With the 2011 MLB All-Star Break just under two weeks away it seems that almost all the recent media attention has been centered on the league's division leaders and big market “Hollywood” stereotyped ball clubs, such as the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and the Philadelphia Phillies. However, over the past month one of the hottest teams in all of baseball has gone relatively unnoticed, and that is the Atlanta Braves.
Although the Braves (47-35) are currently four games back of the Phillies (51-31) in the NL East, the largest deficit of any second place team in major league baseball, they have a three game lead in the Wild Card over Arizona, have the third best record in baseball, and are winners of eight of their last 10 ball games, including a recent three-game sweep on the road of the Seattle Mariners.
What’s scary is that the Braves have been relatively unhealthy over the past few months, but with the recent returns of Jason Heyward, Nate McLouth, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, and the soon-to-be activated Martin Prado, the confidence is rising inside the clubhouse and they look geared up to continue their impressive run into the All-Star Break and carry it over into the second half.
Before the break in action from July 11-14, the Braves will go on a seven game homestand with three games against the Baltimore Orioles and a four-game series with the Colorado Rockies. Perhaps the biggest series of the year so far will wrap up the first half for the Braves, as they will travel to Philadelphia for a three game series on July 8-10.
The Braves lead the season series with the Phillies 5-4.
The majority of Atlanta’s success this first half has been linked to their outstanding pitching staff, which ranks in the top three in the league in ERA (3.07, second), WHIP (1.19, first), K’s (660, second), saves (27, second) quality starts (51, second), home runs allowed (49, second), and opponents batting average (.230, first).
Jair Jurrjens has bolstered one of, if not the best, starting rotations all year long, as he was the first National League pitcher to reach 10 wins and his minuscule 2.07 ERA ranks second in all of baseball.
Along with counterparts Tommy Hanson (9-4, 2.62, 97 K’s), Tim Hudson (6-6, 3.51, .231 opp. avg.), Derek Lowe (4-6, 4.16, 76 K’s), and a very promising Brandon Beachy (3-1, 3.04, 66 K’s), the Braves have a pitching staff that compares very similar to 1995 world champion pitching staff that featured Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, and Avery.
However, the pitching talent and depth for the Braves this year goes far beyond their starting rotation, as they just happen to have one of the best bullpens in the league as well.
A 23-year-old fireball closer and 26-year-old lefty setup man, by the names of Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters, have anchored the Braves deep bullpen all season long, as well as baffle opposing hitters. A year after giving many Braves fans a taste of what was to come in their first full year in the big leagues, Kimbrel and Venters have been firing on all cylinders and putting their talents to full use. Not only have they combined for 88 appearances this year, the most appearances between a setup man and closer in all of baseball, but have combined for a 6-3 record, 2.31 ERA, 92 IP, 58 H, 119 K’s, 36 BB, and 1.03 WHIP.
“They're both hard workers,” said Braves reliever Scott Linebrink according to the AP. “It's not like they're just two young kids riding on their talent. Both have a tremendous amount of talent. But they're also willing to put in the time and effort to maximize the talent they have."
Despite the two young guns receiving most of the attention in the bullpen, others such as Eric O’Flaherty, George Sherrill, and Scott Linebrink have been very impressive too. O’Flaherty in fact, owns the best ERA on the team at 1.21.
If the Braves bullpen wasn’t scary enough as it is, they could be adding Australian born side winding reliever Peter Moylan back to the mix of things as early as August or September.
Without a doubt the biggest strength for the 2011 Atlanta Braves team is their pitching staff, but while many overlook their offense, it has recently shown flashes of heating up. The hitters providing the offense with that spark are catcher Brian McCann, who will most likely be announced as the 2011 All-Star Game’s NL starting catcher, and rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman.
While both had been solid producers in Atlanta’s lineup for the first two months of the season, they went on a tear in June, helping the Braves to a 17-9 record on the month, which ranks the best in the National League
McCann was a nightmare for opposing pitchers, as he hit .342 and hit eight home runs to go along with 18 RBI’s in his 79 at-bats, which has boosted his season totals up to .315, 14 HR, and 47 RBI’s.
Hitting right behind him has been the also hot-hitting Freeman who hit .287 on the month with 4 HR and 17 RBI’s. As for Freeman’s rookie of the year resume it looks pretty solid now, with a .272 average to go along with nine round-trippers and 34 runs driven in.
Utility man and clutch pinch hitter, Brooks Conrad also stepped up in the month of June, by hitting .421 (8-for-19) with two home runs and four runs driven in. The strong performance of late has raised his average on the season to .255.
Despite the recent offensive surge for the Braves they still are nowhere near the top in the leagues offensive categories. Heading into the month of July they rank 26th in the league in batting average (.237), 18th in runs (321), 26th in OBP (.305), and 19th in SLG (.383). The holes in the lineup up to this point in the season have been at second base, shortstop, and in the outfield. Besides injured left-fielder Martin Prado’s .277 average on the season, no other Braves outfielder is hitting over the .250 mark, although Heyward should slowly bring his average back up over that mark sometime in the second half.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment so far this season has been the performance from first year second baseman Dan Uggla. Despite homering in three of his last seven games, Uggla has been a big disappointment only hitting .178 on the year with 12 home runs and 28 runs batted in. However, manager Fredi Gonzalez, a first year Brave as well, has remained loyal and says that Uggla is his man at second base.
Aged veteran third baseman Chipper Jones has had his spurts this season along with his minor setback injuries. Jones is second on the team in runs batted in with 46 and is hitting .252 on the season.
All in all the Braves look to be in a great position as they near the midway point of the season and are currently one of the top teams in the league. If manager Fredi Gonzalez can put all the pieces together it could be a season to truly remember for the Atlanta Braves. The question is can they get past the Phillies, because they will either have to beat them out to win the division or most likely beat them in the playoffs if they want to have a shot at winning their first World Series championship since 1995.
With the team’s young, blossoming talent many think the possibility is great and if this isn’t the year their future looks even brighter.
*The Braves are 25-18 on the road this season, 2nd in MLB
*Brooks Conrad is beginning to somewhat erase his negative perception in Atlanta.
*Brian McCann is on track to becoming one of the best catchers to ever play the game
*Tim Hudson home run distance was 401 feet, he also accounted for the only two runs in the Braves 2-0 victory over Toronto and he pitched eight scoreless innings of two hit ball