In fact, the Braves have jumped out to such a big advantage, the total leads of all five other divisions in baseball only add up to 14 1/2. With just 47 games left to play this season, when is the right time for Atlanta to start thinking about the postseason and begin limiting the innings for some of its top players?
The Braves are in the midst of a 13-game winning streak, so any rest for their everyday starters will have to wait until another loss enters their standings. They currently find themselves only two games shy of the longest winning streak in Atlanta franchise history (2000). The Boston Beaneaters technically have the all-time franchise high-water mark after posting an 18-game winning streak during the 1891 season.
Atlanta will head back to Turner Field for a nine-game homestand. First up will be the Miami Marlins for three games to try and break the 2000 club's mark. If the Bravos are able to get by the Fish unscaled, the Philadelphia Phillies will be the team standing in the way of history.
The one pesky problem lingering behind the idea of finding rest for Atlanta's most important pieces is the fact that it also has an opportunity to snag the overall top seed in the National League. With 70 wins, Atlanta has now accumulated more wins than any NL team. Atlanta and the Pittsburgh Pirates (69-44) are mere percentage points apart for the rights to boast the best record in all of baseball.
Thanks to the ridiculous rule implemented by Major League Baseball in 2003, which now sees the winning league in the All-Star game get home-field advantage in the World Series, Atlanta can only earn the distinction for the National League portion of the playoffs. The Braves do have the best home record in all of baseball (38-15), so earning home-field advantage is no small prize.
Someone Hand Craig Kimbrel a Pillow
One of the main objectives for the Braves as they coast to division title No. 17 is to make sure their All-Star closer is fresh for the playoffs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has been chided in the past for his overuse of his bullpen, and some of his recent decisions may again leave fans scratching their heads.
Kimbrel has already been handed the ball for back-to-back-to-back appearances twice since the All-Star break. He also just completed a stretch that saw him save five games in six days -- the latest of which required a hefty 36-pitch workload to earn a shaky save No. 36.
With such a big lead in the division, perhaps it is time for Gonzalez to decree three days in a row is no longer an option for Kimbrel. The Braves would also be wise to limit Kimbrel's appearances for games in which they have a three-run lead in the ninth. Jordan Walden has closing experience, and they did just trade for Scott Downs to help with late-inning relief.
In 2011, the trio of Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters averaged just over 80 innings pitched per man. Coincidentally, the Braves ran out of gas and gave back an 8 1/2-game lead in the wild-card standings during the final month to miss out on the playoffs entirely. Although Kimbrel has been spaced out to the point that he is only on pace for 63 total innings this season, the Braves' extended winning streak has seen Gonzalez calling for the right-hander out of the 'pen far too often.
Freeman missed 13 games during the first month of the season, however, since April 23, the Braves' All-Star first baseman has appeared in all but one of Atlanta's last 95 games. The thumb injury that kept him out of the All-Star festivities only sidelined him from real action for a single game when the season resumed. Freeman has had two nagging injuries this season, so the idea of losing the Braves' MVP candidate due to overuse in meaningless divisional games in September would leave a bad taste in the mouths of many fans.
Six-Man Starting Rotation?
The season-ending injury to Tim Hudson still left the Braves with six dependable starters from which to choose. Paul Maholm is currently sidelined with a left wrist strain, however, he has begun throwing bullpen sessions and could be less than two weeks away from rejoining the team.
While there has been plenty of speculation surrounding which starter the Braves would send to the bullpen when Maholm returns, Atlanta finds itself in the enviable position of being able to seamlessly transition to a six-man starting staff. Doing so would limit all the starters' innings while also allowing Brandon Beachy to not have to overwork himself as he attempts to get stronger after his own injury kept him off the diamond until July 29.
Rest vs. Rust
As the Braves try to find spots to rest their starters, they must also be concerned with keeping them sharp. The Sept. 1 call-ups will provide a little relief, thanks to rosters expanding from 25 players to 40. The addition of a few more utility infielders could allow Andrelton Simmons to get the very rare day off from time to time. Simmons has played in 110 of the Braves' first 115 games this season.
Atlanta's huge lead is an atypical situation that should be employed to its advantage. Manager Fredi Gonzalez needs to use the cushion to make sure his team is as prepared and healthy as it can be heading into October.
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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