Atlanta Braves: What Are the Chances of Another Late-Season Collapse?
The Atlanta Braves currently hold the top wild-card spot by 3.5 games.
However, as was painfully proven at the end of last season, having even the most comfortable of leads coming into September guarantees nothing.
Last September, the Braves went 9-18 to squander their wild-card lead and miss the playoffs.
And now, in their past 19 games, the Braves have gone 8-11, which brings back memories of their shocking collapse last season.
Their offense has been very worrying of late; in their past three games, the Braves have managed to score a total of two runs versus the Rockies, who on average give up more than five runs per game.
But what are the chances of a late-season collapse occurring yet again this season?
Offense Is Struggling
The Braves offense has recently been struggling to produce runs.
This is owing in part to Dan Uggla's unrelenting slump. Uggla has recently been benched, as he has owned unfortunate batting averages of .207 and .178 since the All-Star break. His home run numbers are also far down this season; even though he slumped for much of last season, he still managed 36 home runs. This year he is on track for only 20.
Brian McCann has also struggled mightily at the plate this year, especially recently. He has hit only .202 since the All-Star break, with five home runs and 12 RBI. McCann's struggles, however, are partially due to recurring injuries.
Michael Bourn, one of the main scorers of runs on the Braves team, is also facing hitting difficulties. His average has fallen to .283, and he has hit only .236 since the All-Star break.
It is extremely important to the team that Bourn gets on base, as he is able to quickly score by stealing bases.
Despite how the offense of the Braves is in some ways struggling, overall it has much improved from last season. Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Chipper Jones are all hitting extremely well, and this may be enough for the Braves to hold their position in the standings.
If even just one of the three (Bourn, McCann or Uggla) gets hot this month, the Braves will find it much easier to score runs and therefore win games.
Last season, injuries were a main factor in the collapse of the Braves. The most devastating injuries were to the starting pitching staff.
This season, the Braves' injuries are much less likely to drag them down. They currently have a full and capable starting staff, and three of the members have been performing like aces of late.
Kris Medlen, who was injured nearly all of last season, is 6-0 with a 0.54 ERA since becoming a starter this year.
If Ben Sheets can get healthy again, he will also be an improvement to the starting rotation.
Andrelton Simmons, after being out for nearly two months with a broken finger, is likely to soon return to the majors, replacing Paul Janish.
Janish and Simmons both have great defense, but Simmons' batting average of .296 will be a great improvement over Janish's .191.
An injury is currently plaguing Brian McCann, and though it has slowed his production, it has not yet managed to keep him from the lineup.
Injuries, though the Braves have many, are unlikely to result in their demise as they did last season.
Players Are Prepared for Pressure
After experiencing last season's events, the Braves are much more suited to the pressure that occurs at the end of the season.
Pressure can be a large factor in many late-season losses, but by now, nearly the entire Braves team has competed in a playoff race at least once.
This is a large advantage that the Braves have over a team such as the Nationals, which has mainly young players who have not experienced the postseason pressures.
This especially applies to Craig Kimbrel, as last year, in September and October, his ERA was 4.76, quite in contrast to the two previous months in which he gave up no earned runs. He also blew the save of the last game of the Braves' 2011 season.
This year, Kimbrel's inning count is considerably lower, and he should be more prepared to handle the pressure that is to come.
Veteran players such as Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson should also be very helpful to the Braves in the final month, as they have participated in playoff races many times before.
The Braves have an extremely favorable schedule for the remainder of the season.
With 24 games remaining, the Braves will play only six games against above-.500 teams.
The Braves' current record is 78-60, which puts them on pace for a 92-win season.
This would be an improvement over their 89 wins of last season and would have gotten them into the playoffs last year.
Against their remaining opponents this season, the Braves have a record of 36-25.
If the Braves are able to take advantage of their easy schedule, they should have little difficulty holding their wild-card spot.
2 Wild Cards
Last year, had there been two wild cards, the Braves' historic collapse would hardly have been historic at all.
Even though last year the Braves experienced one of the worst collapses in MLB history, they would have won the second wild card if last year's playoff format was identical to this season's.
This additional wild card gives the Braves much more breathing room in the playoff race. While they hold the top wild-card spot by only 3.5 games, for the second wild card the Braves lead by five games.
Of course, the competition this year for wild cards is considerably larger and more fierce than it was last year.
If the Braves miss the playoffs again this year, the collapse would likely be considered even more historic and shocking because of the two wild-card spots.
The Braves currently have a good chance of making the postseason.
While some of their players are slumping, some are performing well enough to carry the team into the playoffs.
The Braves currently have many potential opponents, the most dangerous of the lot being St. Louis, Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
All three of these are formidable opponents; however, there are two wild cards to be given out among the four teams, and recently the Pirates, Dodgers and Cardinals have not been playing as well as expected.
There are many teams that have a chance at winning a wild card, but currently it seems that the Braves have the best chance of any of them.