The Braves are playing very well after the All-Star break.
So far they have won two straight series against the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants and beat up some good pitchers such as Pelfrey and Lincecum. They failed to beat Santana and Zito, but both games were very close until some unfortunate plays and calls cost the wins.
However, the real test is about to begin.
Starting from today until Aug. 9, it's going to be the most important stretch of the season for the Braves and very possibly the second hardest stretch behind the nightmare fortnights against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Losing Streak Habit
In the first half, the Braves would frequently suffer a losing streak right after a long winning streak came to an end. The Braves have not lost a series since the beginning of June, losing to Washington (what was that, by the way…) and they had won four straight before the loss to Zito.
The first task they have to accomplish is proving that they can continue winning those series. The rotation lined up pretty well against the Milwaukee Brewers; Javy and Lowe should have been more than a match against the Brewers’ pitching. Hanson's start will decide the sweep or not. However, if the Braves' bats fall silent again, like in the first half, the Brewers' dangerous lineup will cost the Braves the series win.
The Braves need the series to ensure the Phillies don't run away with the division. The Marlins should have a hard time with the Dodgers, but the Braves should be worried about gaining ground to the Phillies this weekend, rather than worry about the position as the No. 2 team in the division.
Dangerous and Explosive Marlins
Once again, the Marlins will put up their dangerous and talented young arms against the Braves.
The Braves will have to face Josh Johnson in the second game. Guess who is facing him? The ultimate “bad luck” Kawakami. Since the All-Star break, he faced Santana and Zito and next week, he will need to face Johnson. Do you know who he will face after Johnson? Chad Billingsley, that's right. The guy isn’t bad and the game where he beat the Jays was brilliant but come on...the schedule is just weird.
Anyway, the Braves were doing extremely well before the sweep from the Marlins at the beginning of the season. They were totally out-played by the fish in that series. The Marlins have been a very inconsistent team, so there is no telling what kind of Marlins' team will show up next week.
The Best Record in Baseball
Finally, the Braves are going to play the Dodgers.
They have the best ERA in the MLB and they are almost more superior in every way, except when it comes to starting pitching. The Braves have a slight edge over the Dodgers for the 3-4-5 of the rotation, as they do to every other team in baseball.
The Braves should miss Kershaw in the first series, but they will have to face both Billingsley and Kershaw in the four game series. The Braves' rotation can overpower any other rotation in the league, but winning games is not all about starting pitching nowadays. One idiotic play from Escobar, meaningless bad calls from our dear umps, or our bullpen suddenly unable to find the strike zone again, can all cost the Braves a win.
Beaten by the Bad Teams
There is a breather between the Dodgers series. The Padres are last in runs scored and second to last in ERA and they just got swept by the Marlins after being torn apart by the Phillies.
With the best rotation in baseball, the Braves should be able to guarantee a sweep against the Padres, right? Not necessarily. The series loss against the Nationals, the last series loss the Braves have had this month, the Nats were last in ERA. Hanson and Lowe were the Braves' starters in those two losses. Lowe got outpitched by Scot Olsen and the bullpen cost Hanson his fifth win of the season. That was hardly a good hitting performance.
The Braves need to take the games they can win. Yes, the Padres are playing really bad baseball, but they still carry a couple of decent arms in their rotation. If they are able to somehow keep the game close, they still can drag the Braves down with them. The best way to overcome the idiotic plays and unfortunate incidents is to just simply pound them 10 feet into the ground.
Based on the Braves’ recent hitting surge, they should be able to do it.
If the Braves can survive the tough stretch, they will have a division rivals to worry about.
They are not necessarily easy games to win, but they need to win those games anyway because it's simply the requirement to compete in the division. I have full confidence for the Braves to defeat any NL East team, but before they play those games, they have to put themselves in the position to win. The Phillies have a record of 3-4 against the Dodgers, the Braves need to do more of the same or better.
Otherwise, they will put themselves in a very bad position.