I’ll admit it: coming into the Cardinals series, I was less than confident in the Braves. St. Louis has one of, if not the, best team in baseball this year. We’re an injury-plagued team swinging rubber bats. I would have been happy escaping with a single win. Oh, me of little faith. Add the sweep of the Rockies and a strong start to the Philly series…
And this eight game stretch does strike me as lucky—Atlanta has looked and played like the better team throughout. All three starters (Minor, Teheran, Medlen) showed dominance over a good Cardinal lineup. The bullpen threw brilliantly as well, not allowing a single run in three games. And that dominance has continued.
Apart from great pitching, which is obviously critical to stringing a few wins together, I saw three keys to this past week:
1) Sound defense. All a pitcher can ask for is for his defense to make routine plays and not give the opposing team extra outs. The Braves defense has delivered that and much more. Back to the Cards’ series, not only did they play all three games without committing an error, but both the outfield and infield performed a myriad of diving stops and sliding catches. The defensive prowess was most evident in Sunday night’s game, in which the infield turned three exciting double plays. The few glaring moments of defensive breakdown came in left field where Gattis is playing out of position. He cost us an extra base twice and a run once, but this is the price of putting a catcher in the outfield to get his bat in the lineup.
2) Smart, aggressive base-running. There’s no sign of good base-running in the Braves box score; they didn’t steal a single base in the Cards’ series. However, no one got picked off or caught stealing, and the base-runners made moves to take extra bases whenever possible and turn those extra bases into runs. For example: in the 8th inning of the Sunday game, with Chris Johnson on second, Reed Johnson grounded to shortstop. Kozma at short tried to make a tough play and ended up with a throwing error. If CJ had not been an alert runner, we would have stood with runners at first and second. Instead, Chris never stopped running and turned that throwing error into a scoring opportunity. If you don’t notice the team’s base-running, it’s probably a good thing, because it’s usually poor decisions on the base paths that get all the attention.
3) Lineup Mix-up. Fredi finally dropped Simmons out of the leadoff spot. And I thought it would never happen. Even better, he gave Heyward a shot at hitting number one. In his first game hitting leadoff, J-Hey struggled, not seeing enough pitches, going 0-3, and only reaching base once on an intentional walk. In Sunday’s game he settled into the lineup spot and delivered: 2-4 with a homerun, two RBIs, and a walk. He showed a patient approach at the plate and sparked the offense when given the opportunity. One of the rationales for keeping Simmons at the top of the order has been that he would not respond well to being dropped lower in the lineup. Guess what? He did great in the eight hole, hitting 4-8 between Saturday and Sunday, and doing it in clutch situations. How sweet was that game winner in game two, especially if you remember that he was the one at bat for the atrocious infield fly call in our one-game playoff against the Cardinals last year. By the way: he went 0-4 in the leadoff spot on Friday.
The Braves hold a commanding lead in the NL East and have for most of the season. But until this point, I’ve seen them as limping towards the playoffs thanks in large part to the failings of the rest of the teams in our division. But each of the factors I discussed above are not flukes, but strengths that we can use to our advantage throughout the rest of the year. This weekend showed that we truly deserve a division championship and that the Braves are a real post-season threat. If the season ended today, the other NL playoff teams would be the Cardinals, the Dodgers, the Pirates, and the Reds. Over the course of this season, we’ve swept three of those teams. Only the Reds, who are third place in the Central, have escaped unswept, and our record against Cincinnati is 4-3. The way I see it, the Braves are shaping up to be true contenders.