With legendary baseball manager Bobby Cox set to call it a career after the season, the Braves responded in a big way by slipping into the postseason with a roster built on young and upcoming talent. Though they lacked the overall talent to hold off the Phillies down the stretch, it’s already been a great season for the Braves and they can make it an even better one if they can make some noise in the postseason.
How they got there:
With a major injury to Chipper Jones, the franchise’s biggest superstar, it has been a few unlikely players who have stepped in to produce for the Braves this season. One of the most unlikely has to be right-fielder Jason Heyward, who was made the opening day starter at the tender age of just 20 years old. But Cox’s faith in Heyward proved to be more than warranted as he got off to a blazing hot start and ended up putting together a very solid rookie campaign. Though he’ll likely lose the Rookie of the Year to Buster Posey, Heyward has still been an integral part of their starting lineup through the bulk of the regular season. Not to be discounted also has to be second baseman Martin Prado, who was a spark plug in their lineup for most of the season before going down with injury. And as always, Brian McCann has been the Braves’ best overall player, putting together another great year and finishing among the leaders in production for catchers.
Also not to be overlooked is the impact that starting pitching Tim Hudson has had. Coming off of a major arm injury, Hudson was one of the better pitchers in the entire league for most of the season, though he did cool off and get hit pretty hard in the tail end of their playoff run. Still, without Hudson’s early contribution, the Braves wouldn’t have been in position to challenge for a postseason spot in the first place. Derek Lowe was also very good in the last month of the season, helping them maintain their lead in the Wild Card race and allow them to slip into the postseason to take on the Giants. Second year starter Tommy Hanson is the other pitcher who will be relied upon in the postseason. Hanson put together a nice overall season, though he did struggle with inconsistency during stretches. Closer Billy Wagner has also been invaluable as the hammer at the back end of their bullpen.
What they need to do to win:
A lot of it will have to come down to how well Lowe can pitch. While Hudson boasted the best overall numbers this season for the Braves, Lowe is the guy with postseason experience and the Braves need to ride his hot pitching arm into the postseason. Hudson certainly needs to turn it around as well but the Braves are going with Lowe as their number one. Against teams like the Giants and Phillies, it will be vitally important to get off to a good start by winning game one.
Recently acquired first baseman Derek Lee is also vitally important to their success as he gives them another big bat in the heart of the lineup, one that can definitely sell lots of Atlanta Braves playoff tickets. Lee provides some stability and makes for a pretty good one-two punch with Brian McCann. The other clear key will be the pitching of Billy Wagner. The Braves don’t have the type of firepower to blow teams away, which means they’ll be in their fair share of close games. Wagner will need to be able to finish off the games the Braves are in position to win for them to have a shot at advancing to the World Series.
Either way, though, the Braves have overachieved in Bobby Cox’s last year. With young talent like Hanson and Heyward, it seems that the Braves could be a team on the rise in the coming years. If they can stay ahead of the curve in terms of their young player development, the Braves could also become a very tough out in the playoffs, particularly in the first round against the Giants.
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