The Atlanta Braves Hang With Washington In The NL East

The Atlanta Braves may have just lost two of three to San Francisco, but that’s just one hiccup on what’s been an otherwise strong run of recent play. The Braves begin a big four-game set in Washington tonight within 3.5 games of the Nationals in the NL East, and holding down the National League’s second wild-card spot by two games over the Dodgers. Atlanta went into the All-Star break by sweeping Philadelphia and came out of by sweeping the Mets, all helping separate themselves in the playoff chase within the competitive NL East. TheSportsNotebook looks at how the 2012 Atlanta Braves are doing it, as they look for redemption from last year’s collapse, and whether this hot streak can sustain itself.

Offense is been what’s carried the Braves and the bats are delivering again in July, holding steady at #4 in the National League in runs scored, and the big names are scorching hot. Brian McCann is slugging .730 for the month and has hit five home runs. Chipper Jones, determined that his career will end in the postseason is slugging .659. Fredi Freeman, the young first baseman, has gone deep four times and slugged .680 for the month. Add that to steady and consistent play from Martin Prado, Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward in the outfield and you have the formula for a lot of runs, even with second baseman Dan Uggla in a slump.

The bullpen is similarly stellar. Craig Kimbrel has been the National League’s best closer, nailing down 28 saves with a 1.22 ERA, and even without elite setup man Jonny Venters, the Braves have gotten solid work from Eric O’Flaherty and Kris Medlen. Venters had been struggling, with a 4.45 ERA prior to going on the disabled list, but he’s due back early next month and perhaps we’ll find that the injury was already taking its toll on his performance prior to the DL stint.

Starting pitching hasn’t been discussed yet and that’s because we’re seeking a positive spin on the Braves in this article. Once Brandon Beachy was lost for the season with an elbow injury the problems in this rotation have been exposed. There’s no #1 starter—in fact, based on this season there’s not even a #2, as Tim Hudson’s ERA is at 4.02, way too high for a top pitcher in the National League, and Tommy Hanson is at 3.70. The back end is worse, where Mike Minor is at 5.69 and Jair Jurrjens at 6.20 in his nine starts. The situation was so dire that Atlanta not only signed Ben Sheets, who hasn’t pitched in the majors in two years, they’ve already put him in the rotation. The good news? Sheets tossed six shutout innings, so maybe the one-time oft-injured ace of the Milwaukee Brewers can give this staff a lift.

When it comes to Milwaukee Brewers’ pitchers giving the staff a lift, the conversation must turn to Zack Greinke. The Brewers current ace is on the market and Atlanta has farm system depth to deal with, more so than virtually anyone else would be a serious suitor for Greinke. The issues would be whether Atlanta feels they can sign Greinke to a contract extension or if they’re willing to live with a two-month rental prior to his free agency. Given Greinke’s relative youth and the needs of the team it makes little sense for the Braves not to go all-in, both in dealing prospects and shelling out long-term dollars. And if they do that, they’ll win the bidding. Otherwise the “plan” is to cross your fingers on Sheets, hope that Minor’s last two solid outings are a harbinger of things to come, and simultaneously hoping Hanson’s last two shellackings aren’t the same harbinger. Seen in that light, suddenly Greinke looks like a bargain at most any price.

Whether it’s Greinke, Ryan Dempster or any other starting pitcher out there, Atlanta surely can’t let a lineup and a bullpen of this caliber go to waste. The only real soft spot in the starting eight is at shortstop where rookie Andrelton Simmons went on the disabled list. But the front office picked up a tolerable stopgap in Paul Janish from Cincinnati, who started on the Reds’ 2010 playoff team and when Simmons comes back all he needs to do is field—and he is done that superlatively well.

The trip to Washington starts a seven-game road trip that ends with a series in Miami, where the Marlins are desperate to play their way back in contention. If Atlanta can just split in the nation’s capital and pick up one win in South Beach they’ll be in good playoff position when trade help likely arrives. Any more than that is gravy, as the reinforcements come and the team returns home.