The Atlanta Braves are going to win the wild card in the NL.
Yes, I feel comfortable enough to write that, although it is Sept. 7 and although there are three weeks left. The lead is just too large, and this team will not fold.
It doesn’t mean, however, that it’s going to be easy. Atlanta’s starting pitching, which was the key to the first half, is now a question mark. And it means others must step up once October rolls around.
This all happened last year. Remember when the injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado were just too tough to overcome? Instead of Prado at second base, the Braves had Brooks Conrad there. And we all know what happened with that.
It’s a bit different this year, with concerns lingering about the rotation. Tommy Hanson has a bad shoulder. Jair Jurrjens has a bad knee. Those two were Cy Young candidates two months ago, and now we don’t know if either will be pitching in October.
Before the All-Star Break, Hanson and Jurrjens were outstanding. They were 22-7 with a 2.14 ERA in 33 games. After the break, the duo has started just 12 games and has a 2-6 record and a 6.75 ERA.
Hanson has a better chance at returning. The early reports on his throwing sessions show progress with his shoulder. Of course, the reports don’t really tell us how strong he’ll be once he returns, but at least Hanson might be back.
Jurrjens will take two more weeks before getting back on the mound to test his knee. So time could easily run out on him, making it the second straight postseason he would miss with the knee.
Atlanta really needs one of these two back in October. They’ll have Tim Hudson, who has had a great season and would be the No. 1 starter. Brandon Beachy is someone that can be counted on. He has done enough to prove that, despite his youth and inexperience, Beachy is a very good pitcher.
And then there’s Derek Lowe. Yeah, time to take a deep breath. Lowe provided more reason Monday night to doubt his ability to be effective in October. He had done well for a few starts, but then he struggled against Philadelphia during the opener of this week’s series.
I’d honestly prefer to have Mike Minor in the playoff rotation instead of Lowe, but the Braves will probably say, “He’s a veteran, he’s been there before, etc.,” and have him in there. But Lowe has provided no reason to think he can be effective against Milwaukee, Atlanta’s probable first round opponent.
Minor, however, has been pretty good recently, and it might not be a bad thing to have him, a left-hander, in the rotation. Milwaukee will have left-handed hitter Prince Fielder in the lineup, and if the Braves face the Phillies they’d have Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to deal with in round two.
Atlanta might be able to get by with three starting pitchers, but it will not be easy. The Braves might be tempted by a good September to go with Julio Teheran and/or Randall Delgado, two young pitchers who have great futures. With the uncertainty of Hanson and Jurrjens and the shaky status of Lowe, it’s hard to believe the Braves might actually depend on two young pitchers to help out in October.
The rotation just needs to be decent, since if they can get the game to the sixth inning the Atlanta bullpen probably will finish the game. Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty are having a historic season, and they are the best relief trio in the game. But if we instead see Cristhian Martinez in the game, that probably will mean the starters struggled and we might never see the big three relievers.
It’s just hard to believe the one thing that got Atlanta on track to get back to the postseason is now its biggest question. And the ability for the rotation to overcome these obstacles might determine how the Braves do in October.
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