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Early October exit doesn't dampen achievements

Atlanta wins first division crown since 2005 despite big injuries, inconsistent bats

ATLANTA -- Those who recognize the glass as half full will remember the 2013 Braves as a resilient bunch that routinely overcame adversity and created reason to wonder if the next few years could prove to be even more satisfying.

Those who view the glass as half empty will remember this most recent Braves club as one that fell short of the tremendous hope that built up before a disappointing September set the stage for yet another abrupt and painful postseason experience.

Two months from now, when the Braves arrive for the start of Spring Training, they will eagerly look forward to the chance to distance themselves from the pain that has existed since their eighth-inning lead in Game 4 of the National League Division Series was erased by a Juan Uribe home run that sent the Dodgers to the next round.

At the same time, the Braves will be looking forward to build off the success of a season in which Freddie Freeman entered the land of the elite and Craig Kimbrel cemented his status as baseball's most dominant closer.

Still, while Freeman finished fifth in the NL MVP Award balloting and Kimbrel added a few honors, including Major League Baseball's Delivery Man of the Year, the most impressive contributions might have been made by Andrelton Simmons, who spent this past season leading some to compare his defensive greatness to Ozzie Smith's.

Much of the preseason hype that surrounded the Braves focused on the potential of a lineup that had added the dynamic capabilities of the Upton brothers. But while Justin Upton produce a couple torrid stretches, his older brother B.J. found his first season in Atlanta filled with utter disappointment.

Still, as their two highest-paid players hit below the Mendoza Line, the Braves received tremendous consistency from a pitching staff that led the Majors in ERA (3.18), despite being depleted by significant season-ending injuries suffered by Tim Hudson, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters.

The Braves will remember this past year as one in which significant contributions were made by some players who entered the season surrounded by minimal expectations. The most notable member of this category was Chris Johnson, who entered the regular season's final week leading the NL in batting average. This certainly was not expected when he was viewed as a throw-in in the January deal that also brought Justin Upton from Arizona to Atlanta.

As this year nears its end, there is reason to wonder if things might have turned out different if Jason Heyward and Hudson had not suffered gruesome, unfortunate injuries during the season's second half.

But instead of focusing on what might have been, let's look back on the five significant storylines that highlighted 2013:

5. A tale of two Uptons
Two months after signing a franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract, B.J. Upton got his wish when the Braves acquired his younger brother in a blockbuster trade with the D-backs. It appeared they might be destined to experience a storybook journey when they both hit home runs in the ninth inning during a walk-off win over the Cubs on April 6.

But while Justin homered nine times in his fist 15 games and earned NL Player of the Month honors in April, B.J. got off to a slow start and then continued to sink as the year progressed. While there might have been concerns about the pressure created by the contract or the need to play outside of the Rays organization for the first time in his career, nobody envisioned he would hit .184 with a .557 OPS.

While his older brother found introduction to a new environment to be cruel, Justin proved he was indeed capable of putting his team on his back during certain stretches. His torrid start helped the Braves win 13 of their first 15 games.

As the Braves erased any drama surrounding the NL East race with a 14-game winning streak that extended from July 26-Aug. 9, Justin Upton hit .426 with six home runs and a 1.325 OPS.

4. Citi Field -- A house of horror
The baseball world will recognize Citi Field as the place where Mariano Rivera received an electrifying sendoff as he made his final All-Star Game appearance this year. Braves fans will remember it as the location where both Hudson and Heyward suffered their horrifying injuries.

Hudson was in the midst of a gem when his right ankle was crushed by Eric Young Jr. during a routine, bang-bang play at first base during the eighth inning on July 24. The veteran pitcher fell to the ground in pain and was carted off the field during what proved to be his final game with the Braves.

The Braves returned to the scene of the Hudson crime three weeks later and were once again left stunned when Jon Niese's fastball crushed the right side of Heyward's face. The big Braves right fielder fell to the ground and began spitting blood. A couple hours later, he learned he had fractured his jaw -- an injury that caused him to miss a month.

Before being hit by this unfortunate pitch, Heyward was in the midst of proving how valuable he could be as a leadoff hitter. In the 24 games he served in this role before the injury, Heyward hit .341 and compiled a .412 on-base percentage with a .604 slugging percentage. His contributions were recognized as the catalyst to the 14-game winning streak.

3. El Oso Blanco
While Julio Teheran might have ended up having the more impressive first full season at the Major League level, there is no doubt that Evan Gattis stood as the most popular Braves rookie this past year. His incredible journey, which included stints as a ski lift operator and a housekeeper during a four-year absence from baseball, served as a centerpiece story featured by many media outlets.

The big, burly catcher homered against Roy Halladay in his first big league game on April 3 and served as a more than capable replacement while Brian McCann missed the season's first six weeks recovering from shoulder surgery. With McCann now a member of the Yankees, Gattis will once again have a chance to serve as Atlanta's primary catcher.

Gattis displayed his tremendous power as he hit 21 home runs in the 354 at-bats he compiled during his rookie season. He also came through in a number of key situations, evidenced by the fact that he homered in four of his 10 pinch-hit at-bats and compiled a 1.072 OPS in late-and-close situations.

While playing in the Venezuelan Winter League last year, Gattis gained the nickname El Oso Blanco, Spanish for The White Bear. During his initial season in Atlanta, he became recognized as one of the most popular rookies the Braves have produced over the past decade.

2. Bidding adieu to Mac and Huddy
When the Braves were eliminated by the Dodgers, McCann knew he had played his final game for the Braves and Hudson was not quite sure what the future had in store for him. At different points over the subsequent two months, Hudson signed with the Giants and McCann accepted the riches offered by the Yankees.

With the exits of Hudson and McCann, the Braves lost the only two players who had been around when the club won the last of its 14 consecutive division titles, in 2005. At the same time, these departures signaled the beginning of a new era for the club, which is looking forward to the potential of its new cast of young characters.

Justin Upton, Freeman, Heyward, Kimbrel, Simmons, Teheran and Mike Minor all made significant contributions while spending at least a significant portion of this past year at 25 years-old or younger.

1. Celebrating the NL East title
After getting off to a hot start and then padding their advantage with a 14-game winning streak shortly after the All-Star break, the Braves spent most of the season's final two months anticipating the opportunity to pop champagne bottles. That day came on Sept. 22, when they exited a win over the Cubs and returned to the cozy confines of Wrigley Field's visitors' clubhouse to celebrate the club's first division title since 2005.

As the Braves sprayed champagne, they reminisced about what they had overcome to earn this opportunity. Heyward endured two month-long stints on the disabled list and Hudson made just two starts after the All-Star break. The relief corps that lost O'Flaherty and Venters to season-ending elbow injuries a few days apart in May ended up setting a franchise record with a 2.46 bullpen ERA.

Nearly an hour after the game had concluded, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez emerged from the clubhouse and walked toward the center-field scoreboard while smoking a cigar and still wearing his uniform pants. He knew as well as anyone that the satisfying journey was much more difficult than it might have appeared to be.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for

Atlanta Braves, Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward, Tim Hudson, Chris Johnson, Craig Kimbrel, Brian McCann, Andrelton Simmons, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton