason Heyward Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Andrelton Simmons should all receive National League MVP votes. But there is no doubt that Heyward stands as the most influential key to Atlanta's success. His dynamic presence at the top of the lineup has provided consistency to an offense that has been maddeningly inconsistent most of the year.
Between the time Heyward moved into the leadoff role on July 27 and when he fractured his jaw on Aug. 21, the Braves won 19 of 23 games and averaged five runs. They averaged 3.2 runs while splitting the 26 games that were played while he recovered from this injury.
An added sense of energy was felt when Heyward returned to action on Sept. 20 and began showing that he would not be hindered by the hesitancy that might have been expected after being hit in the face with Jon Niese's fastball. He has skillfully displayed his Gold Glove talents while taking over the center field position and continued to serve as the catalyst the Braves have lacked whenever he has not been in the leadoff role.
At the same time, he has provided more run-producing opportunities for Justin Upton, who fueled the two significant hot streaks that enabled the Braves to cruise to the NL East title.
Upton batted .328 with nine home runs and a 1.256 OPS while the Braves won 13 of this season's first 15 games. He also hit .426 with six home runs and a 1.325 OPS in the midst of the 14-game winning streak that extended from July 26-Aug. 9.
Starting Rotation While the Dodgers possess two Cy Young Award winners in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Braves have a rotation that includes three pitchers who have not yet made 90 career regular season starts. The only member of this trio with postseason experience is Kris Medlen, who started the Wild Card Game against the Cardinals last year.
Over the past few weeks, Fredi Gonzalez has repeatedly pointed out that the Braves entered the 1991 playoffs with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery lacking any October experience. While nobody is comparing Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran to this aforementioned trio, these three young Atlanta starters have provided reason to believe they can hold their own against the game's elite.
Medlen compiled a 0.97 ERA in the 12 starts he made last year and then spent the first four months of this season battling inconsistent fastball command. But he began turning things around in August and posted a 0.84 ERA in his final six regular season starts.
Kershaw (2.00) and Philadelphia's Cliff Lee (2.72) are the only left-handed big leaguers who have compiled a better ERA than Minor (2.90) since the start of July 2012. Minor struggled to keep the ball in the yard down the stretch this year. But he limited the Dodgers to three earned runs in 12 innings this year and showed his ability to match up against the game's best while winning head-to-head matchups against Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg.
Teheran began the season as a fifth starter and ended it as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation asset. The 22-year-old rookie posted a 2.97 ERA after the All-Star break and routinely provided indication that he will not be overwhelmed by the brighter lights that the postseason brings.
Bullpen Without O'Flahery and Venters available, Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden proved to be quite capable of serving as Kimbrel's primary setup men most of this season. Avilan encountered a few bumps late in the season, but still finished the year with an impressive 1.52 ERA while making 75 appearances in his first full big league season.
Walden serves as the biggest question mark as the NLDS draws near. Before straining his groin in late August, he looked much like he had while notching 32 saves for the Angels two years ago. But he has been ineffective in three of the four appearances he has made since being sidelined for three weeks with this ailment.
Walden's struggles allowed David Carpenter to take advantage of the opportunity to fill a more significant role. Carpenter, who posted a 1.78 ERA in 56 appearances, has proven capable of filling any late-inning role.
When the Braves acquired Scott Downs from the Angels on July 29, it appeared they had solidified their already solid pen with a veteran who could frustrate left-handed hitters. But while allowing lefties to go 9-for-13 against him in September, Downs opened the door for rookie Alex Wood to make the move from the rotation to the bullpen, where he can serve either as a left-handed specialist or multi-inning option.