The reasons for skepticism are legitimate. The Atlanta Braves have given us enough signs to be hesitant about having too much optimism heading into postseason baseball.
They won 96 games this year, which was a tremendous season. Considering all that happened with the injuries, that was really quite an accomplishment.
But once the calendar flips to October, it’s a brand new season, and hopefully the stretches of bad baseball we occasionally saw in the regular season will be a distant memory.
So which Braves team will we see in the playoffs -- the one that had two stretches where it went 26-1, or the team that at times looked like it could be no-hit by a junior pitcher in high school?
It’s easy to assume the pitching will be there. Atlanta’s pitching was solid all season. The starters had the fifth-best ERA in the NL, but unfortunately the four teams ahead of Atlanta in that team statistic are the other four teams in the NL playoffs.
Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran might not be Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but they’re not bad, either. They combined for a 42-29 record and an ERA of 3.17 this season.
You can’t dwell on the fact that these three young pitchers (average age of 24.6 years old) don’t have much experience in the playoffs. How much experience do the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting pitchers have? Not much, either. And it’s not like inexperience was a factor in 1991 when Glavine and Smoltz were in their first playoff series.
You also can’t really compare the three Atlanta starters to the masterful arms the Dodgers have. Atlanta’s pitchers are going to have to get the Dodgers’ hitters out. It’s the Braves’ hitters who will worry about Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke and Ricky Nolasco, the Dodgers’ top three starting pitchers. And as you know, it’s the Braves’ hitters everyone will worry about in this series.
Let’s hope the Braves have the guts to leave Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton off the roster for the first round. It might not be easy, considering those two made a combined $25 million this season, but it’s not like they’re not going to get paid if they don’t play. They’ve already gotten their big money, despite the fact they hit a combined .181.
Yes, two regulars -- one quarter of the Atlanta starting lineup -- hit a combined .181. And exactly how did this team win the division?
There will be pressure to hope Uggla and/or Upton could turn it around in the postseason, but manager Fredi Gonzalez must ask whether his team is better with or without them in the lineup. You probably know the answer to that.
But this isn’t about hurting someone’s feelings. It’s not about making a little 6-year-old boy that’s in T-ball cry because he can’t get into the game. It’s business. The Braves are better with Elliot Johnson at second base and either Jordan Schafer in center field or Evan Gattis in left field (with Jason Heyward playing center and Justin Upton moving to right field).
If Gonzalez played Uggla and B.J. Upton and the Braves get swept, what do you think the conversation would be next week?
Atlanta must get some offense from hitters not named Freddie Freeman or Chris Johnson, the two most consistent members of the lineup all season. Brian McCann needs a good postseason in what could be his swan song with the Braves, and if Heyward can be as productive as he was before he got hit in the face or if Justin Upton can be as hot as he was in April, Atlanta will be tough to beat.
Getting an early lead is important in each game against the Dodgers, as it’s probably going to be a low-scoring series. It’s unlikely there will be many 10-8 games against Los Angeles, considering the pitching on both sides. The Braves need to be aggressive at the plate to try and grab the advantage early in each game, which might be easier if Elliot Johnson or Schafer, two speedsters, are in the lineup.
Then the goal will be simple: Get the lead to the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball, and his supporting cast is not bad either. Sure, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty are long gone with elbow issues, but Luis Avilan, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter have been outstanding.
Braves fans have waited a long time for the team to do something special in October. It’s hard to believe, but it has been 12 years since Atlanta even made it to the NLCS and 14 years since the last World Series. They’ve had too many first round disappointments, and after a very impressive regular season, it’ll be a huge letdown if that happens again this year.
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 www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.