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Questions Still Remain for First-Place Atlanta Braves

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COMMENTARY | The All-Star break has arrived and despite injuries, slumps and a difficult first-half schedule, the Atlanta Braves lead the National League East by six games.

While this success is at least partially aided by the struggles of their division rivals, the Braves should be proud of the way they have managed to win in a variety of ways, with an ever-changing cast of characters.

But with that in mind, there are questions about what must happen in the weeks following the All-Star break if Atlanta is going to continue to win and capture the East title.

Will the strikeouts continue to decrease?

Much has been made about the Braves' tendency to strike out so far this season. The team is on pace to break the record for strikeouts in a season, and whether or not you think that matters all that much, everyone would like to see those numbers come down.

If you look at the statistics, they have already. In April, Atlanta players struck out in 28 percent of their at-bats. In May, that number was down to 26 percent, and June saw a further decrease in strikeouts, down to 25 percent. And, thus far in July, the Braves have struck out 22 percent of the time. None of these figures are extraordinary (compare that to the Kansas City Royals, who have only struck out 19 percent of the time all season), but they are trending in the right direction. It's important that Atlanta continues this trend, or at least keeps the strikeout levels stable.

Will the Braves take advantage of their schedule?

The scheduling powers-that-be have been up to their usual shenanigans this season. After grueling road trips and extended West Coast visits to begin the year, Atlanta has the easiest post-All-Star game schedule of any of the contending teams.

The Braves only play 19 games against teams currently over .500 for the rest of the season, and do not travel further west than St. Louis. Atlanta, with the best home record in the majors at 31-15, will play the majority of its remaining games at Turner Field as well. It is vital that the Braves take advantage of this favorable schedule.

Who will step up at the plate?

The Braves' revamped outfield has largely been a bust. Although Justin Upton began the season on a tear, he struggled in May and June. Players like B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Dan Uggla all have the potential to be strong hitters but have mainly failed. While some of these players have shown signs of coming out of their slumbers, Atlanta will need most, if not all of them, to begin to contribute if it is going to contend with teams like the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League title.

Can the bullpen hold up?

The Atlanta Braves' bullpen has been the best in the majors this year. But with the 2011 collapse still fresh in many fans mind, there is concern that it may not last, particularly with the injuries to Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters early in the season. A major criticism of Fredi Gonzalez, fair or not, is a perceived overuse of the relief corps. This season, at least, that does not seem to be the case; the Braves' bullpen has thrown the fifth-fewest innings in the majors. As the season wears on, solid bullpen support will become more and more important.

Will the Washington Nationals or Philadelphia Phillies make it interesting?

The Braves have played well this season, but they have been aided by the struggles of the other teams in the NL East, particularly the Washington Nationals. The Nationals were favored by most to win the decision, but they have been hampered by an inability to score runs on a regular basis. Despite its struggles, Washington has a potent lineup that could get hot anytime. Just behind Nationals are the Philadelphia Phillies, who have shown that they may make a run as well.

How these teams behave near the trade deadline and then play beyond will have a lot to do with how well the Braves perform the rest of the season.

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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