Braves could be playoffs' surprise team

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
1:30
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Atlanta Braves fans, you can rest easy. Your team will make the playoffs. There will be no collapse like a season ago. In fact, I suddenly like the Braves' chances to come out of the National League.

The Braves' sweep of the Washington Nationals may not have been the most important result of the weekend, but it was the most impressive. On Friday, Kris Medlen delivered as dominant a performance as any pitcher this season, striking out 13 over seven innings (surrendering only a Bryce Harper home run). The Braves won that game in the bottom of the ninth. On Saturday, the Braves won 5-4 with a run in the bottom of the eighth as Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward homered earlier off Edwin Jackson. On Sunday, with rain coming down at times, Mike Minor outdueled Gio Gonzalez, who was seeking his 20th win, in a 5-1 victory.

For the Braves, it eases any big concerns about a 2011 repeat. They're now 7 ahead of the Cardinals for the first wild card and 8 ahead of the Dodgers. But sweeping the Nationals should add a little confidence about where this team is at right now. While they may not catch the Nationals for the NL East title -- they're 5.5 games back -- here are six reasons the Braves could be October's NL surprise.

1. Kris Medlen in the coin flip game.

Every team wants to avoid that one-game wild-card insanity -- or coin flip game, as Joe Sheehan termed it -- but at least the Braves can line up the hottest pitcher in the game to start. Since joining the rotation on July 31, Medlen is 7-0 in nine starts with a 0.86 ERA and .490 OPS. The Braves have won all nine games as Medlen has allowed just eight runs. Remember, the postseason isn't about determining the best team in baseball; it's about determining the best team in baseball in October. Is there another starter you'd want out there right now?

2. Craig Kimbrel and the bullpen.

Is there another closer you'd want out there right now? After winning Friday's game (three punchouts) and saving Saturday's (three more punchouts), Kimbrel got a welcomed day off on Sunday. After tiring down the stretch as a rookie in 2011, Kimbrel has been handled very carefully by manager Fredi Gonzalez. He's on pace to throw just 61.1 innings, 16 fewer than a year ago. You can actually argue that he's been underutilized, but at least it means he's dominating down the stretch. Kimbrel's numbers are sick; he's like Danny Almonte playing against 12-year-olds. Batters are hitting .122 off him; he's struck out over half the batters he's faced. You know who's done that before? Nobody. Aroldis Chapman is No. 2 all time (50 innings pitched) and he's at 45.4 percent this year.

But it's not just Kimbrel. Jonny Venters struggled in the first half, allowing 12 extra-base hits and 5.25 ERA, but has a 2.20 ERA and no extra-base hits allowed in the second half. Throw in Eric O'Flaherty and Luis Avilan and the Braves have three solid lefties in front of Kimbrel. Sidearmer Cory Gearrin -- one home run over the past two seasons between Triple-A and the majors -- doesn't have many big league innings but could prove to be a key righty in October. It's a deep pen with baseball's best closer in a year in which a lot of the potential playoff teams are very shaky in the ninth inning.

3. Mike Minor is on a roll.

There were calls in the first half to send Minor back to the minors but the Braves stuck with him, as much due to Brandon Beachy's injury and Jair Jurrjens' terrible pitching as much as their belief in him. Homer-prone in the first half -- he had a four-homer game and two three-homer games -- Minor has a 2.28 ERA over his past 12 starts with six home runs allowed. Medlen, Tim Hudson, Minor and Paul Maholm or Tommy Hanson suddenly looks like a solid playoff rotation.

4. Andrelton Simmons is back.

The 22-year-old rookie returned last week. Before his broken pinky, Simmons had wowed with his glove and impressed with his bat. Paul Janish played a nice shortstop in his absence, but Simmons provides a spark at the bottom of the Braves' lineup. They'd been hitting seven guys without him; now they have an eight-man lineup again.

5. Jason Heyward.

The bat. The arm. The range. The grizzled 22-year-old veteran has been lost in the Mike Trout/Harper adulation, which means October may be his time to capture the spotlight.

6. Chipper Jones.

Jones can still play: .297/.382/.477, 14 home runs (although just one in his past 75 at-bats). Win one for the Chipper? I think Chipper may win one more for the Braves. Sentimental story lines don't usually end the right way, but this one is gaining steam as we head to the final chapter.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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