Braves look good now, but what can we expect next?

Kris Medlen represented another good sign for the Braves with five solid innings before the rain delay. (AP photo)

Kris Medlen represented another good sign for the Braves with five solid innings before the rain delay. (AP photo)

(Updated: midnight)

On this day a year ago, the Braves were 17 games over .500 (63-46), continued their ascent to 26 over in late August, flashing the look of a legitimate contender, and muted almost every remaining skeptic when even Dan Uggla rediscovered the art of hitting (the assumption being that his 33-game hitting streak had followed the laying of hands). Then came the fall.

After the Braves’ 7-1 win over the Miami Marlins Tuesday night, giddiness abounded once again. They have won seven straight. They are a season-best 59-44. Everybody is hitting. (OK. Not Dan Uggla. The hands thing wore off.)

So. Is it safe now to project something special?

Uh … no.

There is a lot to like about this team. They score runs. They deliver timely hits. They rank second to St. Louis in the National League in runs scored. The overall team batting average (.257) doesn’t look great, but it’s up from last season (.243) and doesn’t reflect the strength of the everyday lineup: from Chipper Jones (.316) to Martin Prado (.302) to Michael Bourn (.292) to Freddie Freeman (.279, 63 RBIs) to Jason Heyward (.309 since June; 17 homers overall) to the suddenly hot Brian McCann (.309, 9 homers and 21 RBIs in the last 19).

(Not Uggla. He’s at .208. And now, we move on.)

But last year taught us something about assumptions. When a roster without a long resume for winning loses 18 of 26 down the stretch and gets swept in a three-game series at home to end the season to miss the playoffs, it’s best to remain cautious. We can’t yet know if that team is this team. We can’t be certain that this team is immune to a tailspin.

“I feel really good about this team,” Jones said in a near-empty clubhouse after most of his teammates had left for batting practice. “I like the way we’re playing right now. I like the makeup of this ballclub. Is it enough? The next two months will tell us. But I like our chances as we sit here at the end of July.”

The Braves now sit only 2½ games behind Washington in the National League East. Assume nothing. Consider the rest of the season a flashing yellow light.

The good is the offense and the bullpen. The uncertainty is the starting rotation, from which everything flows. The trade-deadline acquisition of starter Paul Maholm from the Chicago Cubs was a solid move, even if not at the level that Ryan Dempster or obviously Zack Greinke would’ve been. Maholm’s career ERA with Chicago and Pittsburgh is a mediocre 4.30, but he has been among baseball’s hottest pitchers lately (5-0, 1.00 ERA in his last seven starts).

“I feel like the front office tried to make a humongous move and they couldn’t make it work,” David Ross said. “They were trying to get a shutdown starter. I don’t know if you would put Paul Maholm in that category, but his numbers lately are great.”

General manager Frank Wren’s best move this season also has been his cheapest move: He stole Ben Sheets from a little league team.

“He has given us one more guy we could trust on a nightly basis,” Wren said.

That’s said, Sheets somewhat illustrates the questions about the rotation. He has returned from two years out of baseball with three great starts (one earned run in 18 innings). But can we expect that to continue? If you lined up the team’s starters by perceived order of strength, it might go something like this: Tim Hudson, Sheets, Maholm, and then Mike Minor and Tommy Hanson (who just went on the disabled list) in either order.

Kris Medlen reaffirmed Tuesday night that he is a viable option. He threw five strong innings, allowing only one run and four hits and needing only 57 pitches before the rain started, causing a 1 hour, 53-minute delay. He was done for the night.

The strength of the starting pitching will cause a ripple effect with the bullpen, which last year wore out down the stretch. That, along with injuries to Hanson and Jair Jurrjens and a blur of hitting slumps led to the slide.

“What happened last September will pay dividends at some point,” Jones said. He paused before adding with a slight smile, “Whether it’s this year or years down the road remains to be seen. It was kind of a perfect storm of bad things that happened to us and led to our demise. The chance of those things happening again are slim. But we’re not going to take anything for granted.”

