The Atlanta Braves have led the National League Eastern Division from day one this season, but all may not be as good as it seems. The Braves were hot in April, opening the season with a 12-1 record. This has been good enough to put them in first place, but the going has not always been easy.
Since mid-April, the team has only been slightly above the .500 mark. The primary reasons for this inconsistency have been injuries and an up-and-down offense. The Braves have also benefitted from the woes of the Washington Nationals. The Nationals were the consensus pick to win the division but have sputtered around the .500 mark all season. However, the Nationals have too much talent to keep floundering like that, meaning the Braves must pick up the pace to win the division.
Injuries have hurt the Braves a lot. First baseman Freddie Freeman, catcher Brian McCann, and right fielder Jason Heyward have all spent time on the disabled list. Plus, right before the all-star break, the entire starting outfield was injured and missed time. Though more focus has been on the injuries the Nationals have experienced, the Braves have been right there with them when it comes to important players missing time. In addition, the team received two potentially devastating injuries when relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty went down with season-ending elbow injuries. The bullpen has remained a strength (leading the National League in ERA for a large portion of the season), but one has to wonder if any wear and tear will emerge as the season progresses.
As for the offense, the team has lived and died by the long ball and have repeatedly demonstrated the inability to manufacture runs when the home runs are not happening. Simple techniques like hitting behind the runner and executing sacrifice bunts have been a struggle. Because of this, too many dry spells have doomed the team at times.
The most consistent hitters have been Freeman and third baseman Chris Johnson. Both have hit above .300 for most of the season while McCann surged right before the all-star break. That surge is likely why he was selected to the N.L. all-star team as a late injury replacement.
That’s the good news. There has been plenty of bad news. B.J. Upton has been a bust so far, hitting below .180 for most of the season. Second baseman Dan Uggla once again has struggled. His first two seasons with the team ended with a batting average in the .220 to .230 range, but this year he has not been able to even do that. He has gotten his average above .200 lately, but when he does not hit home runs, he provides little of substance to the offense.
Also, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward have been streaky. Upton began the season with a bang, hitting 12 home runs in April, but since then, he has wavered. Heyward was sidelined early with an appendectomy and really did not start hitting consistently until June. During a 36-game stretch in June and July he hit .280.
As the season unfolds, the Braves biggest helper could be the schedule. In an unusual occurrence, the team does not have anymore long road trips to the west coast. As a team in the east, this is especially significant as the grind of the season wears on. For the rest of the season, the furthest west the team will go is St. Louis.
The bottom line is the division is there for the taking, and it likely will be a two-team race. The Phillies could still be a player, but the potential for that may be how they handle the trade deadline at the end of the month. If the Phillies are sellers, they will likely not be a big factor down the stretch, leaving just the Braves and Nationals.
So, the Braves need to pick up the pace. If the team can avoid more critical injuries and can consistently put the ball in play, a divisional championship could be the result.