COMMENTARY | The Atlanta Braves have maintained a steady lead over their competition in the National League East, despite playing .500 ball for most of the season. The struggles of the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies have helped the Braves keep the largest lead of any division leader in the majors.
With the St. Louis Cardinals coming to town, however, Atlanta will find out how good it really is.
The Cardinals come to Atlanta with the best record in the major leagues. They have won four straight games, seven of their last 10, and are 30-20 on the road. Their lineup is stacked with .300 hitters, whom the Cardinals seem to create out of thin air. St. Louis leads the National League in runs scored, OPS, OBP, and hits. They are hitting an absurd .340 with runners in scoring position.
As good as their hitting has been, the Cardinals' pitching has been just as dominant. Tied with Atlanta for third in the majors in ERA, St. Louis has a better K/BB ratio than the Braves and gives up fewer homers per nine innings.
This will be a true test for Atlanta, and a good way to see how it stacks up with a true playoff-caliber team. If the Braves get swept or drop two of three, the team's weaknesses will be highlighted and adjustments will have to be made before the postseason.
If, on the other hand, Atlanta is able to win the series, it will give the Braves a shot in the arm that will hopefully carry them through the rest of the year. This is a team that needs a jolt, particularly after losing clubhouse-leader Tim Hudson to a season-ending ankle injury.
So how do the Braves go about beating the Cardinals?
Keep men off base - St. Louis drives in base runners more than a third of the time when they are in scoring position. If you give up a solo homer, fine, move on to the next guy. But it is imperative that Atlanta limits big innings by keeping men off base. That means playing good defense and not walking hitters.
Work the starters - The Cardinals' starting rotation is one of the best in baseball, but their bullpen is middle-of-the-road. Braves hitters should try to get St. Louis starters into deep counts, elevating their pitch counts and getting to the bullpen faster.
Manufacture runs - This has been Atlanta's weak spot all season long. The team is reliant on home runs to do most of its scoring, but that won't fly against the Cardinals. St. Louis as a staff is allowing only 0.64 HR/9, the best mark in the majors. If the Braves are going to win the series, they will have to do it with clutch hitting with men on base.
The series against St. Louis will be a stern test for Atlanta. If it feels like the kind of series that can turn a season, that's because it very well may be. If the Braves play smart baseball and limit mistakes, it can be a jumping point for the final third. If they don't, we may look back at this point in the season as the place where things went downhill.
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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