Who thought the Atlanta Braves would be leading the National League’s East Division coming out of the All-Star Break? Granted, it would be more surprising if they were leading the AL East, but the fact remains it would have taken blind faith to believe this Braves team had what it takes to be where they are right now, especially after losing nine straight in April to finish the month 9-17.
But they’ve turned their season around and find themselves with the NL’s best record at 52-36. They have a four-game lead over the second-place Mets and a 4 1/2-game lead over the Phillies.
After wallowing in mediocrity for the past five seasons, the Braves are now providing their fans with postseason hopes for the first time since 2005, the last time they won the division.
But are these Braves for real? Can they continue to fend off their NL East counterparts for the remainder of the season?
And the bigger question:
Can they win the World Series?
At this stage, all signs point to them being able to win their division or at least make the playoffs. As for sending Bobby Cox, in his last season as Braves manager after 20-plus years of service, off into the sunset with a second championship ring, well — they’re still the Braves (14 consecutive division titles, one championship).
Regardless of October, what the Braves have accomplished to this point is somewhat remarkable and against the odds. A lot has gone right for the club, but a lot hasn’t.
This Braves team has overcome the season-long struggles of Nate McLouth, Yunel Escobar and Kenshin Kawakami. They’ve overcome Jair Jurrjens spending over a month on the disabled list. They’ve overcome slow starts from Brian McCann and Melky Cabrera, and injuries to Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones.
Unlikely sources of production and outside-the-box offseason acquisitions are the reasons the Braves have persevered.
If the Braves do hold on and win the division, Martin Prado deserves serious NL MVP consideration. The All-Star starting second baseman leads the league in batting average (.325), leads the majors in hits (121) and has a .990 fielding percentage to boot, good for third among NL second basemen.
Heyward, a 20-year-old rookie outfielder voted to start in the All-Star game, has lived up to high expectations coming into the season with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs, both of which rank second among MLB rookies. He’s looking like a strong NL Rookie of the Year Candidate.
Troy Glaus, Billy Wagner and Tim Hudson are all NL Comeback Player of the Year candidates. Glaus already has as many home runs (14) as games played last year (bum shoulder) and leads the team in that category along with RBIs (58).
Wagner has been the most effective closer in Atlanta since John Smoltz and is 20-for-23 in save opportunities to go with five wins, a 1.21 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 37 1/3 innings. He played in just 17 games last season between the Mets and Red Sox (elbow injury) and even contemplated retiring in the offseason. He has since said this will be his last year pitching.
Hudson, who came back from Tommy John surgery at the end of last season and appeared in seven games, is sporting a 9-4 record, a 2.30 ERA and has pitched 121 innings, all of which lead the team.
Throw in some solid starting pitching from sophomores Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen — who saved the rotation when Kawakami (1-9) was demoted to the bullpen — stingy middle relief led by Pete Moylan, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, and you have all the reasons Atlanta is in first place.
This team, unlike in recent seasons’ past, is winning games with consistency. The last four years, it was common to see the Braves win four games then turn around and lose five.
Not this year.
They have the best home record in baseball at 30-10. They’re 6-3 in extra innings, 9-7 in Interleague play and have won 14 games by one run. They’ve even managed to find nine wins for one of baseball’s most overpaid pitchers, Derek Lowe, despite his 4.35 ERA (Kawakami has a 4.48 ERA).
So there you have it, a team that is built to win in the regular season.
There’s nothing wrong with winning divisions, but if I’m a Braves fan, I’m not satisfied with just another division title. I would rather see the Braves lose the division if it meant earning a Wild Card spot and winning the World Series. Cox, Wagner and potentially Jones will retire after the season. With Glaus essentially producing his way out of Atlanta — it will take more than $2 million to keep him around next year — the 2011 Braves will have a drastically different look and no guarantees of a winning season.
These Braves have shown enough resiliency to make it to the postseason. Now when they get there, will they show the urgency it takes to win a championship? The same urgency their opponents have shown by eliminating them in so many postseasons’ past?
I know the answer, but if you’re a Braves fan, you probably don’t want to hear it.
But I’ll give you the answer anyway.
No, they can’t.
And honestly, I can’t think of a more fitting end to Cox’s career than the Braves winning the NL East and losing Game 5 of the NLDS.
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @adamkrohn.