Watch out NL East … the Atlanta Braves aren’t going anywhere.
What a difference a week makes.
The Braves knew they had to make a statement and perform big against the Los Angeles Dodgers this past weekend, who came into their four-game set against Atlanta with baseball’s best record, to keep their playoff hopes alive.
And, they did.
If it wasn’t for the walk-off home run ball Rafael Soriano served up to Andre Either and the consequential blown save in Thursday night’s opener, Atlanta would have swept the mighty Dodgers.
Still, winning three out of four against the best in the business is not too shabby
The Braves series win against Los Angeles coupled with the Florida Marlins sweep of Philadelphia has lifted the Braves to within only 4 1/2 games of the division lead.
After Monday’s off day, Atlanta also finds themselves just four games behind the NL Wild Card-leading Colorado Rockies.
More impressively to note, the Braves won the last three against LA without Chipper Jones in the line-up.
Jones is nursing a strained left oblique, but is likely to return to the line-up tonight when the Braves open a two-game series against the Washington Nationals.
While the Braves are riding high — they have the league’s best record (24-14) since June 28th — surprisingly, the Nationals are the NL’s hottest team.
After dropping 15 of 18 through July 20, Washington has since gone on a tear, winning 14 of 20 games.
The Nationals have owned the Braves this season, winning five of nine head-to-head against them this season.
It is critical for the Braves to continue to build off the momentum from their successful trip to Southern California.
They cannot afford to overlook the Nats this week, as the National League East-leading Phillies are next up for Atlanta this weekend.
In contrast to their struggles against Washington, Atlanta has won seven of nine against Philadelphia this season. They have to hope that trend continues if they want to make a legitimate run for the division crown.
The Braves’ pitching has been solid all season long, keeping them in the hunt when a mediocre or lesser staff would have had them dead and buried by now.
Atlanta’s starters, who often fell victim to an inconsistent and anemic offense, are finally being rewarded for their efforts, thanks to the offensive turnaround the team has enjoyed as of late.
The prognosis for the Braves looks good, as the past few weeks have gradually shown that Atlanta’s offensive turnaround is not an aberration.
Even Kelly Johnson, who has struggled mightily all season long and was even demoted to the minor leagues, has contributed as of late.
Johnson came up with timely heroics against the Dodgers in not one but two of the crucial games in the series.
In Friday’s game, Johnson helped aid a three-run Braves deficit, smashing a two-run home run to assist in the comeback.
Then, fast forward to Saturday night’s contest, where Johnson came into a scoreless game in the 8th inning and ended up being the difference maker, hitting a two-run, 10th inning blast, leading Atlanta to a 2-1 victory.
Johnson’s always been known to be a streaky hitter, often frustrating the Braves brass and fans, who have seen glimpses of the great potential their young second baseman possesses.
When K.J. is swinging the bat well, he’s often unstoppable. Johnson went on a tear in the last 24 games of the 2008 season, hitting a whopping .404.
But, when he’s cold, he can’t buy himself a hit, as witnessed when he hit an abysmal .191 before his demotion early this season.
As evidenced, if Johnson’s back, the Braves offense is in for quite the boost.
But, as last week proved, it can take only a few games for a team to rise or fall.
And, with the dog days of summer rapidly approaching, the Braves realize that this week could indeed make or break their season.
Although, the same thing applied last weekend against the Dodgers and the Braves silenced their critics and embraced the challenge.
This next test proves to be harder, and only the strong survive.
Next week at this time, we should all have a clearer picture about the character and make-up of this Braves team and if they indeed have what it takes to play in October.
But, from the looks of it, these Braves are for real.