The Atlanta Braves are 82 games into 2013, and Sunday's 6-2 win over Arizona was the first step beyond the halfway point.
The Braves are 48-34 and entered Monday's off day with baseball's largest divisional lead at 6 1/2 games in the National League East. That distinction is as much about the dysfunction of the NL East as a function of the Braves functionality.
Remember that this club has been beset with injuries, especially to the bullpen that was penciled in as the team's overwhelming strength to start the season. Plus, the lineup has been forced to play through injuries to Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann, plus extended slumps to the underwhelming and overpaid right-handed strikeout conglomerate of Uggla, Upton and Upton.
So 14 games over .500 with as comfortable a cushion possible in the division race is worthy of praise. Success despite hardship almost always is.
But is this success worthy of the trust of a fan base in need for continued success?
Remember the following about these Braves and their lead:
They have done this by being outstanding at home, losing only one series in 13 at Turner Field. Atlanta plays 42 of its final 80 games at home.
They have done this with no more than three players playing at an All-Star level. Freeman and his team-leading totals in RBIs (53), average (.305) and hits (81) and closer Craig Kimbrel seem to be no-doubters for All-Star invitations. You can make a hard case for starting pitcher Mike Minor being included, too.
They have done this with a parade of punchouts, a showcase of swinging and missing, a wave of whiff and a cavalcade of called third strikes. This bunch is flawed -- and we knew it in March -- because they strike out at near-historic levels. The Braves have 723 Ks, almost 40 more than Boston, the next major league team on the list. (Yes, Houston has the most, but the Astros quite frankly are a major league team in name only. Seriously, combined they make less than A-Rod.)
As they have doubled down on dichotomies, it's hard not to be very impressed with the improvement and growth of manager Fredi Gonzalez in one of the most second-guessed gigs in the South. Seriously, everyone you know who watches the Braves believes they could manage the Braves.
Still, Fredi G's maturation has to be noted, and its validity is answered best by the answer to this question: Do you remember the last time you thought, "Man, Fredi, what are you DOING?"
Compare that to a couple of years ago, when you thought that at least once every game.
So what do you have? The Braves are better than their stats, and still their pieces appear to underachieve. It adds up to a winning formula if for no other reason than they have spent the last two decades expecting to win, and they still meet those expectations.
Reliant on power and consistent if not dominant pitching, these Braves have claimed top billing in an under-achieving NL East. Does that mean their comfortable lead at the turn is reason to print postseason tickets or have they been the best of a bad lot, crushing mediocre pitching and feasting on the bottom-feeders of a top-heavy National League?
This team has the look of a playoff team, but that is as common with this franchise as the cursive A on the players' caps. They are built for the marathon, winning games with depth and resilience that pays huge dividends in the heat of the summer but fades like the fan interest when football kicks and fall falls.
There is no reliable bat in the order other than Freeman. The assumed ace -- Tim Hudson -- has not won in 10 starts, despite having a 2.45 ERA in six June starts.
So it goes, and halfway in we're sure the Braves are in first, even if we're unsure how they got there or if they can stay.
They're fine, and they are flawed. How would you grade them? Like the season, they are incomplete.
Contact Jay Greeson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...
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