As the All-Star game brings an end to the first half of the Major League Baseball season, it’s almost impossible for any Braves fan not to be in a good mood.
While Atlanta trails the Philadelphia Phillies by 3.5 games in the NL East, both teams have been on such a tear that they have turned the entire National League — much less their division — into a two-team race through the final 70 games of the regular season.
For the Braves, this return to prominence was predicted by many over the last few years as the Atlanta front office built a dominant rotation on the mound, but the added boost of young guns like Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrell and Freddie Freeman making waves in the majors almost immediately has the Braves back in contention sooner than most had thought.
The biggest difference between the 2011 Braves and the 2010 squad that returned to the playoffs for the first time in five years, but exited in the opening round, has been the consistency.
Last season, Atlanta started slow, got white-hot for two months, treaded water for awhile, seemed destined to crash and burn, and then finally pulled out the wild card on the final day of the regular season. This year, the relative stability and day-to-day successes and improvements of the club have not only made life much easier on the fans, but also seems to be generating more confidence among the team which lends itself to staying power as the summer drags on.
Looking ahead to August and September, this team could prove to be something special.
Jair Jurrjens is having a Cy Young-caliber season and is joined by Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson at the top of an intimidating rotation. Reports from the training staff also hint that Kris Medlin will likely be back in the mix to help the Braves in the final two months of the season.
Injuries have nagged the everyday lineup for Atlanta, but much like last year, someone always seems to step up to fill the void. Martin Prado has missed nearly a month and Chipper Jones is likely going to miss at least three weeks after knee surgery over this past weekend, but Freeman has looked like a superstar in the making lately and Jordan Shaffer, pressed into everyday duty, has started to inch closer to the lofty expectations placed on him two years ago.
If the Braves can get through the second half without hitting the wall of injuries that plagued them in 2010, just a few runs each game should be enough once Atlanta’s biggest strength rears its head.
I speak, of course, of the bullpen.
Not only did Craig Kimbrell set a new MLB record for saves by a rookie before the All-Star break when he closed out Saturday’s win, but he heads a cast of characters that make any Atlanta lead after the sixth inning or so feel like a win is already in the bag.
With arms like Kimbrell, Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and George Sherrill keeping games in check, no team will want to be tasked with scoring late runs against Atlanta in those big games down the stretch.
But then there’s that other team up in Philadelphia.
Even though the Phillies are currently without the services of two All-Star selections in Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco, and have also endured long absences from Roy Oswalt and Chase Utley, Philadelphia (57-34) still rolled to two more wins than any other team in the first half.
Without the services of Oswalt, the three-headed monster of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels can do just fine for itself as the Braves found out the hard way, dropping two of three games to close out their first half.
While the Phillies can’t match the firepower of the Braves’ bullpen, they have done a very Atlanta-like job of finding a hero whenever they need one. Although three Philadelphia closers have landed on the disabled list already this season, the Phillies’ three blown saves are fewest in the majors by far.
In the end, this race seems destined to come down to the final weeks of the season.
Philadelphia’s stable of aces should continue to put it in a position to win almost every night and the Braves’ bullpen will likely slam the door on opponents at every opportunity.
A three-game series against the Phillies in Atlanta to end the season could very well be the scene for one team’s celebration of a division championship.
There is still a lot of baseball to be played, but it seems as though more games will only serve to increase the distance between two World Series contenders and the rest of the field. At the end of a long, hot summer, look for these two division rivals to be standing in the National League Championship Series.
For everyone else in the senior circuit, as the great Yogi Berra once mused, “It’s getting late early out here.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.