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Atlanta Braves: Five Players Who Must Perform Come Playoff Time

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | With a commanding lead in the National League East and only 23 games left to play, the Atlanta Braves will soon wrap up their 16th division title since moving from Milwaukee in 1966.

There is still work to do, however, and with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals breathing down their necks for the best record in the National League, it is important the Braves keep winning to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs. Atlanta has by far the best home record in the majors, so playing the majority of its playoff games at home would be a boon for the Braves' World Series hopes.

Amazingly, Atlanta has reached its lofty position while getting inconsistent play from some players, and downright dismal performances from others. Some of these players must step up if the Braves are going to finish the regular season with the best record and make a deep run in October.

Brian McCann: The Braves knew that if they could weather the time at the beginning of the season that McCann would miss due to injury, they would have a good chance at being within striking distance upon his return. No one could have predicted how well Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird would play in his absence, and when he re-entered the lineup there was hope that he'd be back to his usual self.

Since then, however, McCann has been inconsistent, hitting lights-out in May and July but struggling in June and August. With Gattis now playing backup in a depleted outfield, it is vital that McCann pick up his hitting as the season comes to a close.

B.J. Upton: Upton has been maligned by Braves fans this season, and it is hard to blame them. Atlanta rarely splashes out the kind of money its did for the former Tampa Bay Ray so when they do, the fans and the organization expect results. But after struggling for much of the season, Upton has shown signs of coming to life. He hit a respectable .269 in 22 games in August, and has started September with four hits in 11 at-bats. With the injury to Jason Heyward keeping the right fielder out until at least the Division Series, it's important that Upton keeps contributing.

Mike Minor: The Braves entered the 2013 season with an abundance of starting pitching, and have had to use every inch of it. Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen have anchored the rotation, and each has pitched well, albeit inconsistently at times. Minor has alternated good months and bad, dominating in May and July but getting knocked around in June and August. Minor must be steady going into the playoffs, as the teams Atlanta could face in those series will have at least two high quality starters matched up with the Braves.

Evan Gattis: The legend of El Oso Blanco has quieted some, as pitchers have adjusted to the rookie and he has lost at-bats in favor of Brian McCann. While I still think he should have been sent to Gwinnett until rosters expanded at the beginning of September (advice the Braves took, if only for three days in late-August), Gattis will play an important role as Atlanta waits for the return of Jason Heyward. When he does get his at-bats, he must take advantage of them if the Braves are going to win.

Anthony Varvaro: The Atlanta bullpen has been devastated by injuries, but Anthony Varvaro has been a steady presence throughout the season. Leading all Braves relievers in innings pitched, he has served nearly every role a bullpen man can, and done so successfully, except for an August in which he struggled in his eight-plus innings. The Braves' bullpen can ill-afford to fall apart at this point in the season, and while they can rely on Craig Kimbrel to close out games, Anthony Varvaro must continue to be the go-to man to bridge the starters and the closer.

Joe Thomas was raised and lives within shouting distance of Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves. He is the sports editor for The Sting, the student newspaper of Southern Polytechnic State University. You can find him on Twitter using the handle @jhqthomas.

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