Braves no stranger to large division leads
Despite win streak, club has had its share of adversity to overcome
Now this will be interesting. Can the latest version of the Baby Braves handle their grown-up situation? I mean, nobody in baseball has a bigger lead in their division than these guys. They are atop the National League East by a ridiculous margin, 12 1/2 games ahead of the Nationals, and after capping a weekend sweep in Philadelphia with their 10th straight win, the Braves pushed third-place Philadelphia 16 1/2 games out.
The original Baby Braves were in 2005, and they surged out of nowhere to win the NL East by two games.
Remember? Brian McCann had yet to make the first of his seven trips to the All-Star Game, and Jeff Francoeur appeared to be bound for Cooperstown after just weeks on the job.
These Braves are younger than those Braves. In fact, with 12 players under the age of 25, these Braves are younger than only the Marlins and Astros. Not helping matters for these Braves in the inexperience department was the gruesome right ankle injury sustained by right-hander Tim Hudson last month while covering first base. The veteran hurler -- who made his professional debut in 1997, when the bulk of his Braves teammates were in the early stages of grammar school -- is out for the season. The Braves will miss Hudson's effectiveness in the starting rotation, but they'll miss his maturity even more as the 38-year-old undisputed leader of the clubhouse.
Then again, these Braves keep surviving.
There was McCann missing the first month or so of the season while recovering from right shoulder injury. Among a slew of other things, rookie Evan Gattis was a pinch-hitting sensation, but he was sidelined for weeks with right oblique issues. Super relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty were lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The entire starting outfield also was out during a stretch.
Then there is the Braves' flawed offense, which has frequently been shut out, struggling with runners in scoring position and striking out like crazy.
It hasn't mattered.
Nothing has for these Braves so far. But now they have this monster lead, and you have to wonder if their youth can handle such prosperity with the season's stretch drive on the horizon.
"Yeah, we'll see how this plays out, not only for the players, but for the coaches, too," said Eddie Perez, who is more than just the seventh-year bullpen coach for the Braves. He spent nine of his 11 Major League seasons as Atlanta's catcher, and he was part of their teams that won an unprecedented 14 straight division titles.
In the midst of that streak, Perez played for the 2004 Braves, who were the franchise's last team to win a division title by double digits (10 games). Those Braves had established stars such as Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, Mike Hampton, Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal. That is the antithesis of these Braves, who have budding stars such as Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran.
"Hopefully, as coaches, we can keep everybody doing what they're doing right now, which is just playing relaxed and taking it game by game," Perez said. "That's the way we approached it when I was here before as a player. We never thought about what the lead was. We just went out there and did our jobs, and hopefully that's the way these guys will approach it."
More than a few Braves players said they'll do as Perez just suggested. Not only that, they have seasoned encouragers beyond the coaching staff and even Hudson, who will be cheering from the sidelines. Included in that group is second baseman Dan Uggla, who, at 33 and with eight seasons in the Major Leagues, is also ancient by Braves standards.
Uggla looked around the Braves' clubhouse the other day and suggested he saw age behind the slew of fresh faces.
"The younger guys we've got on this team have three, four, five years in the league already," Uggla said. "I think we've had three guys who broke in at the age of 20. Justin [Upton] broke in when he was 19. Even though they're young, they're established and very mature. But there is a thing when it comes to the postseason with experience, yet some of these young guys already have experience in the postseason. Justin I know does. Jason does. So time will tell how everything is going to play out."
Sounds like Perez's analysis. After all, Perez and Uggla -- along with everybody else into chipping and chanting around Atlanta -- can't forget the collapse of 2011. Entering that September, the Braves had an 8 1/2-game lead in the NL Wild Card standings.
They didn't make the playoffs.
If not for the Red Sox losing a nine-game lead in the AL Wild Card standings at the same time, the Braves would have been responsible for the worst September collapse in history. Braves closer Craig Kimbrel nodded, because he remembered the horrors back then for his team, and also because he was contemplating how that adversity will help the Braves right now.
"Given what we went through in 2011, we've been there. We've gotten complacent with a big lead and let it slip away from us, and there were enough of us who were around for that, so I don't see that happening again," said Kimbrel, 25, who already joins Smoltz as the only Braves relievers with three 30-save seasons. "We're not going to get comfortable and content with our lead and where we are now. There's no coasting into the season or anything like that."
Still, even if the Braves do the unfathomable by surrendering their huge lead to the troubled Nationals or the creaky Phillies during the final weeks, they'll have a massive safety net in the NL's two Wild Card spots. That's the good news for the Braves. As for the bad, huge division leads haven't exactly been kind to this franchise in the past.
We're talking in the playoffs. That 2004 Braves team was the third consecutive club to win its division by more than 10 games (including by 19 in 2002), and all three of those Braves teams lost the clinching game of the Division Series at home.
These Braves can worry about that later.
You know, much later.