TheWinner of the NL Wild Card Has Clearly Emerged

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TheWinner of the NL Wild Card Has Clearly Emerged
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 21: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Atlanta Braves is congratulated by Chipper Jones #10 after their 1-0 win in the ninth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Turner Field on August 21, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

St. Louis and San Francisco, forget about it.

The Atlanta Braves have, though not officially, won the NL Wild Card. Is this declaration premature? Sure, but so is declaring the Philadelphia Phillies winners of the NL East, which is what we all know is going to be the case come October. Since most Braves fans, including myself, have realized their fate in the NL East, they have narrowed their view to the Wild Card Race. 

Earlier in the month of August, the race for the playoffs was slightly unclear. There were three teams within close distance to each other, with the Braves barely on top. St. Louis was looking scarier and scarier and the Diamondbacks were playing their best baseball of the season. On August 2, the Braves only held a 1.5 game advantage over the Diamondbacks and the Giants and a 4.5 game advantage over the Cards. Things were getting tight.

Even though that was the closest any team was from the Braves in the past few months during their reign over the Wild Card standings, most believed that the race was far from over for the next week.

Then the Braves hit the gas and roared ahead. The Diamondbacks also turned up the heat, but they overtook the Giants in the West and became somewhat irrelevant in the Wild Card. The Giants began to feel the consequences of injuries and along with losing their grip on their division, they slipped in the Wild Card standings.

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 18: Mike Minor #36 of the Atlanta Braves pitches to Orlando Cabrera #43 of the San Francisco Giants at Turner Field on August 18, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The third crucial team in the race, the St. Louis Cardinals, also started playing mediocre baseball. From August 9 to the 20, Tony LaRussa's club went 4-7, and for the month of August, they have only gone from five games over .500 to six games. Now, if the team that was in the lead of the Wild Card played .500 baseball in August, then the Cardinals would not be in such a predicament. However, when we come to the Braves, we see that playing .500 ball is not going to cut it.

The Bravos have gone 13-6 in the month of August and have won six of their last seven games (Aug. 15-Aug. 21) Could this be just a lucky hot streak? When looking at the overall state of the club, signs would point to no. The Braves, unlike the Giants, are getting key players back from injury and have even called up skillful support players that have added to the starter's success.

What has helped the Braves jump from being only 1.5 games ahead to eight games ahead has been the direct play with the other contenders. The past two series for the Braves have come against the top two NL West teams, the Giants and Arizona. The Braves beat the Giants three games to one and swept the Diamondbacks.

In terms of the next month, it is highly improbable that Atlanta will relinquish their substantial lead. Their schedule may not be that favorable for most teams, but in my humble opinion, it is perfect for the Braves. They get to play teams with winning records, which for some reason, the Braves play better against.

The two series against the Phillies (one at home, the other in Philly) look daunting, but the Braves are actually 6-6 against the best team in the Majors. The Braves also get to play the Mets, the Marlins and the Nationals twice in the remainder of the season, teams that can easily be defeated.

I think we can all agree that the Braves have a firm grip on the Wild Card. They have dominated offensively as of late and have pitched two shutouts in the past four games. Their competitors, on the other hand, have shown signs of weakness and exhaustion. The Giants have lost almost half of their roster to injury and the Cardinals do not have standout playoff ready pitching.

Those two teams also will not gain significant additions when rosters expand. The Braves will. Top prospects and players like Julio Teheran, Peter Moylan, Randall Delgado and others will join the team and bolster their playoff chances.

The Wild Card position is the Atlanta Braves' to lose, and with the way they have been playing, it looks like they will for the second straight year enter the playoffs. This time though, they will be prepared and healthy. Watch out for the chop.  

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