Braves putting together special season
If you were drawing up the ideal Major League Baseball team, you'd want talent and leadership along with a mixture of veteran experience and youthful enthusiasm. You'd want some speed at the top of the lineup and some big boppers in the middle. You'd want all the pitching you could get your hands on. You'd also want some remarkable stories. You know, things you'd reflect on after the season and ask yourself, "How did THAT happen?"
Ladies and gentlemen, meet your 2012 Braves.
At the moment, they may be the most interesting team in baseball, at least the most interesting team playing outside of Oakland. The Braves have evolved into a very, very good team. They haven't had a smooth ride, and maybe that makes these last few weeks even more interesting.
General manager Frank Wren has done a terrific job tweaking the roster again and again, seeking a better combination.
Let's focus on today, because so much strange stuff has happened the last couple of years that the big picture is meaningless. These Braves have a deep lineup, with a couple of prime-time players performing at a high level. They have some kids contributing, too. And they have at least one story that seems too good to be true.
Finally, at the Trade Deadline, Wren pulled off a trade that appears to have filled two very important needs by adding veteran left-hander Paul Maholm and outfielder Reed Johnson.
Things were coming together nicely before Wren pulled off that deal. The Braves have won 17 of 23 to trim the Nationals' lead in the National League East from six games to 2 1/2, and so it appears we could have a nice little horse race down the stretch. (Atlanta and Washington play six more times, the last being a three-game series at Turner Field beginning Sept. 14.)
Now to bury the lead of every Braves' story, but regardless of how it all plays out, this season will be remembered as Chipper Jones' last. He's going out in style, too, with a .313 batting average and a chance to hit 20 home runs for the first time since 2008.
Jones has played his best as the games have gotten more important. He batted .364 in July and cemented his legacy as a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the great switch-hitters ever. Because the Braves are winning, there's a feel-good sense of celebration about this last ride.
The veteran third baseman has plenty of help around him. Michael Bourn's .346 on-base percentage is tops among NL leadoff hitters with at least 300 at-bats, and Jason Heyward and Brian McCann are on 30-homer paces.
Yes, I know what you're thinking. It's all about the pitching. The Braves again have one of the great bullpens in baseball, with manager Fredi Gonzalez moving the pieces here, there and everywhere.
Atlanta's bullpen has had the second-heaviest workload in the NL, but only Chad Durbin is among the top 30 in appearances. Thanks to Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and the others, the Braves have just nine blown saves, second fewest in the NL.
Still, the Braves are going nowhere without their rotation performing at a high level, and much of this season has been about that.
Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson are 22-9, but Wren's focus has been on filling out the other three spots. Brandon Beachy appeared on his way to an All-Star season when he blew out his right elbow. His absence became more of an issue when Jair Jurrjens (3-4, 6.89 ERA) proved unable to match his performance of recent seasons.
And then came Ben Sheets.
If the Braves win a championship, they'll remember things took a huge positive turn when Sheets signed a Minor League contract.
A four-time All-Star with the Brewers, Sheets hadn't won a game in two years. But he worked relentlessly to rehab his right shoulder and has been a Godsend for the Braves.
Sheets has been to the mound four times and turned in a quality start each time. The Braves are 3-1 when he pitches.
Wren did something else really smart. That is, he stuck with 24-year-old left-hander Mike Minor through some very tough times. He said that patience was a requirement for dealing with young players, and that Minor had great stuff and would need some time to figure things out.
That he has done. In four July starts, Minor was 2-1 with a dazzling 2.98 ERA. And then this week, after being unable to land his first choice, Ryan Dempster, Wren swung a deal for Maholm.
The veteran lefty has had one of the great unnoticed seasons in the game, going 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his last six appearances. Maholm is a veteran guy who does not give into hitters and will set a good example with his poise and work ethic.
There's so much baseball left to be played that it would be silly to jump on any one bandwagon. That's especially so since the Nationals have done a good imitation of baseball's best team at times.
But the Braves have no real weaknesses, and having been through last season's nightmarish finish should be a valuable lesson on which to draw. In other words, don't sleep on the Braves.
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.