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Are Braves contenders or pretenders?
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Forsyth County News
Print the playoff tickets! The Braves are on their way. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, they just completed a victorious homestand.

If that isn’t an omen of the finest kind, what is? This is a team that has turned the phrase “home field advantage” into an oxymoron.

The numbers don’t lie. Last year, the Braves posted a 43-38 home record en route to a 72-90 season. In 2007, they were 44-37 at home (84-78 overall). And in 2006, they were 39-42 (79-83).

You have to go back to 2005 to find the last Braves team that established a true home field advantage. Does that year ring any bells?

It should. That was the year of the Braves’ last division title. Their 90-72 record beat Philadelphia by two games. The key to the title? A 53-38 home record.

If a ballclub can win 60 percent of its home games, and splits on the road, that gets the team to 89 wins. And that puts the team in the playoff race. Clearly, failing to concoct that formula has been a crucial factor in keeping the Braves out of the last three playoff races.

This year began as more of the same. Even with the weekend sweep of the nose-diving Jays, the Braves home record stands at an unacceptable 11-12.

Yet, comparatively speaking, this homestand was a giant step forward. Prior to this homestand, the Braves had amassed five home wins all season. Three of those came in their first three games, against the despicable Nats.

They followed that sweep by getting swept by the once-mighty Marlins. On the next homestand, they dropped two of three to the Cardinals and Astros before losing two to the Mets.

That’s why this homestand was such a marked improvement. In fact, the improvement began right after that last game against the Mets. Since then, the Braves are 12-5.

Positives abound. Since Brian McCann got his glasses and Garret Anderson joined him in the lineup, the Braves are much more likely to produce enough runs to support their pitching.

It helps that the pitching’s not bad. The rotation of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami gives the Braves shut-down capability every day.

And the oft-maligned bullpen, after a few egregious early-season blowouts, has performed admirably for the most part. Eric O’Flaherty has been a pleasant surprise. Peter Moylan has helped, despite post-surgery rustiness.

It’s also a joyous sight to see your set-up man, Rafael Soriano, bail out your closer, Mike Gonzalez, when necessary.

Still, having said all that, I can’t help but recall the words of Frank Costanza: “These guys? I don’t know about these guys.”

They might be too fragile to negotiate a six-month season. They get two players back, and they lose the versatile, fall-out-of-bed-and-deliver-a-base-hit Omar Infante. Now Yunel Escobar has a pain in the side.

Chipper Jones won’t play in more than 120 games. It just won’t happen. And that’s a killer. Sunday, he got the winning hit on one foot.

Can the Braves survive the next six months with their current outfield configuration? The suit who thought Jordan Schafer was ready to be an everyday major league player was a tad overzealous and a bit premature.

Schafer may someday make contact with his bat more often than not, but for the time being he’s overmatched by big league pitching. Thanks to Anderson’s poor wheels, Schafer plays centerfield and half of left. He does cover lots of ground, but must he also chase every ball to the fence, only to have it carom back over his head?

Everyone acts thrilled that Jeff Francoeur has his average back up to .265. But with Golden Boy’s help, the Braves have the least productive outfield in the majors. Francoeur’s three home runs project out to 12 for the season, which would be an improvement over last year’s 11. But that proves that this isn’t a new phenomenon.

The Braves don’t have a fifth starter (does anybody miss Jo-Jo Reyes?) Despite Friday’s effort, Kawakami throws tons of pitches; Friday was the first time he made it past the sixth inning.

Eventually, those two rotation spots will wear out the bullpen, even if they station 13 guys out there.

And forget about manufacturing runs should the lineup slump. Stolen bases and sacrifice bunts occur about as often as a Francoeur home run.

A quarter of the way through the season, these Braves have offered myriad reasons for hope. And despair.

On second thought, better not print those tickets just yet.