Last season, the Atlanta Braves led the National League in walks and on-base percentage and had the sixth fewest strikeouts in the league. They received contributions from unknown players, such as Brooks Conrad, and thought-to-be-washed-up players like Troy Glaus. These unlikely contributions led to 25 walk-off wins for the Braves and a postseason birth as the National League's Wild Card.
This season has been a different story, however.
As of the end of May, the 2011 Braves are 13th among the 16 NL teams in on-base percentage and have the fifth-most strikeouts in the league. They have yet to hit the ball as successfully as many analysts expected them to and are currently third in the NL East behind the Philadelphia Phillies and Florida Marlins.
In order to return to the playoffs, these next five players need to step up—and quickly.
Dan Uggla, who is currently making $9 million in the first year of his five-year, $62 million contract, has seen his spot in the batting order drop and his off-days increase in hopes he'll be able to regain his confidence and start hitting the ball.
Entering the 2011 season, Uggla had averaged more than 27 home runs a season. His 2010 campaign was one of his best since coming up to the big leagues, as he hit a career-high .287 and drove in a career-high 105 runs.
Now, in early June, Uggla's batting average is a dismal .172, which translates to 38 hits in 221 at-bats, and he's only hit seven home runs and driven in 16 runs. He's also struck out 46 times and currently has a .240 on-base percentage.
The Braves will need Uggla to return to his Marlin-form quickly if they plan on staying in the NL East race.
Braves' outfielder Jason Heyward enjoyed a stellar rookie season that featured a starting spot in the 2010 All-Star Game and a postseason appearance. He finished the season batting .277 with 18 home runs, 78 RBI and a .393 on-base percentage.
2011 has been a struggle for Heyward, though, who has had to deal with multiple injuries already during the young season.
He's currently batting .217 with seven home runs and 14 RBI. What is even more disturbing than Heyward's batting average is his on-base percentage, which currently rests at .317.
Once Heyward returns from the DL, the Braves are hoping his right shoulder will be completely healed and he'll be ready to lead the team into October once again.
Braves' ace Tim Hudson went 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA last season, his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery near the end of the 2008 season. He was named to the National League All-Star team and was in the running for the National League Cy Young Award until a few hiccups late in the season.
However, this season, Hudson has either been really good or really bad when taking the mound for Atlanta.
He's currently 4-5 with a 4.14 ERA and 46 strikeouts. Hudson hasn't won in his last five appearances, in which he's given up three, two, eight, one and five runs, respectively.
He's been hit hard in the first inning of ball games thus far and will need to pitch more effectively to keep the Braves in the ever-competitive NL East race.
Utility man Brooks Conrad was the spark in the Braves' lineup last season, as he provided the team with walk-off hit after walk-off hit. He and fellow bench player Eric Hinske were two of the most productive players coming off the bench in all of baseball last season and were key factors in the Braves' postseason run.
Although he has two game-winning hits again this season, Conrad has struggled in 2011.
As of June 6, Conrad is batting .156 with one home run and five RBI through 32 at-bats. When the struggling Uggla is benched, it is usually Conrad who fills in for him. The fact both players are batting below .200 is another key reason why the Braves are not in first place after two months.
The Braves need Conrad to swing the magic, game-winning bat once again if they plan to play late into October. They cannot rely solely on Hinske coming off the bench.
Although Nate McLouth is off to a much better start than last season, the Braves still need him to contribute more if they want to contend with the powerful Phillies' lineup.
McLouth, who is currently on the 15-day DL with a strained left oblique, is batting .238 with three home runs and 11 RBI through 48 games. His batting average was .262 on May 16, but it has gone into free-fall mode since then, as McLouth has only recorded one hit in his last 17 at-bats.
The Braves are hoping that, once McLouth returns from the DL, he'll be able to swing a more confident bat and drive in some runs to help their struggling offense.