ATLANTA — This used to be the norm.
The Braves winning a division title was ho-hum news.
For the first time in eight years, Atlanta heads into the postseason as a division champion, having coasted to the top of the NL East while the Washington Nationals stumbled and three other rivals – Philadelphia, the New York Mets and Miami – finished a combined 68 games under .500.
The Braves certainly benefited from weak competition, but they deserve plenty of kudos for going 96-66 despite a rash of injuries (seven players are out for the year) and hideous seasons from two of their key offensive players.
Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, who between them are making more than $25 million this season, both hit under .200 and lost their starting jobs. Journeyman Elliot Johnson, acquired on waivers back in August, and rookie slugger Evan Gattis are expected to start when the Braves host the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Thursday night.
“I’m proud of a good season,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It’s a hell of an accomplishment for our club. Now the fun begins. I think we’re going to be OK.”
The Braves’ blueprint was roughly the same as their unprecedented run of 14 straight division titles, which began in 1991 and finally ended after the 2005 season.
Pitching has always been the name of the game in Atlanta.
No different this season.
The Braves had the best ERA in baseball (3.18), relying heavily on young starters Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor and perhaps the most surefire closer in the game, Craig Kimbrel, who had a NL-leading 50 saves.
“Hey, they’re young, but they’re going to have to grow up sooner or later,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think there’s a No. 1 ace, and I’m OK with it. Maybe we have five No. 3s.”
Medlen (15-12, 3.11) is expected to start Game 1. He is riding a streak of five straight wins, even as the Braves stumbled down the stretch.
“I feel like he can go toe to toe with anybody,” Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said.
Atlanta made the division championship a priority after losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in a disputed, one-and-done wild-card game last season. But the franchise’s reputation for postseason flops remains very much in play.
The Braves captured only one World Series crown while winning all those division titles. They are currently mired in a streak of seven straight playoff series losses since 2001, and a poor final month – 13 wins in 27 games – has most of the so-called experts picking the Dodgers to keep that misery going.
Atlanta will certainly need solid pitching against a Dodgers staff that had baseball’s second-best ERA (3.25) and features an imposing trio at the top of the rotation: Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83), followed by Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
First baseman Freddie Freeman should be in the hunt for MVP after the best season of his career – .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs to lead an offense heavy on strikeouts (1,354, tied for third-most in baseball) and batted just .249 overall.
Chris Johnson was the biggest surprise, hitting .321 with 68 RBIs after being a throw-in to the trade that brought Justin Upton from Arizona. Gattis was close behind in that category, surprisingly making the team as a non-roster player in spring training and leading all rookies with 65 RBIs while hitting 21 homers.
Identifying the biggest disappointments is easy.
Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million contract last winter and was united with his younger brother in what was supposed to be a potent 1-2 punch, couldn’t have been much worse. He hit .184 with a puny nine homers and 26 RBIs, one of the worst seasons ever from such a prominent free-agent signee.
Then there was Uggla, who was so desperate to turn things around that he had eye surgery late in the season. It didn’t help. His average was even lower than Upton’s (.179), though he did account for 22 homers and 55 RBIs on those rare times he got his bat on the ball.