- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The Atlanta Braves have laid waste to the National League East and turned what was supposed to be one of baseball's most compelling races into a formality and a walkover. They have the NL's best record at 86-57, the best team ERA (3.20) in the game and the fourth-best run differential at plus-133.
Closer Craig Kimbrel has been crushing spirits and blowing away hitters with his fastball since June. Third baseman Chris Johnson is contending for the batting title. First baseman Freddie Freeman is creeping into the Most Valuable Player conversation, and shortstop Andrelton Simmons gives new meaning to the phrase "defensive wizard." Justin Upton leads a contingent of eight players with double-figure home run totals, with his brother B.J. one short of making it nine.
The Braves are 51-20 at Turner Field and have a combined 17-11 record against the Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates and Reds -- the other four NL teams on track to make the playoffs. They're 23-17 in one-run games, 12-5 in extra innings, and have shown the resourcefulness to come out on top no matter what the circumstances. They've overcome a raft of injuries and some disappointing individual performances and made a habit of winning.
With the exception of Chipper Jones closing his Twitter account, B.J. Upton logging a .576 OPS and a minus-1.5 WAR in exchange for his $75 million contract, and the constant stream of disabled list visits, the regular season has been a major funfest in Atlanta.
So why is the outlook for October so shrouded in skepticism and doubt?
Talk to a big league scout or rival executive, and you'll hear lots of admiration for what general manager Frank Wren, manager Fredi Gonzalez, the staff and the Atlanta players have accomplished this season. But the Braves do not fit the profile of a team poised to make noise in October.
"They're built for the regular season, but if I were them I'd be really scared about the postseason," said an AL scout. "They don't manufacture runs. Lots of swings and misses. They're good against No. 4-5 starters, but you don't face a lot of those guys in the playoffs."
Said an NL scout: "I don't think you'll find many people who'll pick the Braves to win this league."
Those downbeat assessments might say less about the Braves than the perception of what a World Series champion is supposed to look like. As the 2010 and 2012 San Francisco Giants showed, a team can make lots of waves in October with a resourceful offense, shutdown pitching, a sure-handed defense and fundamentally sound play. Whatever deficiencies the Giants had during their title runs, it was nothing that the handiwork of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and friends couldn't cure.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the Braves will don goggles and spray champagne in celebration of their first division title since 2005. Then they'll try to debunk some popular theories on why they're not built to go the distance. Such as:
They lack a proven ace
Granted, Tim Hudson gets by more on guile and tenacity than lights-out stuff at age 38. But he has a creditable postseason track record (1-3 with a 3.46 ERA in 10 appearances), and he gave the Braves a veteran security blanket in the rotation. Regardless of Hudson's gun readings or the bite on his sinker, the Braves were confident that he could keep them in the game for six or seven innings and allow them to figure out a way to win in the end.
When Hudson suffered a season-ending ankle injury in July, the burden suddenly fell to Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen to lead the team into the postseason, with Paul Maholm and Alex Wood holding down the other two spots in the rotation.
It's a solid and reliable group. Atlanta's starters have been stout enough to limit Kimbrel and the bullpen to 413 innings, the eighth-lightest workload in the majors. Gonzalez has divvied up the innings enough that Kimbrel and his setup men should be relatively fresh in October.
But the combined postseason experience for Atlanta's new Big Three consists of Medlen's start against St. Louis in the wild-card play-in game a year ago. In addition, Minor and Teheran are going to have to push through some walls in the postseason. With 179 2/3 innings, Minor has already surpassed his total for all of 2012, and Teheran is quickly approaching his high. If the Braves play deep into October, the youngsters will have to ratchet it up at a time when the innings are the most stressful of all.
The manager can live with that scenario.
"They're kids, but there's a picture in my office with Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine," Gonzalez said. "I'm not comparing these guys to that. But Smoltzy and those guys were kids when they were put in those situations. [Young pitchers] have to grow up sooner or later."
They don't manufacture runs
The Braves are the quintessential "three true outcomes" team. They rank fourth in the majors in homers (164) and seventh in walks (475). They're also second in baseball in strikeouts (1,223) to the Houston Astros, and 24th in the majors with a mere 55 stolen bases.
So how do they compensate when balls aren't leaving the park? Even hitting coach Greg Walker, a monument to candor, admits he doesn't know what to expect from one week to the next.
