Atlanta Braves' Playoff Fortune Rests on These 5 Players
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After a disastrous 9-18 final month last season, the Atlanta Braves wasted no time this September clinching a playoff spot. The Braves will face either the St. Louis Cardinals or Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday in the first-ever National League Wild Card Game.
In his final professional season, Chipper Jones has done nothing but make sure baseball fans everywhere know that he could continue to play. The 40-year-old is still excellent in the field and hits for power and average, but most importantly, he has been a constant in the lineup this season.
The torch will be passed next season to right fielder Jason Heyward. With 27 home runs, 80-plus RBI and 20 stolen bases this season, the 23-year-old five-tool player is having his best offensive year in his three-year career.
However, neither Jones nor Heyward is part of the group that will determine whether the Braves will make a deep playoff run. These five players must put it together to give Atlanta its first World Series title since 1995.
Note: Stats courtesy of ESPN.com
1. Eric O'Flaherty
Eric O'Flaherty has been a near-flawless reliever for Atlanta since July 12.
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He probably isn't the first player to come to mind, but lefty Eric O'Flaherty could decide quite a few games for the Braves.
He has 28 holds this season and boasts an ERA under 0.36 since the All-Star Break in 25 innings of work.
Atlanta's relievers were tops in the league and includes the best closer in the National League—and maybe the majors—in Craig Kimbrel.
The southpaw from Walla Walla, Washington must hold any Atlanta lead heading into the ninth inning to give Kimbrel a chance to close out the game.
2. Kris Medlen
Kris Medlen has been most dominant since joining the Braves' starting rotation.
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All the Braves do when Kris Medlen starts is win, win, win, no matter what.
Atlanta set an MLB record on Sunday by winning its 23rd straight contest started by the righty, who like Stephen Strasburg is in his first season since undergoing Tommy John surgery.
In his 11 regular season starts, Medlen went 9-0 and allowed a mere nine earned runs. It hasn't been officially announced, but all signs point to the streaking Medlen starting in the Wild Card game.
Hotlanta hopes that the hottest pitcher in the major leagues continues to cool down the opposition to help put the Braves into a National League Division Series.
3. Michael Bourn
Would a deep playoff run convince Michael Bourn to stay with Atlanta in free agency?
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The leadoff man starts the game. Score one for redundancy. But Michael Bourn has a key role in the beginning of Atlanta's batting order.
As he has been throughout his career, the speedster was a reliable base stealer this season, swiping 40 bases.
However, the base stealing can't happen when Bourn isn't on base. His batting average dropped 37 points since July 15 from .311 to .276.
Heyward, Jones and Freddie Freeman need to bring home runners in scoring position, and Atlanta looks to Bourn to create those opportunities.
Bourn showed promise going 2-for-3 with a walk on Sunday against the Mets as he recovers from a nagging thumb injury, but it is essential that the leadoff man gets on base.
4. Paul Maholm
Paul Maholm must continue to be the pitcher the Braves traded for at the deadline.
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Whether Mike Minor or Tommy Hanson is the last starter this postseason, Paul Maholm is in a good spot to be the third starter in the rotation for the Braves.
Since being traded to the Braves, the lefty has basically stayed as consistent to his stats as possible.
Playing for the Chicago Cubs, Maholm had a 3.74 ERA in 120.1 innings (20 starts) compared to a 3.65 ERA in 61.2 innings (10 starts) with Atlanta.
It is crucial that the 30-year-old from Mississippi State gives the Braves a quality start when he takes the hill. If he gives up three runs or fewer and hands the ball to the bullpen in the seventh inning, Atlanta will have a great chance to win a game not started by one of their two aces, Medlen and Tim Hudson.
5. Dan Uggla
2012 has been rough for Atlanta's second baseman Dan Uggla.
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There is no way around it—Dan Uggla is having the worst offensive season in his major league career.
On the bright side, he is on track to set a unique National League record this season, says SI.com's Jason Lukehart.
After struggling at the beginning of 2011, Uggla rolled out a 33-game hitting streak in the middle of the season before cooling off in September. The University of Memphis product started 2012 with a hot bat before collapsing in June but has started to heat up lately.
- June, July, August: .163 BA, 46 BB, 91 SO (Braves record: 46-34)
- September: .280 BA, 13 BB, 18 SO (Braves record: 19-8)
This improvement in September is promising for the Braves. Uggla producing in the batter's box is a vital element to Atlanta's success in the postseason.
The Braves look determined to be the second straight National League Wild Card to bring home the World Series trophy and give Chipper Jones a storybook ending to his career.