Braves at the Halfway Mark: Dead or Alive?

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Braves at the Halfway Mark:  Dead or Alive?

The Braves avoided a sweep today at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers, picking up a 4-2 win that moves them to 39-41 on the season.  As they take Thursday off before heading up to Toronto for the weekend, their season hits its halfway mark.  Through 80 games, the Braves have seen heartbreak, injury and the downright strange befall them, and as we get further and further away from playoff memories and hover closer and closer to a seemingly perpetual state of .500 baseball, does Atlanta still have hope for the 2008 season?

In some ways, the answer to that question should be absolutely not.

For starters...well, they're 39-41.  A team that's below .500 with half of the season already in the books isn't exactly the picture of postseason material. 

If you want heartbreak, try Atlanta's 22 straight one run losses on the road, dating back to last season, which is an all time MLB record, thank you very much.  The downright strange includes Chipper Jones taking a batting practice fastball to the eye off a ricochet, John Smoltz's role as a starter-turned-closer-turned-bench coach, and the Ghost of Mike Hampton, who I keep reading about with words like "simulated start" and "felt some pain" in the same paragraph, and who is yet to grace Turner Field with his mythical presence since 2005.  Meanwhile, he continues his run as the second highest paid player on the team behind Tim Hudson.

And speaking of injury...well, where would you like to start? 

In the outfield, Matt Diaz and the surprising Mark Kotsay have both spent time on the DL (Kotsay is expected back soon).  Yunel Escobar was scratched today and Chipper Jones continues to rest his quad.  But compared to the pitching injury woes, these are just little things.

John Smoltz was the No. 1 starter in April, then he was the closer, and now he may never pitch again.  Tom Glavine was supposed to be the steady support and boost of morale the team used to get back in the playoff chase this season, and he too may never pitch again, as many in the Braves community seem to be giving off indications that his injury is worse than anyone really let on.  Rafael Soriano was never able to pitch on consecutive days and is currently on the DL, joining Peter Moylan (out for the season).  Throw in Hampton's perpetual uncertainty, and you have a mess and a Braves rotation that consists of Tim Hudson and four guys named "Who?"

So why are we even having this conversation?  Where's the hope?

Actually, some of those "Who?" guys haven't been bad at all.  Hudson leads the pack at 8-5 with a 2.96 ERA, but the young duo of Jair Jurrjens (7-3, 3.20) and Jorge Campillo (7-2, 2.54) help plant some faith among doubt.

And two, you can thank the Phillies for keeping Atlanta alive.  After the win today, the 39-41 Braves find themselves only 4 games back in the NL East.  Philadelphia has lost six straight and in a division full of underachievers, who knows what the second half will hold?

The wild card, strange as it may seem, would currently appear to be a more difficult objective:  everyone in the NL East that's not Philly would currently be chasing St. Louis and Milwaukee, both well above .500.  If form holds, the Braves' best postseason hopes will come in winning the division.

When injuries are such a problem, ideally it gets better when those players return.  Mike Gonzalez has already been a real positive out of the pen, and one hopes that Mark Kotsay's return will do likewise to a lineup that's gotten the productivity they expect from Brian McCann and some reccent signs of life from Mark Teixeira.  But players like Jeff Francoeur must improve in the second half if the Braves are to stay relevant in the postseason conversation.

And then there's Chipper Jones, who between BP injuries and quad strains is still hitting .394 and is over 1.000 OPS.  While the talk of .400 is likely to die down as the season goes on, Chipper can still be the catalyst that leads this offense.

The most telling sign of life, to me, is the runs scored vs. runs allowed figure that arguably shows a team's true strength.  The Braves, despite being 39-41, are +41 in that column, third best in the National League behind only the Cubs and the Phillies.  Atlanta's 4-19 record in one run games this season certainly contributes to the record, but if the Braves can start winning some of those instead of losing them, in this division, they're not too far off the pace at all.

So hope remains, for now.  After the weekend series in Toronto, the Braves will open July with a three game Turner Field set against the Phillies.  Last time around, Philly broke Atlanta hearts with a three game sweep, essentially winning each night in the seventh inning or later.  That series moved the Braves from 3.5 back to 6.5 out.  Back in the race at 4 out today, the Braves will once again have a shot next week to put themselves in the relevant conversation, or move closer to being left out of it completely.

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