Club wins first division championship since '05 while dealing with significant setbacks
CHICAGO -- There was a period not so long ago when every season began with the expectation that the Braves would win yet another division title. Such was certainly not the case this year, when the Nationals entered as the overwhelming favorites to win the National League East and advance to the World Series.
These preseason predictions provided early motivation to a Braves club that spent the past six months proudly overcoming adversity and proving its doubters wrong on the way to capturing its first division title since notching a 14th straight in 2005.
"When we walked into Spring Training and saw our team and saw what we were working with, we thought, 'Hey, this is the team we can do this with,'" Justin Upton said. "We set our goal to be the division champions and we did it. Now we've got a long road ahead of ourselves. We've got another month to play and hopefully we're playing on the last day."
The Braves staged a spirited and vibrant celebration after Sunday afternoon's 5-2 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The victory came a little less than an hour after they had officially clinched the NL East courtesy of the Marlins' win over the second-place Nationals in the first game of a doubleheader at Nationals Park.
"We knew that [the Nationals] lost, but we wanted to go out and win on the field," Freddie Freeman said. "It would have been terrible if we would have lost and then would have had to come in here to celebrate."
Many of the Braves players wore goggles to protect their eyes from the sting of the champagne and beer that was being sprayed within the close quarters of the visitor's clubhouse at this historic ballpark. Jason Heyward wore a batting helmet to protect his previously fractured jaw during the celebration.
But along with serving as protection, the helmet served as another reminder to all what the Braves have overcome to put themselves in this position.
"This might be the best group of guys in terms of resiliency," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "They battle. They're a talented group of guys as well. It's just a good group of guys. It's a good team."
Gonzalez's top two projected setup men -- Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters -- underwent Tommy John surgery a few days apart in May and Tim Hudson sustained a horrific season-ending right ankle fracture in late July. Two days later, the Braves began a 14-game winning streak that essentially erased any drama surrounding the division race.
Then just as the team was peaking, Heyward fractured his jaw and was forced to miss nearly a month, just like he had after undergoing an emergency appendectomy in late April. This seemed like the biggest of the significant blows, which also included losing pivotal utility man Ramiro Pena to season-ending shoulder surgery in June.
But like they had with all of their previous injuries, the Braves persevered in Heyward's absence and now enter the regular season's final week with the NL's best record and the confidence provided by the fact that Heyward is now back at the top of their lineup.
"We lead the league in [disabled list] transactions and we will lead the league in wins hopefully," Kris Medlen said with a smile.
Winning the division enabled the Braves to avoid the roll-of-the-dice Wild Card Game they experienced in frustrating fashion in 2012. Now as they approach their final seven games, they will attempt to maintain the NL's best record and gain what could be crucial home-field advantage leading up to the World Series.
The Braves have produced the NL's best home winning percentage this season. But finishing with the Senior Circuit's top record would enable them to avoid playing the NL West champion Dodgers or the NL Central winner in the Division Series. They would instead draw the winner of the Wild Card Game.
"We're still in a race the way we're looking at it," Craig Kimbrel said. "We've still got a lot of games to win. Now is not the time to relax. Now is the time to turn it up. So that is what we plan on doing."
Along with attempting to get on a roll while playing the Brewers and Phillies during this week's season-ending homestand, Gonzalez will attempt to get a better feel for how his team shapes up heading toward the playoffs. The offense received a significant boost when Heyward returned on Friday.
Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Medlen are all in contention to be tabbed to start Game 1 of the Division Series. The decision could be based on the opponent.
The Braves have relied heavily on their bullpen this year. But as the relief corps has become an area of concern over the past couple of weeks, Gonzalez is now attempting to rest guys and find the right fit for some of his pitchers. It appears he plans on taking rookie left-hander Alex Wood out of the rotation to provide the bullpen some quality depth for the remainder of the year.
"The main thing is keeping everybody healthy and getting everybody comfortable," Andrelton Simmons said. "If we just keep doing what we've been doing, I think we'll be fine."