COMMENTARY | A small but ferocious cheer rose from the Atlanta fans sitting in the Wrigley Field stands during the sixth inning of Sunday's game, but it had nothing to do with the action on the field.
The Atlanta Braves entered the day needing just one game to clinch their first division title since 2005. Either their own victory over the Chicago Cubs or a loss by the Washington Nationals would guarantee a 17th yellow banner soon be placed high atop Turner Field.
The operators inside the iconic scoreboard at the "Friendly Confines" made fans celebrate early as they posted the 4-2 final score of the Miami Marlins' victory over the Nationals. Even though the Braves already knew the division had been won, they still got the 5-2 win on the strength of three home runs.
Their postgame celebration will likely have some players suffering from a little champagne-induced burning of the retinas come Monday morning, but there is still work left to be done before Atlanta can completely close the book on the 2013 regular season.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has a big decision to make with regards for how Atlanta will choose to attack the final seven games of the regular season. The Braves hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record in the National League.
Atlanta will head back to Turner Field for a seven-game homestand to end the regular season. The Braves will host the Milwaukee Brewers for a three-game series before welcoming the division rival Philadelphia Phillies for a four-game set. The Cards get six home games to close the season as they host the Nationals and then the Cubs to end their 2013 campaign.
The question is whether Gonzalez should decide to rest key starters leading into October, or push his foot on the gas and go full-steam-ahead after home-field advantage.
The American League won the All-Star game, so the gimmick of the Midsummer Classic will have the AL World Series representative given home-field advantage against the NL, but the Braves can still earn the honor for the National League portion of the postseason schedule.
Atlanta may need home-field more than most teams. The Braves have the best home record of any team in baseball, but the flip side to that is they also possess the worst road record of any of the NL playoff teams. It may behoove Gonzalez to play these remaining seven games as though they were still fighting for a seat at the postseason party.
Chris Johnson's Batting Title
Aside from team goals, the Braves also have some individual players with aspirations of their own. Despite his 0-for-4 outing on Sunday, Johnson's 5-for-12 series against the Cubs pushed his average to .329, which now places him just five points behind Colorado Rockies right fielder Michael Cuddyer for the NL lead.
If Johnson is able to claw out the NL batting title, he will become the first Atlanta player to win the award since Chipper Jones completed the feat in 2008 when he posted a .364 average.
Freddie Freeman's MVP
As the best player on the team with the best record in the National League, Freeman will get some well-deserved consideration for the MVP trophy.
Through 155 games, Freeman is hitting .314 with 23 home runs and 105 RBIs. He is also hitting .431 with runners in scoring position as Atlanta's cleanup hitter.
Freeman's ability to take home MVP honors will likely rest with home much emphasis voters place on the vaunted sabermetric statistics. Andrew McCutchen has led the Pittsburgh Pirates to their first winning season since 1992 while hitting .319 with 20 home runs and 82 RBIs. McCutchen leads all NL players in WAR (7.9) and has added 27 stolen bases to his MVP resume.
Craig Kimbrel's Cy Young
The comically named Rolaids Relief Award is almost assuredly heading to Kimbrel's mantle, but Atlanta's closer could also have his eyes set on a higher honor. Closers don't usually get much love in the Cy Young race, but Atlanta's fireballer is finishing a season that will put him in a league of his own among those asked to get the final three outs of games.
Kimbrel finished the 2012 season with a 1.01 ERA. He has followed up that stellar season with a 1.27 ERA through 155 games in 2013. No qualified closer in the history of the game has ever had back-to-back seasons with a sub-1.40 ERA.
The last closer to win the MVP award was Dennis Eckersley in 1992 when he saved 51 games and posted a 1.91 ERA for the Oakland Athletics. Kimbrel has 49 saves so far in 2013 and has topped Eckersley in virtually every statistical category from his MVP season.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw would be Kimbrel's biggest competition for the award this season. Kershaw has a 15-9 record with a 1.88 ERA. While it is hard to compare a closer with a starter, Kimbrel has a better ERA (1.27), more strikeouts per nine innings (13.08) and a lower opponent's batting average (.169) than the Dodgers' ace.
Lining Up the Postseason Rotation
The Atlanta pitcher who will get the Game 1 start is still up for debate, but as the rotation is currently aligned, Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Alex Wood would pitch the final three games of the season, which would prop Kris Medlen up as the starter to open the 2013 postseason.
Medlen may still be the pitcher who gets chosen as the Game 1 starter, but it is likely that Gonzalez would break up his rotation with Freddy Garcia, Kameron Loe and Paul Maholm, allowing him to adjust his playoff rotation as he sees fit. Home-field advantage could ultimately rest on the arms of three pitchers who won't figure to factor into Atlanta's run in the playoffs.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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