1. Will the starting pitching staff stay hot?
-While the Braves’ offense hasn’t been hitting on all cylinders for the better part of the year, the same can’t be said about the pitching staff. Thus far the Braves starting pitching has been consistently good for the whole season led by Jair Jurrjens (2.67 ERA), Javier Vasquez (2.86 ERA), and rookie Tommy Hanson (5-0, 3.00 ERA). Derek Lowe has had his struggles, but his past two starts might indicate he’s ready to duplicate the success he had with the Dodgers in last year’s second half when he went 7-3, 2.38 ERA. Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami has pitched very well after April with a 3.20 ERA, making it seem as if the cultural adjustments were the biggest reason for his early season struggles.
In Short: All indications pint to the staff keeping up their great work down the stretch to keep the Braves in just about every game from here on out.
2. Will Martin Prado make the Braves lineup feared?
-“Feared” may be a bit of a stretch, but since Martin Prado has gained the starting job at second base, the Braves have went 13-7 and are putting up a lot more runs than before. Prado is hitting at a .324 clip and has been a catalyst for the offense while batting in the number two hole in front of the run producers, Chipper, McCann, and Escobar. Escobar may have been the bigges beneficiary of Prado’s emergence as he has been moved down from the 2nd to the 5th spot in the lineup and is driving in runs at an overwhelming clip with 18 RBI in July while hitting .396.
In Short: Prado may not instill “fear” into opposing pitching staffs, but his impact on the Braves lineup is undeniable. I’m very intrigued to see if he keeps up his torrid pace and helps the Braves’ offense give the starting pitchers the runs support they deserve for the rest of the year.
3. Will the middle relief be reliable?
-Setup man Mike Gonzales has been spectacular in stints, but every now and then he’ll blow up and give away a game. For the most part though, he is an above-average setup man who can close out games if needed. Closer Rafael Soriano has been nearly unhittable this season with 14 saves in 15 chances and a microscopic 1.58 ERA. He’s also struck out 61 batters in just 45 2/3 innings pitched. However, when it comes to bridging the gap between the starters and the 8th and 9th innings it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the rest of the relievers. Coming off Tommy John surgery last year, Peter Moylan has been inconsistent, but not horrible. Manny Acosta, Kris Medlen, Boone Logan, and the rest of the crew don’t have a lot of combined major league experience, which is always key when it get late in the season and the pressure builds.
In Short: The Braves’ middle relief is average at best, but they won’t play as big of a factor in the team’s playoff hopes as one may think. If the Braves starters keep up their good work and pitch six to seven quality innings per start, there won’t be much of a gap to bridge to get to Gonzales and Soriano.
4. Can Chipper stay healthy for the rest of the year?
-Of course Chipper has had his inevitable bumps and bruises this season, as expected, but for the most part he has been in the lineup and appeared quite healthy. As Braves fans have come to expect though, Chipper cannot be counted on to go through two months without missing at least a few games with an oblique, foot, big toe, index finger, or hair follicle injury. Did I miss any??? In all seriousness though, it will be very important to the Braves’ hopes to have Chipper for as much time possible down the stretch to provide the Hall of Fame hitting approach he has given the Braves his entire career.
In Short: Look for Chipper to maybe have one stint on the 15-day D.L. over the last part of the season, but other than that I just have a feeling that he will be healthy to provide a huge spark for the remainder of the season. Chipper will not be the one to blame if the Braves are on the outside looking in come October.
5. Can they catch the defending World Champs?
-The Braves sit just 6 ½ games back of the Phillies in the division and 3 games back in the Wild Card, so they are still very much in contention. The Phillies have been the hottest team in baseball since the return of 37-year-old slugger Raul Ibanez from the disabled list. Ibanez along with all-stars Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jayson Werth make the Phillies a threat to score big every night. However, with the exception of rookie standout J.A. Happ (7-0, 2.68 ERA), Cole Hamels and the rest of the pitching staff has left plenty to be desired.
In Short: The Phillies just might be the favorites in the National League as they’ve been almost unbeatable since the all-star break, but the Braves have had their number so far this season going 7-2 against them in their head-to-head meetings. Nine more games remain between the two teams, and if the Braves can duplicate that 7-2 record they just might make the N.L. East a neck-and-neck race to the finish. Just pray the Phillies don’t get all-world ace Roy Halladay before the trade deadline, or the Braves might have to settle for trying to win the Wild Card.
You can find this article and others by Will Brooks on sportsaramadallas.com.