The Braves got on a roll offensively when Gonzalez moved Jason Heyward to the leadoff spot on July 27, and Heyward hit .341 (30-for-88) to spark a 19-4 Atlanta run. Then Heyward suffered a broken jaw on a Jonathon Niese fastball, and Gonzalez began using Jordan Schafer at leadoff. B.J. Upton filled in atop the order while Schafer was recovering from a strained quad and went 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts over the weekend in Philadelphia.
Heyward will return later this month, and the Braves are hoping the stability and production he brings at the top will allow everything to fall into place at the right time.
"We've been kind of Jekyll and Hyde," Walker said. "When we're on one of those rolls, everybody falls in love with us. When we strike out, everybody hates us.
"We've got a lot of players that can carry a team, and if we can get two or three of them hot, we're really good. If nobody is hot, we're terrible. If it comes together, watch out. If it doesn't, you'll see a lot of upset people -- including me."
They're vulnerable to front-line pitching
In some cases, the Braves caught a break because of the schedule maker. They played the Dodgers seven times this season and never faced Clayton Kershaw. They played Pittsburgh seven times and never saw Francisco Liriano. And in a combined 34 games against Miami and the New York Mets, they've seen Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey a grand total of twice. (They're scheduled to encounter Fernandez again Wednesday.)
The obvious question is, who does fare well against Kershaw or Harvey? But the numbers lend credence to the perception that the Braves are vulnerable to the iron. Zack Greinke, Cliff Lee, Bumgarner, Cain, Stephen Strasburg, Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Jordan Zimmermann, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Patrick Corbin, Shelby Miller, Fernandez and Harvey -- pitchers who would generally qualify as elite -- are a combined 14-6 with a 2.23 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 173 2/3 innings against Atlanta this season.
"They have a lot of middle-in hitters who handle average pitching very well and struggle against good pitching," said a scout. "Anybody that can command the fastball down and away will beat the Braves."
The good news is, the Braves won't be facing Strasburg, Zimmermann, Hamels and Lee in October. But they might encounter Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and A.J. Burnett, and they handled those guys quite nicely during the regular season.
"It's a new season and the stats don't mean anything," Gonzalez said. "I read a quote from Kirk Gibson and he said, 'Not everybody you face is Cy Young, and you have to beat Cy Young once in a while.' That's the way I look at it."
Amid the doubts, the Atlanta players take pride in their resilience and ability to compartmentalize and move forward. Every starting position player except Simmons, Johnson and Justin Upton has spent time on the disabled list. The Braves survived season-ending injuries to lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, two of the best setup men in the majors. Hudson's fractured right ankle was a huge emotional jolt for the team, but the Braves almost immediately went on a 14-game win streak.
Outfielder Reed Johnson, an 11-year veteran, helped set the tone in spring training when he handed out T-shirts with the inscription "Suffer In Silence." The shirts feature a picture of a cartoon Brave, and a vacant white space over the mouth where each Atlanta player can insert his personal uniform number.
The mantra is popular with the Navy SEALs, and Johnson was trying to make a point that ballplayers should keep their gripes to themselves and focus on the overall good of the team. If the Braves need any further motivation, all they need to do is flick on the TV or log on to the Internet and see all that Red Sox, Pirates and Yasiel Puig love on display.
"We've kind of been under the radar all season," Johnson said. "Every time we win people say, 'They're playing weaker teams,' or, 'They strike out too much,' or, 'They're not going to win in the playoffs.' After a while it becomes a challenge. And it fuels you at the same time."
Braves catcher Gerald Laird, who played for a World Series winner in St. Louis in 2011 and a Detroit team that lost to San Francisco last season, has been part of enough October runs to know that life in the postseason can be unpredictable. The Cardinals went the distance two years ago without Adam Wainwright, who was on the shelf with Tommy John surgery. Last year the Tigers entered the World Series as a heavy favorite and were swept by the Giants.
Teams learn a lot about themselves from February through September, and the Braves have found they have a deep-rooted survival instinct regardless of what the numbers, the scouts or ESPN might say.
"The good teams find a way to way to win," Laird said. "That's something you can't teach. If we give up six runs, we'll score seven. Or we'll have two hits and score three runs and win a game 3-2. This team just finds a way to win."
The Braves have put themselves in position to make a statement in October in spite of the doubts. The longer they stick around, the more gratification they'll derive from proving people wrong.
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