What a difference a year makes. On game 162 of last season, the Braves saw their hopes dashed as the St. Louis Cardinals made an incredible run into the playoffs and on to win the World Series. Last season we watched in agony as the Braves collapsed in September, the final image being that of rookie Freddie Freeman squatting behind first place wondering what had just happened as he grounded out to end game 162. This season we watched the thrilling come-from-behind walk-off jack that Freddie Freeman lifted into the stands to give the Braves a playoff berth.
Many have said that this is a different team, a team with incredible magic, a team that is a real event to watch.
Take a moment to think about the ups and downs this team has experienced. On both sides of the ups and downs scale stood Eric O’Flaherty who had a terrible first half and then settled in to being the lights out EOF we relied on last season. The struggles of Jair Jurrjens, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran, and Tommy Hanson left the rotation reeling at times. The loss of Brandon Beachy, who was leading the league in ERA through much of the first half, to Tommy John surgery was a major blow as well. On the flip-side of that, we saw the amazing return and unfortunate retirement of Ben Sheets. We signed Paul Maholm whose first several games with the Braves grounded the rotation and gave the boost they needed desperately at the trade deadline. Craig Kimbrel showed the entire baseball world that his Rookie of the Year season was no fluke, accomplishing things that few, if any, pitchers have done before him. And the Cinderella story of the season came from a short in stature, but not in heart, Kris Medlen. Medlen took the league by storm when he came out of relief, where, let us not forget he was doing a fantastic job, to join a rotation that had bruised and battered. We watched as Medlen racked up the strikeouts, gave his team the best pitching performance of the season, and passed Whitey Ford and Carl Hubbell with the most consecutive team wins in his starts.
That’s just pitching, folks.
Think about what Chipper Jones has meant to this team in 2012. He has been as productive in his final season when in the lineup as in his prime. There is no question that Chipper’s leadership has pushed the entire team past the collapse of 2011 and on to this stellar season. In other divisions, the record the Braves have could have won them the division. You can’t quantify what Chipper Jones brings to this team, just as, over the past homestand nobody could truly express what he has meant to the Braves organization. This much is clear: If the game is on the line and the Braves pull through in the clutch, don’t be surprised when you see Chipper somewhere in the mix.
Just as pitching had its ups and downs, the offense did as well. Consider how dominant this team might have been had the season-long slump of Dan Uggla not been a factor or the ongoing injuries of Brian McCann hadn’t kept him out of the lineup so often. Like with pitching, there were some amazing bright spots on offense. The resurgence of Jason Heyward carried the Atlanta Braves when their offense was stalled. Martin Prado was MVP-caliber in the field and at the plate, hitting particularly well in the toughest situations. The development of Freddie Freeman, like Heyward, is something the Braves can count on for years to come. The best backup catcher provided some swings when the Braves needed exactly that while also guiding a varied pitching staff with ease. And there were piece added at moments when the Braves needed them most. Paul Janish came in with an injury to the hot-hitting and future gold glover Andrelton Simons, giving the Braves everything he possibly could on both sides of the ball. Juan Francisco provided some pop on days when Chipper’s knees just needed a breather.
When the record is written about the 2012 Atlanta Braves some will say the team was streaky, which they were at times. Some writers will say the 2012 Braves, especially their rotation, didn’t live up to expectations. They will say that the Braves were good, but the Nationals were better. The difference? The Braves have been one of the most resilient teams in baseball. Hurt, scuffling, slumping, it doesn’t matter. They’ve played with grit and got the job done. What’s the difference between the Braves and the Nationals? Look at last September. The Braves fell from the highest peak to the lowest low in one month, seemingly unheard of. All season long they heard about The Collapse. Did it matter? Not one bit. Tomorrow the Braves host the first ever Wild Card game at Turner Field.
The St. Louis Cardinals know a little something about perseverance. They lost their long-time manager and MVP first baseman in the offseason. Once the season started, they lost a few key pieces to injury and didn’t quite meld until past the halfway point.
But you know what the Cardinals don’t have? They don’t have a retiring Chipper Jones who is the heart and soul of the Braves. They don’t have Jason Heyward who will put this team on his shoulders and lead the way. And they don’t have Kris Medlen who is the best pitcher in baseball right now.
In a do-or-die game with the Braves at Turner Field in front of their fans and with Medlen on the mound, don’t count this team out.
The National League Wild Card game will be telecast Friday on TBS at 5:00 p.m. (EST) The winner of the game will face the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series beginning on October 7th.