Unless some unforeseen catastrophe occurs, the Braves are destined for postseason play in 2012. How long Atlanta's playoff run lasts is totally dependent on which Braves team takes the field during the postseason.
The Braves' offense carried the team during the first half of the season. Now as the second half winds down, it is their pitching that is shouldering most of the load. If the Braves have any hope of bringing home a World Series title, their bats will need to come alive and their pitching must remain dominant.
The main factor in determining which Braves team you will see in this year's playoffs will be their opponents. There are no more cupcake teams. No more games against the Cubs or Astros. It will be a bout between the big boys. Parity and performance will dictate the victor.
But which team will give the Braves their biggest challenge?
Assuming the Braves are unable to overtake the Nationals for the NL East title, and they take care of business during the the "win and in" game against the other wild-card opponent (most likely the Cardinals), the road to a World Series title is an arduous one at best.
The Braves' combined record against the three division winners is 12-19. As far as the head to head record, no one has owned the Braves this year more than the Reds. In the six games the two teams have played, the Braves have only been able to win one.
All six games were played over a 10-day stretch in May. Two of the wins the Reds earned were against Mike Minor. Since his last start against the Reds, Minor has lowered his ERA from 6.96 down to 4.12.
Cincinnati has a solid lineup and an even better pitching staff. Pitching ace Johnny Cueto will anchor their rotation and former NL MVP Joey Votto will headline their lineup.
Out of the three division winners, a matchup against the Reds seems to be the most favorable, despite the poor regular-season record.
Of the 31 games against the division winners, 18 of them were against the Nationals. The Braves were recently able to scrap together a tough three-game sweep to improve their record to 8-10 on the year. Washington has outscored the Braves 84-69 in the season series.
The Nats' decision to bench Strasburg for the rest of the year greatly plays into the hands of the Braves. What would have been a dominant three-man rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg has turned into a one-two punch with a questionable No. 3.
Despite shelving one of the games most electric and dominant pitchers, the Nats' lineup is capable of carrying their team to a World Series berth on its own. Since the All-Star break, the Nationals have scored the third most runs (344) in the NL, only behind the resurgent Brewers (351) and NL West-winning Giants (345). The Braves have scored 281 runs during that same stretch, 63 fewer than the Nats. Their pitching has been getting most of the credit, but their offense has done a great job this season.
This will be a difficult series to win, but it is doable.
After the Nationals decided to bench Stephen Strasburg for the rest of the season, the Giants now have the most dominant three-man rotation in baseball. The pitching trio of Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner give the Giants the edge in any playoff series.
If you factor in the probable return of Melky Cabrera to their lineup, the Giants are poised to make another run at the World Series. As I stated in the earlier slide, the Giants have scored the second most runs in the NL since the All Star break, with a majority of the games played without Melky.
If you factor in their offensive struggles against lefties, the Giants match up very favorably against the Braves. This seems to be the toughest matchup for Atlanta.