You wouldnt think there would be many issues with the Atlanta Braves right now. But even with a commanding lead in the NL East, the way things are handled the next six weeks might determine how well they do once the postseason rolls around.
The Braves are going to win the division. Thats a given. Unlike two years ago, when they blew the wildcard lead in historic fashion, the gap is just too wide for any team to catch Atlanta.
And its rather hard to believe, but this will be the first division title for the Braves since 2005. After winning 14 straight division titles between 1991 and 2004, this will be the first one in eight years.
But if the Braves are going to do anything special in October, theyve got to properly prepare now. The team must first maintain the lead for the best record in the NL, which would guarantee home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs. With the best home record in the game (44-18), having as many postseason games as possible at Turner Field is essential.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who are on an unprecedented run right now, are charging hard, and it might be tough to hold them off. But the Braves have only seven games left against teams with a winning record (this weekend against St. Louis and next week when Cleveland comes to Atlanta), so the schedule is in the Braves favor the rest of the way.
Atlanta has won a division with a huge lead three times before, with the first being in 1995. The Braves won the NL East by 21 games that season and went on to win the World Series. Then, three years later in 1998, they won by 18 games but lost to San Diego in the NLCS. Fast forward to 2002, a team that many believed was the best since that 1995 team that won it all. That team won by 19 games but got knocked out by San Francisco in the first round.
So its not a guarantee that winning the division by a wide margin is going to ensure a successful postseason. The other four teams in the NL East are not very good this year. Thats not taking anything away from the Braves, who have been outstanding since the All-Star break. But its worth pointing out as one reason for the big lead.
How do the Braves make sure they can turn it on again in late September, so they can be ready to play good ball in October? It might be easier if they were facing teams that were in the playoff hunt, but they wont play one single team that at least right now figures to be in contention.
Can this lineup, which has been tremendous in the 19-3 run, keep it up? Four players have hit above .300 since the break, and the lineup switch made a difference. But the Braves cant afford to have the inconsistency that plagued the lineup in May and June show up again in October.
Are the pitchers going to still be fresh in the postseason, or will the innings load catch up to them? With Paul Maholm coming back soon, the Braves must decide whether it would help to put him back in the rotation to give the others some rest. Thats risky, but the option might tempt the team to make sure the young pitchers, particularly Mike Minor and Julio Teheran, are ready in October.
These next six weeks will undoubtedly be an audition for the postseason rotation order. With Tim Hudson gone, there is no clear-cut candidate for the first game of a series. Minor and Teheran are having the best seasons of the starters, but do the Braves simply go with the pitcher doing the best at the time to start off a series?
And in the bullpen, which is the best in baseball, the pitchers might benefit from a little rest in September, so the Braves might bring up a few arms to save some innings for the relievers.
A lot of this is up to manager Fredi Gonzalez. Managers might prefer a team to be in some sort of pennant race in the final month, just so the team can be hot going in. But Gonzalezs team is only fighting for home field advantage, and that might be enough incentive itself for the Braves to continue playing at a high level.
But once late September rolls around, they need to be playing just as well as they are right now. If they are, the Braves will be the team to beat in October.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.