August 30, 2010
Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Atlanta Braves are in first place in the NL East and in a position to make the playoffs. Yes, the Braves have been in sole command of the division all summer, claiming complete control on May 31 and retaining a spot in the postseason ever since.
They're not going to give it up, either.
Admittedly, the Braves have had their ups and downs while topping the division. Their lead reached a season high of seven games on July 22, when the crippled Phillies had Ryan Howard(notes), Chase Utley(notes) and Placido Polanco(notes) all on the disabled list and it looked like the division race was all but wrapped up.
The lows have come more recently, as the Braves are just 19-16 since that high-water mark. Meanwhile, the Phillies, with their stars finally healthy and bolstered by Roy Oswalt(notes), have cut the lead to just two games. A few more Braves losses and Phillies wins and Atlanta will be thrown into the wild and woolly NL wild-card mix with the Cardinals, Giants and Rockies.
Still, I believe Atlanta is going to win the division because I'm a Braves fan. I was 7 years old during the Braves' miracle season in 1991. After that, the Braves' postseason appearances — and usual early exits — became as inevitable as death and taxes.
They haven't won the NL East since 2005, though, and their core has almost been completely overturned since those Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz glory years. The turnover has been so thorough that there are only seven people in the clubhouse who were with the Braves in 2005 — Bobby Cox, Tim Hudson(notes), Brian McCann(notes), Chipper Jones(notes) (who's injured), Kyle Farnsworth(notes), bullpen coach Eddie Perez (backup catcher in 2005) and hitting coach Terry Pendleton.
Holding Philadelphia off will be tough. The two-time NL champion Phillies have a better offense and a better top three in their starting rotation. Chase Utley and Roy Halladay(notes) are better than any single player on the Braves while Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins(notes) and the Phillies' entire outfield are better than the Braves' comparable players at those positions.
However, the Braves have a vastly better bullpen, a better back end of the rotation, and a better bench. Five Braves were named to the NL All-Star Team: Martin Prado(notes) and Omar Infante(notes) are in contention for the batting title, Hudson is in contention for the Cy Young Award, and Jason Heyward(notes) is in contention for the Rookie of the Year; five-time All-Star catcher McCann was the other. Braves closer Billy Wagner(notes) was asked to be an injury replacement to the NL All-Star team, and would have given the Braves a sixth rep, but he declined.
Atlanta has tremendous pitching, above-average offense and defense, and they're nigh unbeatable at home. They have the best home record in baseball, 46-18, and they're 47-3 when they score at least five runs. They have the third-best ERA in the league, the third-most runs scored, the second-best run differential, and they're tied for the second-best record. They don't have one Pujols-caliber player, but they do have those "six" All-Stars.
They also seem to have the air of destiny about them. They're leading the majors in walkoff wins (11, counting McCann's walkoff homer Sunday) and victories in their final at-bat (22), and they're tied for the major league lead in comeback wins (40). That's where their superior bullpen and bench come into play. They play like they believe they're going to win. Like they want to give Cox one final shot at the playoffs in his last year.
And they will get there. According to Baseball Prospectus's updated Playoff Odds, the Braves have a 92 percent chance at the postseason, and an 80 percent chance of winning their division. Whether they're the division winner or the NL wild-card winner will largely be determined by the six games they play against the Phillies over the final two weeks of the season.
But once they get to the postseason, they'll have a puncher's chance to go far. Bobby Cox teams are known for two things: Winning in the regular season and losing in the postseason. This year has already been a very good example of the first. And for his sake, I hope it disproves the second. Either way, I'm all in with this team.
Playoffs, baby! Playoffs!