The 2013 Atlanta Braves can pump the breaks on their intensity over the final two weeks of the regular season. After all, at 30 games over .500 (88-58) and with a double-digit lead in the National League East, they are a virtual lock to win the division and host the first two games of a National League Division Series at Turner Field.
However, if the team does not want to lose their fire and competitive edge before October arrives, there are three ways to accomplish the task of staying sharp, playing to win on a nightly basis and mentally preparing for the start of very meaningful baseball.
First, and easily the most important: Recognize how much home-field advantage means.
In general, home-field advantage in the postseason doesn't guarantee anything, but for this particular Braves team the difference between playing at Turner Field and on the road has been stark.
At 51-20 in Atlanta, the Braves own baseball's best home-field advantage this season. No other team has less than 25 losses at home. Considering that less than half the season is played at home, Atlanta's home-field difference prorates to more than 10 games better than any team in the sport over the course of a full season.
Meanwhile, the Braves are in danger of taking a losing road record (37-38) with them into October. They are currently the lone division leader sporting a losing record away from their building. If a Division Series or League Championship Series comes down to a deciding game, lineup decisions and starting pitching might have to do less with advancing than the simple fact of where Atlanta plays the game.
If Dodgers lose tonight they will fall into 3-way tie with Pirates and Cards for second-best record in NL. Seeding still up for grabs in NL.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 13, 2013
Heading into play Friday evening, Atlanta owns a two-game advantage over Los Angeles for the National League's No. 1 seed in October. That lead is three over Pittsburgh and St. Louis atop the Central.
Winning games over the next few weeks isn't paramount to earning a spot in October, but it could make the difference on how far the team can go when they arrive to the big stage.
Outside of a tangible reason for keeping an edge, the Braves can invent competitive moments to stoke their fire.
In other words, the benches-clearing melee (via MLB.com) that occurred in Miami earlier this week when a Marlins rookie pitcher admired his first career long ball.
Did the 21-year-old Jose Fernandez need to showboat after the shot and spit when rounding third base? Of course not. Did the Braves have to make it a bigger deal by confronting the kid? Of course not.
We'll never know, but it's possible that Atlanta was looking for a reason to care about an otherwise innocuous midweek game against a listless Marlins team in front of a mostly empty stadium in Miami.
If that's the kind of thing that can keep an edge until the first week of October, Braves fans won't mind.
Lastly, the team with the biggest division lead in baseball can circle their calender for next week's series against the second-place Washington Nationals.
Although the Nats have played much, much better baseball in September (9-2 over last 11 games), they've only been able to cut Atlanta's lead from 15.5 games on Aug. 18 to 11 heading into play Friday.
That margin, however, conveniently creates a scenario where the Braves can clinch the division against Washington in a series that begins Monday in Nationals Park.
The ability to win the division, on the road, against last year's National League East champions should be enough motivation to get Atlanta through the early part of next week.
Fight for home field. Find an edge in the smallest creases of the game. Finish the division in Washington.
The blueprint for solid, winning baseball in Atlanta is simple. If they follow it and play decent ball until October, narratives won't follow them into the postseason.
If they scuffle over the last 16 games this month, expect the team to be faced with questions about peaking too early before they even drop a postseason game.
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