That’s probably wise.

By Jeff Schultz

245 comments Add your comment

Kevin

July 31st, 2012
3:53 pm

archie

July 31st, 2012
3:55 pm

Let’s hope Medlen shows his true skills on the mound: control, holding runners close, fielding his position. And at the plate: laying down a bunt, making contact, providing a quality at-bat.

Tommy Hanson, the luckiest starter in baseball, has done none of those things with any consistency.

admiral

July 31st, 2012
3:56 pm

A close second?

REAGAN2012

July 31st, 2012
3:56 pm

I THINK THA WELL CAN WIN THE WORLD SERIES ASSLONG AS THE STARTERS PTICHING HOLES UP. WE LOOKIN GOOD NOW AND NEED TO GET HOT STREEK.

Steve

July 31st, 2012
3:57 pm

“Reagan2012″ “We need to get on a hot streak?” What do you call 6 in a row?

Thomas Maximus

July 31st, 2012
3:58 pm

Any chances on the Dempster trade in the last minutes?

Kevin

July 31st, 2012
3:59 pm

I honestly would think about going to a 6 man rotation for at least 2 times through the rotation. This way each pitcher gets an extra days rest and can keep them fresh for the long run. In september you don’t have to worry about that since the rosters expand to 40.

Alcibiades

July 31st, 2012
3:59 pm

why the uggla hate? HIS NAME IS DAN UGGLA!

Furman Bitcher

July 31st, 2012
4:00 pm

Dempster to Yanks

Furman Bitcher

July 31st, 2012
4:00 pm

Er check that Dempster to rangers

Chop It Up All-Star

July 31st, 2012
4:02 pm

Based on what I’ve seen in the National League this year, the Braves are good enough to make it to the dance, but their biggest question always centers around consistency. Can they bring it every night?

Taylor Wooten

July 31st, 2012
4:02 pm

i think you are dead on….cautious.

Chanticleer

July 31st, 2012
4:02 pm

Braves win the NL East by 2 games, mark it down.

Hillbilly D

July 31st, 2012
4:02 pm

I get plumb dizzy from y’all going back and forth from the Braves being doomed to being the best thing since sliced bread, every week.

Taylor Wooten

July 31st, 2012
4:02 pm

i think you are dead on….cautious.
probably can make playoffs as wildcard, but dont see going much further than one round

Furman Bitcher

July 31st, 2012
4:03 pm

Jeff I like the Braves’ move. Reminds me of the tweeks they did in the mid 90’s to win the series. Granted we had a better starting rotation back then but we added nice pieces.

PMC

July 31st, 2012
4:04 pm

Pay MICHAEL BOURN!!!

Thomas Maximus

July 31st, 2012
4:09 pm

Atlanta Braves have traded for Ryan Dempster, with promising right-hander Randall Delgado and future considerations going to the Chicago Cubs. –ESPN

Thomas Maximus

July 31st, 2012
4:09 pm

Atlanta Braves have traded for Ryan Dempster, with promising right-hander Randall Delgado and future considerations going to the Chicago Cubs. –ESPN

Thomas Maximus

July 31st, 2012
4:09 pm

Atlanta Braves have traded for Ryan Dempster, with promising right-hander Randall Delgado and future considerations going to the Chicago Cubs. –ESPN

Thomas Maximus

July 31st, 2012
4:09 pm

Atlanta Braves have traded for Ryan Dempster, with promising right-hander Randall Delgado and future considerations going to the Chicago Cubs. –ESPN

Thomas Maximus

July 31st, 2012
4:09 pm

Atlanta Braves have traded for Ryan Dempster, with promising right-hander Randall Delgado and future considerations going to the Chicago Cubs. –ESPN

