Braves lucky to be 2 games out of first place

The Braves are two games out of first place. What does this mean for the next ten days before the All Star Break?

Back on June 16th, when the Braves were starting a very tough stretch of games, we all agreed the Braves had to tread water. They probably weren't good enough to have a great stretch, but they could not afford to sink. Thankfully, the Braves went 8-8 in that difficult part of the schedule, including a 6-4 homestand against the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies, and now find their heads still above water.

In fact, they are two games out of first place, and with all the mediocrity we've seen this season out of this team, that is truly remarkable. Yes, the National League East is not very good this season, but the Braves are taking advantage of that medicrity with a team that has been just good enough.

Of course, it's still logical to be skeptical. History has shown us this team can go and do something like sweep the Phillies at home, and then turn around and lose two of three to the Nationals. They did it in May, when they swept the then-first place Blue Jays at home, only to turn around and lose the first four games of a road trip against San Francisco and Arizona.

But the starting pitching is what continues to give this team a chance to win. The Braves rotation has 11 quality starts in this previous 16-game stretch. One start, Jair Jurrjens' appearance in Cincinnati, was cut short by rain, while Kenshin Kawakami was on a roll until he got hurt on June 24th. But in the last 16 games, the Braves rotation has a 2.15 ERA.

However, in those sixteen games, the Braves offense scored only 66 runs, an average of 4.125 per game. Take out the 11 runs scored on Wednesday, and the Braves averaged only 3.67 runs in the other 15 games. Atlanta was shutout twice in that stretch, and they were held to three runs or fewer seven times.

So we all know the Braves pitching staff is going to give this team a chance to win, and the offense has got to score more runs to get the victory.

The road trip the Braves start tonight is not going to be easy. Yes, it's the Washington Nationals, and they are a terrible team. But the Nationals have always played the Braves tough. And the Braves just cannot afford to slip this weekend. They must win at least two out of three games, and it would definitely help to continue this four-game winning streak with a three-game sweep.

Then the Braves go to Chicago, and it's always tough to play the Cubs at Wrigley. They then wrap up before the All-Star Break in Colorado, and the Rockies may be the most dangerous team in the National League right now, with a resurgence after changing managers last month.

The Braves could go 6-4 on this road trip and be at .500 at the break, which would give this team a clear chance to make a run in the second half. They start the second half with a long homestand, and if they continue to hold their head above water it might make the decision of whether or not they are buyers or sellers much easier.

We all know Tim Hudson will be back soon, which could make one of the starting pitchers expendable. And we all know whom the most logical candidate will be to trade. Javier Vazquez has been outstanding this season, and it's doubtful any Braves fans will want him gone. But if one starter has to go, Vazquez just makes the most sense.

Vazquez is under contract for another season, at a reasonable rate of $11.5 million. Derek Lowe has too much money and three years left on his deal. Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are two young and too valuable to trade, and it's doubtful any team would take a gamble on Kawakami.

Vazquez should be able to get the Braves a very valuable bat. And on top of that, the ability to possibly add shortstop Yunel Escobar in a deal makes things even more intriguing. Escobar is a lame duck. The Braves want him gone, and it might not happen until this coming offseason, but there's a chance the Braves will trade him this summer.

The potential addition of another significant bat (or two), plus the addition of last year's ace starter Tim Hudson, could make the second half for the Braves very interesting.

But it all starts tonight. The Braves can't take Washington for granted. They've got to build on the momentum of the four-game winning streak and get on a huge roll before the All-Star Break.

The starting pitching will give them the chance. The offense, and perhaps who is added to the lineup, will determine the team's fate.



Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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