It’s safe to open your eyes now. They survived.
The injuries, the offensive struggles, the questions about a leadoff hitter, the faceplant by Dan Uggla, the sudden tabloid fodder of Roger McDowell and Derek Lowe, whatever that was when Chipper Jones said something about Jason Heyward not playing with a sore shoulder . . . somehow the Braves have overcome it all.
They won again Thursday. They dumped the Colorado Rockies 6-3 and swept a four-game series by a composite score of 24-8. They went 6-1 on a homestand. They’ve won nine of their last 10 and 14 of their last 17 to close to within 2½ games of first-place Philadelphia Phillies.
The Braves and Phillies meet in a final weekend series before the All-Star break beginning Friday night. A few weeks ago, could you have imagined this many positive signs?
The Braves have a better record now (53-36) than they did at the All-Star break last season (52-36). To their credit, they’ve never looked like they were going to fall apart this year, despite the problems. They were just sort of looked like they were stuck in second gear.
As catcher Brian McCann said, “Sometimes when you have injuries, it’s hard to get into a flow. You know that over 162 games that you’re going to have ups and downs. It just so happened that the first few months of the season, we had our downs. We’re just lucky we have the pitching staff we do because it kind of masked [the problems]. Hopefully all of that is behind us now.”
It’s significant not just that the Braves are winning by how they’re winning. They’re still doing it without one of their best players, Martin Prado, who by the time he returns after the All-Star break will have missed at least 31 games (one-third of the season to this point). They’re doing it with Chipper Jones trying to get by on a knee that needed surgery weeks ago. They’re doing it with Uggla grinding. Despite showing signs of an awakening — 5-for-9 with four walks in the last three games — Uggla is hitting .183 and hasn’t seen .200 by his name since May 16.
This is all good news. Why? Because Prado is coming back . Jones will have surgery and presumably get healthy. And at some point, the odds figure to catch up with Uggla (a career .263 hitter before this season).
You want positive signs for the future? Here are a few. Freddie Freeman, the 21-year-old rookie first baseman, had three hits, including a three-run home run, in Thursday’s win. In the last five games, he is 8-for-16 with four homers, eight RBIs and five walks. Heyward, also 21, also went 3-for-4 with a homer and was robbed of an infield single and a four-hit day by first base umpire Wally Bell, who apparently had some place to go.
Craig Kimbrel, the 23-year-old closer, earned his 27th save. That’s a major league rookie record before the All-Star break. So much for one of this season’s major questions: Can Billy Wagner be replaced?
None of this means they’re going to sweep the Phillies and take over first place before the All-Star break. But it’s hard to imagine a team overcoming this many obstacles and it not paying off at some point.
“I’ve said from the beginning, when people were asking me who’s the favorite [to win the National League East], the teams that can survive the injury bug are the ones who will be there at the end,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We still have along way to go. But hopefully we have survived our injury bug.”
The pitching has rocked from day one. Now we see an offense rise from the dead. If 37 runs and 64 hits during a seven-game homestand doesn’t quite represent an explosion — just over five runs and nine hits per game — it’s a relative jolt compared to the flat-line offense we had seen on too many nights.
Said Jones, “We’re probably at an all-time high as far as our confidence goes. We’re poised to play well [against the Phillies]. We have to stand up to them at some point so there’s no better time than this weekend.”
There’s reason to like the view.
By Jeff Schultz