Thomas Maximus

July 31st, 2012
4:09 pm

Atlanta Braves have traded for Ryan Dempster, with promising right-hander Randall Delgado and future considerations going to the Chicago Cubs. –ESPN

Dave

July 31st, 2012
4:10 pm

Sad about Uggla losing his hands …

Marvin Mangrum

July 31st, 2012
4:13 pm

Excited about getting the two Cubs, altho I do hope they will be a bit better than Lee, the worn out first baseman. If these two guys play as good as they played with the Cubs, we will be fine. And for this I will even lay off Frank Wren a bit, Ill miss the pitcher but you know what, it was a GREAT trade.dave, man I love your stories I even like most of the music. Thanks old friend!

Stinger2

July 31st, 2012
4:13 pm

Jeff: I don`t think that what happened (the collapse) last year is in the minds of the Braves players at this point. They are playing well and seems
like thay are focused on one game at a time. With this latest move, Wren has shown that he has good judgment and does not panic. I believe this team is well positioned to not just make the playoffs rather to chase down the Nats for the Division title.

tnbravesfan

July 31st, 2012
4:14 pm

Wrong Maximus face, the braves are going with what they have. The numbers have to work people and I do believe they will resign Michael Bourn. So, as they say, it is what it is, right ole Jeffy?

NCDawg

July 31st, 2012
4:14 pm

Two things: Starting pitching and Chipper

Jethro B

July 31st, 2012
4:14 pm

Now we is cookin with grease with this new pitcher. Can’t stop us now boys………cana’t stop us

Columbus

July 31st, 2012
4:16 pm

You remain cautious. OBVIOUSLY your vacation was not as good as Bradleys!

Last year is over Schultz you killjoy. Last year was a fluke with many extenuating circumstances. This years team will not collapse. Whats your deal? We are going to ride the wave into the playoffs and its going to be a season to remember and for good reason. You remain cautious WHILE THE REST OF US ENJOY THE RIDE AND WIN THE DIVISION! I have watched the Braves for 30 plus years. This is a new year and new circumstances. WAY different circumstances…..

Last year was a fluke and not a trend so find something new to write about instead of bringing this up OVER AND OVER AND OVER…..

shadetree

July 31st, 2012
4:17 pm

DawgDad

July 31st, 2012
4:21 pm

They are still likely to face serious challenges like Hanson’s apparent fade, Minor’s potential for a beatdown, Chipper on the DL (knock on wood), Uggla continuing to flounder, but they are far better positioned to play through it without a September 2011 collapse. I think they CAN catch Washington, but it may not happen until late September. Once in the playoffs they have pitching that could hold up, but everyone (even Kimbrel) still has something to prove in a win or go home clutch situation.

DawgDad

July 31st, 2012
4:21 pm

They are still likely to face serious challenges like Hanson’s apparent fade, Minor’s potential for a beatdown, Chipper on the DL (knock on wood), Uggla continuing to flounder, but they are far better positioned to play through it without a September 2011 collapse. I think they CAN catch Washington, but it may not happen until late September. Once in the playoffs they have pitching that could hold up, but everyone (even Kimbrel) still has something to prove in a win or go home clutch situation.

TROTTINGHOME

July 31st, 2012
4:22 pm

Dempster to the Rangers………..not Atlanta

terry

July 31st, 2012
4:26 pm

we’d have a nice lead if uggla had hit at all

henry tn

July 31st, 2012
4:27 pm

in my opinion the braves do not have good enough pitching to make the play-offs

Bob Davis

July 31st, 2012
4:29 pm

More pessimism from Jeff Shultz. What else is new?

