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My Take: 7/20

Just like old times for Braves

                A funny thing happened on the way to Bobby Cox’s retirement.

                For a franchise that has mostly struggled since ending its record run of 14 consecutive division titles, not a whole lot was expected as the 2010 campaign got underway.

                But instead of trying to give their longtime skipper a respectable send off, the Braves now find themselves five games up on the NL East and right in the middle of their first division race since 2005.

                So how did they get to this point?

                Simple. By using the same formula that worked for all of those championship years.

                A starting rotation consisting of all-star Tim Hudson, a healthy Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, and a Much improved Kris Medlin gives Atlanta – arguably – the best starting five in the league. Every day seems to bring another quality start and sets the table for the next biggest strength on the team.

                The bullpen has been dominant for much of the season.  Since failing to convert his second save opportunity of the season, new closer Billy Wagner has effectively slammed the door on 20 of the last 22 occasions in which he has been summoned from the bullpen. Combined with the great numbers being put up by fellow relievers Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Peter Moylan, any Atlanta lead after the seventh inning seems to be an indication that yet another win will go in the books for the night.

                One of the biggest concerns for the Braves heading into the season was the offense.

                While there were plenty of gloves to go around in the field, much of the offensive production figured to come from four players with big question marks looming over them.

                Chipper Jones (age), Troy Glaus (coming off of an injury), Brian McCann (eyesight issues), and Jason Heyward (rookie) all gave plenty of naysayers something to talk about as the Braves suffered though a nine-game losing streak and dropped six games off of the division pace early, but all have bounced back and currently form the meat of an Atlanta batting order that no pitcher is happy to face.

                Even the guys who spend most of their time on the bench have made their mark on the Braves’ current run.

                Eric Hinske, who figured to be a utility player, has had a career year at the plate and has pushed for starting time.

                Omar Infante has played six different positions at one point or another this season, and his production in his duties as a pinch hitter and spot-starter were enough to be named to his first All-Star game last week.

                Even one of the least used players has had one of the biggest impacts for Atlanta this season.

                Brooks Conrad made the most of one of the only 78 at bats he has had this season by drilling a walk-off grand slam to complete a 7-run ninth inning comeback against the Reds on May 20. Not only did Conrad’s blast put an exclamation point on the Braves’ most thrilling win of the season, it finally boosted Atlanta’s record over the .500 mark – a point from which it has never looked back.

                Now, the Braves face the final two and a half months of the season with just New York and Philadelphia looming as threats in the division.

                The key for Atlanta to take back the division crown will be consistency and health.

                Since sorting out their early struggles, the Braves have delivered solid performances almost every night. As previously stated, the starting pitching has been steady and the relief corps has been superb.

                At the plate, no one has gone through a prolonged slump, and a new hero seems to step up every time Atlanta needs one – the Braves trail only the Reds for the most games won in a team’s final at bat.

                The end of that nine-game slide also marked the beginning of a much healthier squad.

                Jurrjens, Jones, and Matt Diaz were absent for most or all of the early weeks of the season, but have returned to solidify a streaking team and put Cox’s mind at ease when filling out each night’s lineup card.

                Now, the Braves need to keep up the pressure as their chief rivals struggle through their own issues.

                The Mets recently welcomed back Carlos Beltran, but declining performances from Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey has New York concerned about its starting rotation.

                The three-time defending NL East champs in Philadelphia have built a reputation for second half charges, but will lack the services of perennial All-Star Chase Utley and key rotation member J.A. Happ until at least the middle of August.

                In all, Atlanta could not have asked for a better situation to be in with just over one third of the season left to play.

                Granted, that still means that there is plenty of time for the rest of the pack to try to run them down, but the way things are going, September could provide Braves fans with those special moments that they’ve been waiting for.

 

                Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.

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