Surging Braves beginning to put it all together
With club clicking on all cylinders despite loss of Hudson, GM Wren optimistic
WASHINGTON -- Braves general manager Frank Wren exited Spring Training with the confidence he had assembled a roster capable of doing something special. After getting off to a red-hot start, his club proved mediocre over a three-month stretch that has become a distant memory during the past two weeks.
Never could the Braves have imagined they would be 15 1/2 games in front of the second-place Nationals when they entered what was supposed to be an interesting National League East race. But in the process of producing the current 13-game winning streak that has put them in this comfortable position, they have proven to be the juggernaut they envisioned when the season began.
"I think this is the closest we have come to clicking on all cylinders all year long," Wren said. "It's hard not to appreciate the results when you win this many games in a row."
When the Braves began their winning streak, they had just concluded an 85-game stretch during which they had gone 43-42. That protracted mediocre run led critics to question whether Atlanta deservedly ranked among the game's elite clubs.
While spending the past two weeks sweeping the Cardinals, assaulting the Rockies' pitching staff, and squashing division-title hopes in both Philadelphia and Washington, the Braves have answered some of the questions that have surrounded them and provided a glimpse of what they're capable of doing.
"This team we have here -- from our starting lineup to our bullpen to our starting pitching -- this is the best team I've played on," said Brian McCann, who was part of Atlanta's most recent division winner in 2005. "Everybody is young. This is a team that can do this for a while. This is a fun team."
While Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, who leads the NL with a .339 batting average, have been the club's most consistent offensive performers, Justin Upton has been the most influential. Upton hit .328 with nine home runs and a 1.256 OPS as the Braves won 13 of their first 15 games this season.
With Upton hitting just .233 with seven home runs and a .689 OPS in the 85-game stretch that followed, the Braves went through their 43-42 span. But since moving into the lineup's second spot at the start of the current winning streak, Upton has hit .440 with five home runs and a 1.329 OPS.
"He's put us on his back," Freeman said.
Much of the preseason hype surrounding the Braves focused on the offensive acquisitions of the Upton brothers. But until B.J. Upton returned from the disabled list on Saturday and went 10-for-21, Atlanta had never experienced a stretch during which both Uptons were sizzling at the plate.
"I think right now everybody has molded together and started clicking," Braves pitcher Kris Medlen said. "B.J. is swinging the bat well, which is huge for us. This is exactly what we've been waiting for -- our offense to click like this and the pitching to just be consistent."
Consistency has been elusive for Medlen since he posted a 0.97 ERA in the 12 starts he made during the final two months of last season. But as he limited the Nationals to three hits in seven stellar innings on Wednesday night, the right-hander provided a glimpse of the great value he could provide the rotation, which lost veteran leader Tim Hudson to a season-ending right leg injury on July 24.
With Hudson and Paul Maholm on the disabled list, Atlanta's starting rotation now consists of five homegrown products with an average age of just over 24. Still, the promise rookie Alex Wood has shown in his past two starts and the progress Brandon Beachy made from his first post-Tommy John surgery start to his second has allowed the Braves to lose just once since losing Hudson.
"You worry about depth and you worry about experience," Wren said. "That is one of the things losing Huddy diminished a great deal for us. It diminished our depth. It diminished our experience level. But the guys have continued to pitch well."
As the Braves move down the stretch, they will have the opportunity to benefit from the experiences they had the past two years. The epic collapse in 2011 has continued to serve as a haunting reminder to those players who were part of Atlanta's '11 bunch that led the NL Wild Card by 9 1/2 games entering September and did not qualify for the playoffs.
"You absolutely learn from experiences like that," Medlen said. "We're definitely not going to take this lead we have now for granted. You just go out and play the games like we have been doing."
Given their significant lead in the NL East, it does not appear the Braves need to worry about another September collapse or having to play in the NL Wild Card game for a second consecutive season.
But there will be multiple reasons for the Braves to remain motivated over the season's final weeks.
Along with wanting to head into October with some momentum, the Braves will attempt to gain home-field advantage throughout the postseason. They entered Thursday just percentage points behind Pittsburgh's NL-best .611 winning percentage.
"Home-field advantage any time of the year is huge," Jason Heyward said. "When it comes to the playoffs, it just makes it that much more fun to play in that atmosphere more times than not, at a packed Turner Field. I think people know by now it's a pretty special place to play."