published Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Mark Wiedmer: Braves just good enough to break fans' hearts

National League pitcher Craig Kimbrel, of the Atlanta Braves, delivers during eighth inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game Tuesday, July 10, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo.
National League pitcher Craig Kimbrel, of the Atlanta Braves, delivers during eighth inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game Tuesday, July 10, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

You obviously need more than three good players to reach the Major League Baseball playoffs. But the Atlanta Braves getting the kind of games the rest of the regular season that the National League All-Star team got from Chipper Jones, Craig Kimbrel and Dan Uggla on Tuesday night could certainly help the club's playoff chances.

In his final All-Star game at-bat, the 40-year-old Jones delivered the kind of seeing-eye single that often wins pennants -- equal parts luck, skill and experience, which Chipper's long had in abundance.

All Kimbrel did was overwhelm and strike out both batters he faced in relief, which pretty much mirrors the closer he's been most of this season, almost as perfect as Julia Roberts' smile or James Earl Jones' voice.

As for Uggla, going 1-for-3 with an RBI against the AL's best is the kind of production one expects from a second baseman making more than $12 million a season rather than the .221 batting average he currently carries.

But can those three -- plus fellow All-Star Michael Bourn -- be counted on for All-Star-like numbers going forward over the season's final 77 games? Can the entire Braves team continue to play well enough to make the new playoff format (they're currently in) instead of falling one game shy, as it did in 2011?

If the new 10-team postseason (five from each league) began today, the Braves would be the last team to qualify in the NL, trailing division leaders Washington (East), Pittsburgh (Central) and Los Angeles (West), plus Central runner-up Cincinnati, which currently leads Atlanta by a single game in the wildcard standings.

But the Braves are also just a half-game ahead of the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, so their margin for error should remain negligible from now until their regular season ends on Oct. 3 in Pittsburgh.

"We've let a few slip away," said Jones a couple of weeks ago. "We need to tighten that up. But I definitely feel like we have the ability to make the playoffs. This is a good team. I've said that all season."

It is certainly a team that looks better today than it did heading into last weekend, before it swept the floundering Phillies in Philadelphia.

But was that more because the Braves are capable of being that good or the Phillies have become that bad?

And if it was merely some of each, does it mean anything going forward, especially over a 34-day stretch between Aug. 20 and Sept. 23, when the Braves are on the road for 22 of 32 games?

Return to the start of the season when Atlanta played 21 of its first 34 on the road and it's easy to see why Bourn said, "We've probably played the toughest schedule in the big leagues."

On Friday night against the Mets inside Turner Field that schedule begins again, the Giants to follow the middle of next week before the Braves travel to NL East division leader Washington for the first three of their final 10 games against the Nationals.

Now four games behind the Nats in the standings -- five in the loss column -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez appears to like his team's chances.

"We're in good position," he told MLB.com earlier this week. "We haven't been as consistent as we've wanted to be, but we're still right there."

Downplaying the Braves' 2-6 record against Washington to date, Uggla agrees, noting: "We match up good against them. It's just been little things so far. They've done a great job putting together that team, but we're pretty good, too."

They were pretty good two years ago and made the playoffs by one game. They were pretty good last year until the final three weeks and missed the postseason by a game. To say this team is good enough to play extra games is one thing. To do it is another.

Picking up oft-injured pitcher Ben Sheets without giving up any of the organization's current talents was wise. But no franchise loses Brandon Beachy and his otherworldly 2.00 ERA for the season and doesn't suffer.

As Jones said of several Braves last week, "It's about that time for some of these younger guys to be taking the diapers off and start getting a little more consistent in the games."

It is. And maybe they will. Maybe Uggla will put together another 33-game hitting streak as he did about this time last year. Maybe Brian McCann can keep hitting home runs, as he has in Atlanta's last four games. Maybe Jason Heyward's maturity will continue, along with pitchers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.

"I feel like the second half is going to be a big one, and I'm excited for it," McCann told MLB.com.

You hope he's right, if for no other reason than Chipper richly deserves for his Hall of Fame career to end in the postseason. But those 22 road games in 34 days down the stretch look like too big an obstacle to avoid a repeat heartbreak of 2011.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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