This year, the Atlanta Braves are showing their fans that the margin between a playoff-contending team and an average team is actually pretty thin.
Instead of a starting rotation where Kris Medlen and Mike Minor are aces, the Braves ended up with an injured Medlen and an ineffective Minor.
Instead of a bullpen where key setup men Luis Avilan and David Carpenter have ERAs under 2.00, the Braves ended up with the same guys sporting ERAs over 4.00 and Avilan sent to the minors.
Instead of a lineup with two of the league’s top hitters in Chris Johnson (.321) and Freddie Freeman (.319), the Braves ended up with two decent but not great hitters in Johnson (.273) and Freeman (.288).
Those are just some of the misfortunes and poor performances plaguing the Braves this year. With less than two months left before the regular schedule runs out, is there time for the Braves to salvage some hope from a season of disappointments?
Accentuate the positive
With the Braves' recent eight-game losing streak on the West Coast, it’s easy to get caught just focusing on the negatives. Most sports media outlets are focused on the “what have you done for me lately” side of sports, but during these difficult stretches, it’s important to put some perspective on the bad.
Just before the All-Star break, the story of the Braves' season was an eight-game winning streak from late June through early July. That team that did so well is the same one doing so poorly now.
So while the losses pile up, keep in mind that this team has shown that they are capable of winning, and winning in streaks.
Let’s not forget that the Braves have spent more time in first place than any other NL East team this season.
Getting back to form
The poor performances mentioned at the beginning of this article can be turned around. Minor, Carpenter, Johnson and Freeman could all suddenly regain the magic that propelled them to career years last season.
Last year, Atlanta had a positive run differential (0.9), scoring an average of 4.2 runs per game and only allowing 3.4 runs per game. This season, both of those numbers are 3.7—the Braves have scored (434) almost exactly as many runs as they’ve given up (433).
Those numbers show that the blame cannot be placed on any one part of the team. Instead, the Braves need a couple more guys to hit a little more (and hopefully score more runs), and they also need a couple more guys to pitch a little better (and hopefully give up fewer runs).
These improvements could come from any part of the team or just from one part of the team. If Minor turns his season around and the offense stays the same, then Atlanta should see some improvement. If Freeman regains his hitting prowess from early in the season, when he hit .320 with six home runs in April, then the offense will have more punch even without any improvement from the pitching staff.
When a team like Atlanta is this close to contending, just the littlest improvement from one player could be enough to push it over the edge.
Beat ‘em head-to-head
The Braves won the NL East last season by a whopping 10 games over the Washington Nationals, and much of that margin of victory was because Atlanta took care of business when the two teams played each other. The Braves were 13-6 against Washington in 2013.
This season, Atlanta is repeating its dominance of Washington with an 8-4 record head-to-head. That owning of the Nationals must continue in the remaining six head-to-head games between the two teams.
Clearly, a team should finish strong if it plans to make the postseason. This is especially true when that team is chasing a team in front of them for the division lead. The Braves must finish strong, and they have a favorable schedule to do just that.
Atlanta plays Washington six times in their final 19 games, giving the Braves plenty of opportunities to narrow the Nats’ lead.
While Atlanta finishes the season on the road against the last-place Phillies, they play the preceding 10 games at the friendlier confines of Turner Field. The Braves have been a much better team at home this season (32-25) than on the road (27-32).
Meanwhile, the Nationals finish the season by playing eight of their final 11 games against the Miami Marlins, who may be looking for a wild-card spot. That stretch of 11 games includes a double-header during their final series of the season.
The Braves will need some stuff to go right. They might need a lot to go right. But it’s not a stretch to believe that with a few players heating up, winning games head-to-head against the Nationals and finishing strong, this year’s Braves team could return to the playoffs.