Well-rounded Braves quiet in their dominance
Despite near wire-to-wire control of NL East, Atlanta hardly flashy in winning
WASHINGTON -- Seeing how the Atlanta Braves have been alone in first place for the last 161 days, it has been easy to take them for granted.
After all, the National League Central race has been a three-team heavyweight fight. And the Los Angeles Dodgers had one of the great three-month runs in history.
The Braves? As usual, there has been no drama. As usual, they make winning look easy. They are simply a smart, efficient baseball machine, a team that does everything well. No surprise there. That's how they've done things most of the last two decades.
They've transitioned from one terrific general manager, John Schuerholz, to another, Frank Wren. From one outstanding manager, Bobby Cox, to another, Fredi Gonzalez. In the clubhouse, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor are stepping up as successors to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
So as the Braves close in on another division championship (surprisingly, their first in eight years), let's give them their due. To go virtually wire to wire -- they've spent one day out of first place -- is one thing. To open up a five-game lead in April and then methodically build on it is another.
But the way the Braves have done it is a tribute to the entire organization. Forget what the standings say. This hasn't been a particularly easy season. Atlanta has won because some of the organization's smartest moves were some of its least noticed and because the club's Minor League system has shored up the roster at important times.
On Opening Day, the Braves and Nationals were supposed to duke it out for the NL East. If these weren't considered the NL's two best teams, they were close.
But only Atlanta has lived up to the billing, and the Braves have had the NL East all but wrapped up for weeks. They can officially clinch the division by winning two of three at Nationals Park this week.
The Braves did it despite playing significant chunks of the season without key players, including Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Jonny Venters, Jason Heyward and Brandon Beachy. Others fought season-long slumps -- most notably B.J. Upton, the splashy offseason free-agent signing who has been unable to get his average to .200.
Yet the bottom line has been steady. First baseman Freddie Freeman (21 homers, 99 RBIs) and shortstop Andrelton Simmons (15 home runs, Gold Glove Award-worthy defense) have had huge seasons. Third baseman Chris Johnson is hitting .330 and flirting with an NL batting title. Craig Kimbrel (47 saves) once more anchored the NL's best bullpen. Minor (13-7, 3.15 ERA) has been rock solid, and Medlen (14-12, 3.32) is finishing strong after a midseason slump.
And there are the kids. Rookie Alex Wood (3-3, 3.45) gave the rotation a tremendous boost despite being less than 18 months removed from his final game at the University of Georgia. Catcher Evan Gattis (19 home runs) slugged his way onto the roster in Spring Training and kept going. Right-hander Julio Teheran (12-8, 3.14), who was supposed to be the rotation's fifth starter, has instead been one of its most reliable.
The Braves got tremendous production from Jordan Schafer (.254), who was signed to return as a utility outfielder and ended up as much more than that. Johnson was an under-the-radar piece in the Justin Upton (25 home runs) deal with Arizona.
Gonzalez has made the pieces fit nicely. One of his smartest moves came in late July when he moved Heyward, hitting .223 at the time, into the leadoff spot. Heyward took off, hitting .341 in 22 starts before a Jon Niese fastball broke his jaw on Aug. 21. He has begun to take batting practice, and his return could be important for Atlanta in October.
At various points this season, the Dodgers, Cardinals, Reds and others have looked like the NL's best team. The Braves weren't splashy enough to make many waves in that conversation. All they've been is steady.
Now though, it would be difficult to find a better club. Same as it ever was.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.