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Braves bring same potent staff into 2014's title defense

Fredi focuses on pitching as Atlanta eyes another string of NL East championships

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves discovered the winning formula in 2013. Or, more precisely, they rediscovered it.

Either way, don't expect them to forget what works in 2014. Their roster isn't markedly changed since last year, and neither is their talent level. The Braves led the Majors in team ERA in '13 at 3.18. That's a good place to start.

"That was a big credit why we won our division," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Thursday. "We caught the ball and we had great pitching. Our offense was just middle of the pack.

"And you know, I can live with that. I can live with that formula. The other way around, it's hard to live with that. You lead the league in batting average and runs scored and you're scoring 10 runs a game, but your pitching staff is giving up nine or 11 -- that's hard to live with.

"And that's what's been successful here all those years. Winning division after division, 14 straight when Bobby [Cox] was here. It's been a lot of pitching, a lot of pitching and defense."

The Braves lost their first road game of the Grapefruit League schedule, 5-2, to the Tigers on Thursday at Joker Marchant Stadium. But Atlanta would have to lose a lot of Spring Training games, and then a lot more, to have the club's confidence even mildly undercut.

This is a team that won the National League East by 10 games last season. And it wasn't as though the Braves were firing on all cylinders. They did not come close to getting what they expected offensively out of second baseman Dan Uggla and center fielder B.J. Upton. Both hit under .200 and struck out with alarming frequency. Uggla did chip in 22 home runs, but Atlanta could reasonably hope that both players come significantly closer to their career norms in 2014.

"That's fair," Gonzalez said, then added with a smile: "Who knows, if we do the pitching and the defense and the offense comes around, we may win 130. We may be the first team to win 130, 140 games. Five guys will be bidding for the Triple Crown and three guys for the Cy Young."

It is important to remember that was not a serious statement. It is Spring Training. It is OK.

Gonzalez, in a more serious moment, acknowledged he does have at least occasional worries about his club.

"You always need more pitching, I think," he said. "You're always an injury away. Those nights have not come yet, where you start worrying, but they will. So far, we've been really lucky. These kids who are pitching in the eighth and ninth innings [in early spring games], you're always looking, because you never know when you're going to need them.

"I'm still looking [for pitching], because you feel like that trainer is always walking toward you. And he knows that, so when he sees me, he's got a sign he goes like this [makes a safe sign]. So that means everything's OK, he just wants to come over and say 'Hi.'

"But yeah, you're always looking."

There is going to be a lot of talk about how the Braves will miss the leadership of Tim Hudson in the starting rotation and that of catcher Brian McCann in general. Taking absolutely nothing away from either consummate pro, it must be said that Atlanta's record improved after Hudson was hurt last season. And McCann, for all his contributions, had second-half numbers far under his career norms in 2013.

Will Kris Medlen, for instance, who worked two innings Thursday, be a "leader" for the rotation? It is probably much more important for the Braves that he pitch well.

"I hate labeling guys," Gonzalez said. "Huddy led by example. To me, that's more important than the guy who jumps up on the picnic table and yells and screams and then doesn't do what he just told everybody to do. Just go about your business, and everybody follows it."

For the Braves, going about their business includes pitching as well as anybody in the game. They have a relatively young, but distinctly talented rotation. And they have a bullpen with both quality and quantity, led by Craig Kimbrel, who last year went from being one of the best closers in baseball to being the best closer in baseball.

This is the surest formula for success in this game. The Braves have it, again, once more, still.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

Atlanta Braves