COMMENTARY | Baseball is a tough game to win when teams are playing with all nine guys. Yet, it seems the Atlanta Braves have somehow managed to build themselves a nice seven-game lead in the NL East while only getting worthwhile contributions from six men on their diamond.
To say Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla have started the season slow would be like saying Alex Rodriguez is about to earn a long overdue "vacation" from Major League Baseball. Let's not sugar-coat it: This trio of Braves have been downright terrible, and, let's just hope A-Rod didn't waste money on novelty "HOF4EVR" license plates -- he won't be needing those any time in the near future.
Despite playing on the wrong side of an MLB power play for much of the year, Atlanta has still hit more home runs than any club in the National League (78), and they rank No. 4 in runs scored, even though three of their regular starters are hitting below .190. Fans could only sit back and try to imagine what a Braves team playing at full strength would look like.
Dream no more Atlanta fans. It appears someone finally shook the triple-stacked bunk beds in the Braves clubhouse and woke up this sleeping triumvirate of former sluggers. Since June 1, the combination of Uggla, Heyward and Upton has hit .238, belted three home runs, scored seven runs and added five RBIs to their resume.
The batting average may not immediately jump off the page, but it should be something to get excited about when compared with the .160 the three were collecting hitting before the calendar flipped. The trio still currently has three of the four worst batting averages in all of baseball, so any glimmer of hope is newsworthy.
Their positive progress came to a head on Tuesday night when the three players found a way to all contribute in the same game. Uggla, Heyward and Upton went 5-for-12 with B.J. providing some fireworks with a two-run home run to tie the game at four. Although Andrelton Simmons -- who was mired in a slump of his own to start the season -- will get a lot of the credit for coming through with a walk-off double in the 10th inning, a stat that might get lost in the shuffle is the fact that the Braves mercurial trifecta scored all five runs in the 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It cannot be expressed just how important Heyward, Uggla and Upton are to the Braves potential World Series push this season. With those three finally hitting, the Braves can -- arguably -- boast the best offensive lineup in all of baseball. On a team full of home run threats, these three add another set of long-ball bashers to the mix. So far, the Braves have been living and dying by the home run, and, if the bottom of the order can be just as dangerous as the top, opposing teams may find it to be a difficult read below the fold of this Atlanta lineup card.
Another facet of their emergence that may go underappreciated is their speed on the base paths. With Heyward and Upton having on-base percentages under .300, the two have not been able to pilfer as many bags as the team expected. Since Michael Bourn is no longer here, the J-Hey kid and the eldest Upton are two of Atlanta's biggest threats on the bases. To his point, they have combined to lift just four bags from under the watchful eyes of opposing catchers. The Braves rank second-to-last in steals this season (18), and are on pace to swipe just 50 bases for the entire year -- less than half of their 2012 total with Bourn on the team (101). A productive Heyward and Upton should be slam dunk 20/20 hitters at the end of every season and could ultimately be the deciding factor for how far the Braves are able to go this season.
Make no mistake about it, Heyward, Uggla and Upton matter more to this team than fans want to admit and the Braves will need to keep them going to be a realistic contender for Lord Selig's Cup come October.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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