We start with the obvious: Yes, the Braves are in great shape, but they were in great shape a year ago and collapsed in a heap. They awoke Saturday with the same record (70-49) as they held after 119 games in 2011, and then they owned a six-game lead over St. Louis and San Francisco for the one and only wild-card berth.
This year there are two wild cards, and the Braves led Los Angeles by 5 1/2 games for the second WC entering Saturday night’s game at Turner Field. And they were 3 1/2 games closer to the first-place team in the National League East — Philadelphia last year, Washington now — than in August 2011.
Baseball Prospectus gauges the Braves’ chances of making the 2012 playoffs at 96.7 percent. So, to put it bluntly: Unless this team authors a flop of historic dimensions for the second consecutive year — and what are the odds of that? — it will qualify for the postseason. And what’s apt to happen then?
Said Frank Wren, the general manager: “[The playoffs are] a function of when do you play well, and if we’re playing well then clearly we’ve got a team that can go all the way.”
He means to a World Series championship, something the Atlanta Braves managed in 1995 but never since. Given that the Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, and given that this team hasn’t had a sniff of first place in its division since May 21, that might sound ambitious. It shouldn’t.
The Braves have the second-best record in baseball since the All-Star break, just ahead of the Nationals, whom they’re chasing, and just behind the Reds, whom they might well face in the Division Series. The Braves have lost one of the past 12 series. After 81 games, they were three games above .500; they were 21 above as of Saturday afternoon.
Said Wren: “We’re playing good baseball. We’re catching the ball really well; we have speed, and our bullpen has been very good. And our starting pitching has rounded into shape. We’re seeing the consistency we didn’t see earlier in the season.”
Then this: “We’re also really good in situational hitting, the two-out hits. We’re really good in situations that are characteristic of good teams.”
Through 119 games, these Braves have been much better at scoring (558 runs) than they were a year ago (498 runs) but less good at preventing runs (464, as opposed to 435 in 2011). But the rotation that powered the Braves through the first four months of last season had begun to fray by August. Tommy Hanson worked his final start on Aug. 6, and Jair Jurrjens would throw his last pitch of 2011 on Aug. 30.
Wren: “There was more concern about our starting pitching a year ago, and our lineup had more holes. And we didn’t play as good defensively.”
By the end of August 2011, the Braves were wobbling. (Though the Cardinals’ chase wouldn’t take wings until they swept the Braves in early September.) The 2012 Braves are gathering strength. They mightn’t boast a real No. 1 starter, but they have enough rotational options that they won’t get caught short this time. Closer Craig Kimbrel, who blew three saves in September, is on pace to work 61 games, not the 79 of last season. And this offense generates enough runs that not every game is a hairbreadth thing.
With Ben Sheets and Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen in the rotation and Reed Johnson on the bench, these Braves are better than last year’s team. That doesn’t mean they still can’t blow this, but the belief here is that they won’t. (For the record, the belief here was that the 2011 Braves would still make the playoffs with two games remaining.) They’d have to fall apart even more comprehensively than they did a year ago, and I’m not sure that’s possible.
By Mark Bradley