Justin Upton Carrying Braves' Inconsistent Offense Back into Playoff Contention

Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterAugust 20, 2014

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Behind Justin Upton's five-RBI effort, the Atlanta Braves won their fifth consecutive game Tuesday night, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 11-3. The victory continues their attempt to get back in the playoff race with a down-the-stretch-they-come push. And as the final month of the regular season approaches, Upton is doing his best to carry the Braves' baton with his bat.

As part of his two-hit game, Upton's third-inning three-run home run ignited Tuesday's thrashing, which gave Atlanta a little breathing room over the Pirates (64-62), who were only a game behind the Braves (66-60) in the NL wild-card chase heading into the contest.

Since a devastating 0-8 road trip from July 29 through Aug. 6, Atlanta has won eight of 12, including three in a row over the mighty Oakland Athletics over the weekend and the first two of the current three-game set with the Pirates.

The Braves are now two up on Pittsburgh and are neck and neck with the San Francisco Giants for the second wild-card spot. They trail the St. Louis Cardinals for the other by 2.5 games.

"This is a carryover of the last five or six days where we've been playing good baseball," manager Fredi Gonzalez said after Monday's 7-3 win, via Mark Bowman of MLB.com. "The season is full of ebbs and flows. Hopefully, we're on top of one and we can ride it out a little bit."

During this five-game winning streak, Atlanta has scored 33 runs—or 6.6 per game. That's no small feat for an offense that has averaged just 3.8 per game as a whole.

Upton has fueled the way, going 8-for-19 (.421) with seven runs, three home runs and eight RBI. For the season, the soon-to-be 27-year-old is hitting a robust .287/.363/.522 with 24 homers and 80 RBI. Those homer and RBI marks rank in the top 10 in baseball, and Upton has a good chance of setting new career highs in both categories if he can keep hitting over the final 36 games.

The eight-year veteran topped out at 31 home runs and 88 RBI back in 2011, when he was still with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

That's not to say Upton is the only Braves batter who has been hitting well lately. It's not just coincidence the team's run has coincided with Jason Heyward's return to the leadoff spot, where he went 2-for-6 with three RBI himself Tuesday.

In the seven games since Gonzalez reinstalled Heyward there, he has gone 9-for-30 (.300) with five runs, a homer and five RBI—and the Braves are 6-1.

Heyward began the season as the No. 1 hitter in the lineup, only to get off to a slow start (.206/.296/.314 through April). The right fielder hasn't had any Upton-like hot stretches, but he has made steady progress, hitting .286/.367/.411 since.

Upton also has had some help from first baseman Freddie Freeman (.296/.386/.491) as well as homer-hitting catcher Evan Gattis, who bashed an exclamation point of a four-bagger, his 19th of the year, in the ninth inning Tuesday to extend the lead to 11-2.

But Upton has been the guy doing most of the mashing and driving in for the Braves lately. And boy, have they needed it.

This is, after all, an Atlanta club that ranks just outside the bottom five in baseball in runs per game (3.8) and also sits right around the bottom third in batting average (.247, 21st), on-base percentage (.311, 20th) and slugging (.374, 26th).

Their offense has looked so much better recently, and it has some suggesting suspicious activity may be afoot:

The pitching, on the other hand, hasn't been nearly as bad with a 3.38 team ERA that is the sixth best in MLB. Sure, Mike Minor (5.16 ERA) has struggled all year long, but youngsters Julio Teheran (3.06 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) and Alex Wood (3.07, 1.23) have taken the next step, while vets Ervin Santana (3.71, 1.28) and even Aaron Harang have helped solidify the rotation.

In fact, the 36-year-old, 13-year veteran Harang, a scrap-heap find late in spring training, threw 8.1 innings of three-run ball to beat the Pirates on Tuesday, bringing his season numbers to 10 wins with a 3.50 ERA.

One of the season's biggest out-of-nowhere surprises, Aaron Harang pitched into the ninth Tuesday to win his 10th game.
One of the season's biggest out-of-nowhere surprises, Aaron Harang pitched into the ninth Tuesday to win his 10th game.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If the Braves want to reach the postseason for the third consecutive season and fourth time in five years, though, they're going to need the kind of production from their bats that Upton has showcased over the past week.

"We know how baseball is," Upton said to David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after his big game. "Baseball can drive you nuts, and you can have some great times, too. So we’re just going to try to continue to stay positive and just try to ride it out."

An NL East title might be out of reach for Atlanta—the Washington Nationals have won eight in a row and are six games up—but the wild card suddenly seems like a very real possibility once again, especially because the Cardinals, Giants and Pirates are each dealing with their own shortcomings.

To get there, the Braves are going to need offense going forward from the likes of Heyward, Freeman, Gattis and others, in addition to Upton. But Upton's latest hot streak has kicked off a team-wide run that has put the club back into the thick of the playoff race.

Eventually, Upton's bat will cool off and others will have to pick up the slack with the sticks. But for now, the Braves are hoping Upton won't pass the bat(on) just yet.


Statistics are accurate as of Aug. 19 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11