ATLANTA — It was not too long ago when the Atlanta Braves clinched the 2013 NL East title in Chicago, filling Wrigley’s visitors’ clubhouse with champagne.
A successful regular season earned the division crown, the team’s first since 2005, and it came about as easy as a major league team could hope: Injuries were minimal; competition scarce; and morale high.
Things feel quite different today, nine months since the aforementioned festivity. The Braves are no longer healthy; rather, they have been riddled by various ailments, namely to their pitching staff.
The Braves have not built a comfortable perch atop the NL East. Alternatively, they find themselves battling the Nationals, and could very well miss the playoffs all together.
Indeed, this year has come with far more adversity than the last. How have the Braves gotten here, and what should we expect moving forward?
Let’s start with B.J. Upton. To the surprise of just about everyone, the centerfielder has achieved moderate success at the plate since taking over leadoff duties on June 24.
Though he struggled through most of the first three months of the season, he has batted .294 over the last two weeks with a .333 on-base percentage.
Are those numbers sustainable? Probably not, but they sure are encouraging.
On July 5, Upton’s offensive contributions helped lead the Braves to a 10-4 win over the Diamondbacks, their ninth straight.
Shortly after the game ended, Fredi Gonzalez was asked if any of BJ's at-bats stuck out in a positive way. The veteran manager didn't cite a hit or walk, but instead brought up a grounder to short that scored Andrelton Simmons.
"That was like the beginning of April and May,” said Gonzalez, noting how luck was on the Braves’ side during that stretch. “[Then for a while] we’d rocket the ball and not get any hits. Now the ball is getting through.”
Chalk it up to dumb luck, but Gonzalez's sentiment holds true.
When things are going well this year that kind of play leads to run production. When the going gets tough, however, it tends to be an inning-killer.
Yes, these Braves have been a streaky bunch so far in 2014. The team won 17 of its first 24, dropped 31 of 54 thereafter and won nine straight. Then, just as everyone started to think their team had turned a corner, they lost three of four to the lowly Mets.
Inconsistency has been a big issue of late, and the players know it. They understand this has been a roller-coaster first half — for them and the fans — and they understand the peaks and valleys need to flatten out as autumn nears.
"We have to find a way to be more steady," third baseman Chris Johnson said. "We've been inconsistent — a lot more so than last year — and that needs to change."
Much of this inconsistency can be attributed to the struggles Johnson and several of his teammates.
Johnson, who contended for the National League batting title last year, has been a tremendous disappointment, posting a wins above replacement, or WAR, rating of an even zero through Thursday.
Essentially, that means he’s been approximately as valuable as anyone available on the waiver wire.
Defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons hasn't fared well at the plate, either, hitting in the .240s or lower until recently.
However, Simmons has improved over the last month, and has raised his average to .262. He attributes this progress to extra work spent in the film room, where he can pinpoint a number of problems, including mechanical issues, lack of discipline, etc.
“I feel really comfortable right now,” Simmons said. “There was a learning curve, and looking at film has helped me see what I’m swinging at. After a while it hits you, ‘OK, I have to be more patient, I can’t swing at those.’
“It took a little work, but we’re getting there.”
The most pleasant surprise of the year has undoubtedly been the rise of Tommy La Stella.
When the Braves finally realized Dan Uggla was not the answer at second base, La Stella was given that job and has done more than anyone could have realistically expected.
The New Jersey native’s average is hovering around .300 (.296 as of Friday) and his defense has markedly improved since getting the call up from Triple-A.
On a team that lacks contact hitters, La Stella has brought some much-needed balance to an otherwise uneven lineup.
“He’s given us exactly what we need,” Johnson said of La Stella. “We really needed that contact hitter in the lineup, and he’s become that guy.
“His defense has come along, too, so there’s no reason not to keep him in the lineup.”
Though the offense has been fairly underwhelming, Atlanta’s pitching has done just about all one could hope for considering the circumstances.
The team is currently fifth in the MLB in earned run average (3.27) despite losing starters Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd to season-ending injuries.
Much of the credit here belongs to Aaron Harang, who somehow, someway, continues to pitch well.
It's one of those stories no one could see coming: A guy who couldn't earn a spot on the Indians' MLB roster has been a stabilizing force in Atlanta, providing the Braves with a veteran arm that can keep them afloat.
Harang heads into the All Star break tied for the team in wins (nine) in addition to a 3.54 ERA.
Then there's Julio Teheran, the young Colombian, who has evolved into one of the league's more impressive young pitchers.
Teheran's 2.56 ERA is tops among Braves starters, as is his batting average against (.222).
That success earned him a trip to his first All Star Game, which will be held Tuesday in Minnesota. Joining him will be first baseman Freddie Freeman and closer Craig Kimbrel.
Through Thursday, Freeman’s average sat at .299, tops on the team, and Kimbrel’s 28 saves are the most in all of baseball.
Justin Upton, the younger of the two siblings, almost made the All Star team, falling just short in the fan voting process. He could still make trip if a current nominee bows out.
What will change?
General manager Frank Wren will make some moves prior to the trade deadline, though fans shouldn’t expect anything major. Chris Johnson won’t be replaced; a bona-fide leadoff hitter probably won’t be acquired; and an ace won’t be brought in, either, even though some believe Tampa Bay’s David Price could be had for a reasonable return.
Instead, Wren will patch up some minor holes that can be fixed without selling the farm. Fans can expect a bench player to be brought on board, as well as a middle reliever.
Over the last few years, Atlanta has been able to lean on reliable hitters — Eric Hinske, Rick Ankiel, Reed Johnson and, most recently, Evan Gattis — to come off the pine late in games.
That hasn’t been the case in 2014. Jordan Schafer, Ryan Doumit and Ramiro Pena are batting .179, .206 and .207 respectively. Their lack of production has stripped Gonzalez the luxury of making many worthwhile changes to the lineup after the seventh inning.
The reliever brought on board will ideally be a southpaw. Luis Avilan, who was nearly unhittable in 2013, has been highly ineffective thus far in 2014. Johnny Venters has experienced multiple setbacks since undergoing his second Tommy John surgery and doesn't appear close to returning.
A bench player and lefty reliever won’t magically turn this club into a World Series contender, but their collective presence will certainly go a long way towards getting Atlanta back into the postseason.
At the very least, they can turn the Braves into a more stable group. With only the Nationals standing in the way of another division title, that stability could lead to a playoff berth, if nothing else.
All things considered, that would be an impressive achievement.