Braves thrive despite not firing on all cylinders

Braves thrive despite not firing on all cylinders

Braves thrive despite not firing on all cylinders
ATLANTA -- As the Giants rode their tremendous pitching staff to a World Series title last year, one of their broadcasters, Duane Kuiper, described their tendency to routinely win low-scoring contests as "Torture."

As the Braves look back on the first half of this season, they certainly will remember a number of torturous games and stretches.

But with a pitching staff that is arguably more complete than the ones that included Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the Braves entered the All-Star break with one of the game's best records and plenty of hope that the season's second half could prove to be even better.

Braves right fielder Jason Heyward recently summarized the season's first half by saying, "It could be a lot worse and it could be a lot better."

Had the Braves entered this season knowing Heyward's sore right shoulder would severely limit his production and that Dan Uggla would bat below .200 and produce sporadic power at best, they certainly wouldn't have expected to be in their current position.

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Throw in the fact that Martin Prado missed most of the final month before the All-Star break, and it's quite obvious that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and his players have reason to be thankful. Ahead of the Midsummer Classic, the Braves find themselves sitting atop the National League's Wild Card standings and within reach of the Phillies in the NL East race.

"You can't say enough about what our pitching staff has done for us this year," Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "Our pitchers have been there for us all year, and now we're starting to swing the bats a little better."

After struggling to find his power during the season's first six weeks, McCann carried the Braves' offense through the final six weeks before the break and was rewarded with his sixth consecutive All-Star selection.

AT THE BREAK
First-half awards
  1. MVP: Brian McCann -- The game's best-hitting catcher has become a true leader in the clubhouse.
  2. Cy Young: Jair Jurrjens -- Blessed with a high baseball IQ, he understands how to succeed without dazzling stuff.
  3. Rookie: Craig Kimbrel -- Freddie Freeman and Brandon Beachy also deserve consideration, but Kimbrel earns the nod courtesy of the fearless poise shown in the closer's role
  4. Top reliever: Jonny Venters -- Arguably the game's best reliever in the first half, he was nearly perfect before fatigue bothered him in two late-June appearances.
Players to watch in the second half
  1. Dan Uggla : The Braves can only hope that he shows his normal power and a least a hint of consistency in the second half.
  2. Derek Lowe : While run support has been an issue, the veteran hurler has not lived up to his $15 million salary or the hope produced during last year's perfect September.
  3. Freddie Freeman: The talented rookie first baseman has great power and natural skills that could quickly make him a household name in the baseball world.

After his club swept the Blue Jays on June 22, Braves general manager Frank Wren said it felt like Atlanta was five games under .500, when the team was actually 10 games over at that point. This was the overwhelming sense felt by many members of the organization as the team persevered through June's offensive struggles.

While hitting just .222 in June, the Braves still managed to notch 17 victories -- six of which were decided by one run. Ten of those wins were earned in games where the pitching staff allowed two runs or fewer.

"We feel like our offense is starting to do some things," Braves veteran starter Tim Hudson said. "When we get Prado back and get him back in there, he's our best player and he's been missing for a while, but the guys have been doing a great job without him. When the offense has been slow, our pitching has been able to pick them up and put some zeroes up."

As the Braves prepare for the season's second half, they are encouraged that Prado is once again healthy and hoping that the ever-reliable Chipper Jones continues to hit in the clutch like he did during the first half. At the same time, there is still the sense that things can't help but get better for Uggla, who entered this season regarded as the right-handed power threat that would complete the Braves' lineup.

Still, while there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding what Uggla might be able to provide, the Braves are confident that their pitching staff is capable of duplicating its first-half success. Jair Jurrjens entered the break as a top NL Cy Young Award candidate, and Tommy Hanson has positioned himself to also be a candidate before the season is complete.

The bullpen suffered a big blow just two weeks into the season when Peter Moylan was lost with a back injury that will likely sideline him into August. But with rookie closer Craig Kimbrel proving ready for his role and All-Star setup man Jonny Venters once again proving to be one of the game's best relievers, the Braves' relief corps has so far shown itself to be one of the team's strengths.

As the Braves move toward the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, they may opt to add an outfielder if they feel Jordan Schafer is not quite ready to serve as an effective leadoff man on a daily basis. There is also a chance they will simply try to add depth to the bullpen with the acquisition of a middle reliever.

But for the most part, the Braves entered the break feeling good about themselves and understanding that the second half could ultimately exceed the first half.

"We all liked our team coming into the season, and nothing has changed," McCann said. "We're just really looking forward to seeing what we can do after the break."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.