The Atlanta Braves came into the 2005 baseball season with same old question: can they win the division crown again? There's no reason why people should have picked against this Braves team, or any Braves squad over the last 14 years. As long as the Jones boys are in the lineup, as long as a guy named Smoltz is toeing the rubber, as long as Bobby Cox is cheering, and as long as Leo is rocking, it's just another year, another division title for the Braves.
With the offseason addition of pitcher Tim Hudson from the Oakland A's, and John Smoltz coming back to the rotation for the first time since 1999, some, including me, thought the Braves would have one of the leagues best rotation. Throw in Mike Hampton, John Thompson, and Horacio Ramirez and this looked like a good staff on paper.
You also had to feel good about Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles at the top of the order, along with having Brian Jordan back with the ball club, a man key to 3 of the braves division titles from 1999-2001.
I've come to expect greatness from Andruw Jones in the outfield. His string of Gold Gloves might go as long as the Braves division title run. But almost every Braves fan has wanted more offensively since the '96 World Series when Andruw hit 2 home runs at Yankee Stadium at the age of 19. We all wanted to know when he was going to break through. Well, now we know.
AJ has picked this team up and carried them with his bat ever since Chipper went on the disabled list. Andruw is just 2 homeruns and 23 RBI away from tying his totals from last year. Right now he is hitting 10 points higher than he did all of last season. The question is how will he do when Chipper comes back? For the first time in his career Andruw has had the role of leading this team with his stick and showing the youngsters how to win by example.
Atlanta's injuries are the only reason the team formerly known as the Expos is in first place at the moment in the N.L. East. The Braves trail the Washington Nationals by 1 and a half games, but it want be long before the Washington Nationals fold like a lawn chair at a family reunion. The Braves are only going to get better in the second half now that pitchers like Hudson and Hampton have rejoined the rotation, and with Chipper returning tonight. The Florida Marlins will have a solid second half and fight for the N.L. wildcard again. I just don't see anyone giving the Braves trouble.
The rookies on this club have been outstanding. Some of them must continue to step up the way Charles Thomas and Nick Green did for the 2004 Braves. I love to watch Pete Orr, who is simply just excited to pinch-run in the ninth, or Ryan Langerhans make an all-out play in the outfield. Kelly Johnson's stance and swing reminds me of a former Braves' hero, David Justice. Johnson has improved dramatically by hitting .304 since his 1-for-30 start. And Wilson Betemit has played relatively well at third in the absence of Chipper Jones.
Any move by a GM in today's game is going to be looked at hard by the critics and fans. For example, when the late Spring Training trade that sent second baseman Nick Green to the Devil Rays for pitcher Jorge Sosa went down, some questioned the move. Green was excellent last season when Marcus Giles was injured and I, like many, expected Green to be the backup second baseman this season and be a reliable pitch hitter late in games. Why trade a young second baseman for a Devil Rays pitcher? Sosa had a career record of 11-26 with an ERA of 5.17 coming in to this season. Well, never question John Schuerholz again. All Sosa has done is gone 4-1 for the Braves this season with an ERA of 2.89. That's nothing but more of Leo's magic.
Speaking of trades, that's exactly what this team might try to pull again before the deadline. If there's a situation where the team could bring a closer in, it might help this club get over the hump. Dan Kolb has not been the solution only saving 11 out of 14 games. He has done well of late, however, in the setup role giving up only three earned runs in his last 10 games. Chris Reitsma just might be the answer. He has saved nine out of 13 and has had some experience in Cincinnati.
Even though Mike Hampton gave up 5 runs in just 2 innings of work in his first start since coming off the DL, look for him to have a strong second half for the Braves. Hampton has a record of 18-4 with a 3.00 ERA after the all-star break over the last 2 years for Atlanta.
The Braves have been a good home team this season keeping the Turner Field crowd happy with a record of 29-14. They have to play better on the road, where they are just 23-27 away from ‘the Ted' this season. The Braves will continue to play well inside the division. They have the most wins in division play with a record of 26-20 against the east.
I can't even begin to say what a great feat it is the way John Smoltz has pitch in his return to the rotation this season. He is 10-5 with a 2.73 ERA and don't count the all-star out for the Cy Young Award just yet. How great would that be? Cy Young Award winner in '96 as a starter, then the N.L. saves record as closer, and then possibly another Cy Young Award as a starter. I think without question that would make him a Hall-of-Famer.
I guess the only real question is, what will the Braves do in October? I think this team will get to the NLCS, but right now St. Louis is the National League's best team. If history repeats itself, with a Cy Young Award for Smoltz, I hope the Braves get past Cardinals like they did in the 1996 NLCS. Pitching wins championships - and good pitching always beats good hitting.
I picked Atlanta to lose to the Yankees in this year's World Series, and I'm not changing my prediction. Atlanta has enough to win their sixth pennant this season. Once you get to the playoffs, however, it's usually just a flip of the coin. The Cards want to get back to the Fall Classic to prove last year's embarrassment was nothing more than a Boston team that was too hot to trot. But just like any other Braves fan, I just want to hear Skip Caray say, "Braves Win – Braves Win" 11 times this postseason.
That's not too much to ask for, is it?
14 Straight? Why not?
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