Tom(Independent Viet Vet USAF)

July 31st, 2012
4:30 pm

Archie@3:55 – It does not matter if Hansen wins 10-8 or 3-2, a win is a win!! We have a competitive team and anything can happen if you make the playoffs. The best or most talented team does not always win the WS, we have seen that happen in the last several years. Enjoy the ride and see what happens, final word – GO DOGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

admiral

July 31st, 2012
4:30 pm

Uggla is coming around. Hasn’t exactly had a hit parade the last couple of nights but he is hitting the ball real hard. They’ll start falling, and the gap to first place will start closing…

Concerned about Hanson

July 31st, 2012
4:32 pm

My sons – all in their 20’s – have told me on a number of occasions that they’ve seen Tommy Hanson making the late-night rounds in the Buckhead bars – on occasions during the season. Drinking, smoking (no kidding). I’m all for a Greg Maddux – Tom Glavine – John Smoltz intervention with Tommy to confront him about getting his body and head in shape. He seems to lack focus and intensity, and off the field activity can affect those things. For the aforementioned HOF pitchers, it was a golf course – not a Buckhead bar – between starts.

MitchC

July 31st, 2012
4:34 pm

Jeff.. I have to ask.,. have you switched bodies with Mark Bradley? Normally he’s the resident Mr Negative. Today he was all “OMG what a great trade”, and then you say this.

I ccan see why people are skeptical after last year, but.. I think we have to try and put the past behind us, and focus on now.

Is it possible the Braves will collapse, do a fold, and miss the playoffs? Yes, of course. My bet.. is that they hang in untl the end, and have a good shot to sneak in./

I dont know if they catch the Nationals, but I do think they have a..60 to 75% chance of making the playoffs.

Hillbilly D

July 31st, 2012
4:35 pm

Atlanta Braves have traded for Ryan Dempster, with promising right-hander Randall Delgado and future considerations going to the Chicago Cubs. –ESPN

ESPN is wrong again. Dempster is gone to Texas for 2 minor leaguers.

Bud Wiser

July 31st, 2012
4:36 pm

It is hard to get the foul stench from last year’s collapse out of one’s nose.

Uggla has had but one stretch of hitting since joining the Braves, but 33 games; the rest is at or near the Mendoza line.

What kind of second base skills have they in the minors?

If I was Wren, I’d be looking, and putting Uggla on the market. Maybe they could get some cash, chips, or a few hot dogs.

Person

July 31st, 2012
4:36 pm

Dempster is 5-5 with a 2.25 ERA in 104 innings over 16 starts this season. Maholm (29, younger than Dempster and under contract for next season), is 9-6 with a 3.74 ERA. Screw Dempster, he obviously didn’t want to be here anyway – we’ll take Paul.

GTWinsItAll

July 31st, 2012
4:39 pm

Hanson needs to get his head around the idea that being a ML pitcher is more than just talent. It’s a head game too, and his head isn’t in it. Greg Maddux was “all in” all the time. Always watching the other hitters, always talking baseball. Hanson needs to get in the game.

admiral

July 31st, 2012
4:39 pm

Dear 2012 Cliff Lee,

We would really appreciate it if you could do your best 2011 Cliff Lee impression tonight against the Nats.

Regards,
Braves Country

Jarhead

July 31st, 2012
4:42 pm

The rest of the season…one step forward….two steps back.

Braves needs:

1. New owners
2. New manager
3. New GM

Not in any particular order.

Come on Ted, step up to the plate.

TuffShhhtuff

July 31st, 2012
4:47 pm

Will be glad when this series with the Marlins is over. The Braves and Marlins play some very boring games! It’s more like a spring training game with the players from each team joking and cutting up with each other. No rivalry there at all.

Jack Horner

July 31st, 2012
4:50 pm

Maybe Dempster would reconsider the Braves if the Tomahawk team helped him shake one out?

Sammy

July 31st, 2012
4:54 pm

Agree about signing Michael. You have to think about next year too. A big difference this year, compared to last, will be McCann. His awful fade last year will not likely be repeated. His play is so above last year right now (last night’s play was incedible!).His play alone is good for a few extra W’s right there. The outfield is so much better this year overall too. With Maholm now added down the stretch the chances of a fade are greatly reduced unless the injury bug hits.