Five keys for Braves to return to postseason

On six-game slide, Atlanta seeking answers in quest to defend NL East title

Five keys for Braves to return to postseason

SAN DIEGO -- After a second consecutive extra-innings loss forced the Braves to face the reality that they had just been swept by the Padres, Freddie Freeman uttered these words, "We're not out of this."

Though Freeman's assessment is obviously true, those who have watched the Braves drop each of their past six games have no choice but to wonder if they are destined to continue sinking. Yes, they have lost to All-Star starting pitchers -- Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Tyson Ross -- in three of these games. But they were positioned to potentially conquer Kershaw until the final out and they handed both Greinke and Ross no-decisions.

More concerning is the fact that during this six-game skid, the Braves lost a game started by a guy -- Eric Stults -- who entered with a 5.22 ERA and another in which they chased Josh Beckett before the end of the fifth inning. This maddening offense recorded nine hits against Kershaw on Thursday night and then combined for that same amount against the three San Diego starters they faced this past weekend.

"It's not from a lack of effort," Braves catcher Gerald Laird said. "I think maybe the guys are pressing and trying to do too much. The bottom line is we need to play better or we could fall out of this thing real quick."

With Tuesday night's matchup against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez up next, the Braves entered Monday's off-day sitting 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Nationals in the National League East. They also stand two games back in the chase to grab the NL's second Wild Card spot.

If the Braves are going to defend their division crown or at least gain a third consecutive postseason berth, they will have to quickly escape a slide in which they've lost 10 of their past 14 games. Since the All-Star break, they rank eighth in the NL in ERA (3.51) and 10th in runs scored (59).

These statistics certainly do not provide much reason to get excited about potential October baseball in Atlanta. But this trend has been developing for a while. Since starting the season 17-7, the Braves have gone 41-47, which equates to the NL's 10th-best winning percentage dating to April 29.

Here is a look at five key issues the Braves need to happen to turn things around and return to the postseason.

Major improvement from Minor: It is often said that it all begins with pitching and that certainly has often been the case for the Braves, who can credit their April success to the incredible numbers produced by the starting rotation they were forced to reconstruct during Spring Training. As April neared its end, there was hope that this quintet would be strengthened by the addition of Mike Minor, who was on the disabled list for the season's first month. But Minor has been one of this season's disappointments as he has not come close to resembling the guy who had posted a 2.90 ERA in the 47 previous starts he made entering this season. While Ervin Santana has bounced back from the ugly stretch he had earlier this year, Minor has extended his troubles, posting a 7.33 ERA in his past 10 starts. The Braves can only hope skipping the left-hander's next start proves to be therapeutic because with Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd already sidelined with season-ending elbow injuries, they're essentially out of options in the rotation.

A decision about who truly should hit leadoff: When manager Fredi Gonzalez placed B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot on June 24, there was reason to believe he was joking or at least toying with an experiment that would last a week or two. Six weeks later, Upton remains at the top of the lineup. He has batted .227 with a .292 on-base percentage and 3.31 plate appearance/strikeout rate.

Yes, this is an improvement compared with the .192 batting average, .270 OBP and the 3.07 PA/K rate he had compiled in the previous 197 games he had played as a Brave. But these numbers still aren't fit for this role. The Padres' Everth Cabrera (.282 OBP) is the only other player who has played at least 34 games as a leadoff hitter this year and recorded a lower OBP than Upton's .292.

Recently acquired Emilio Bonifacio stands as a candidate to be occasionally used as a leadoff hitter and center fielder. Jason Heyward's struggles against left-handed pitchers is concerning. But he could serve as the leadoff hitter in games started by righties and Bonifacio, who has hit .403 against lefties, could fill that role in the other games.

Freddie Freeman needs to become Freddie Freeman again: When Freeman hit .397 with a 1.202 OPS in this season's first 18 games, it looked like he was determined to justify the franchise-record eight-year contract he had just received. But in the 94 games since, he has hit .260 with a .773 OPS. To put that in perspective, his OPS ranks sixth among qualified first basemen dating to April 21.

Given that he is just 24 years old, it might not seem right to put great pressure on Freeman. But this is his fourth full Major League season and there is no doubt that he is the one player capable of providing the consistent production needed in the middle of the lineup.

A power resurgence: After going 6-for-34 with runners in scoring position against the Padres this past weekend, many of the Braves said one of the club's primary problems has been squandering far too many scoring opportunities. But even with these woeful numbers within a small sample size, they have still hit .239 with runners in scoring position during their 4-10 skid. This jibes with the .243 RISP average they carried into the All-Star break.

What has truly been missing from this offense has been the power this group displayed when it led the NL in homers last year.

When the Braves produced an NL-worst 4.43 PA/K last year, the club attempted to justify the mark by pointing out the team also led the Senior Circuit with a 30.06 at-bat-per-home run ratio. This year the Braves rank eighth in the NL with a 42.84 AB/HR ratio and 12th with a 4.53 PA/K mark.

Survive these next two weeks: As the Braves came out of the All-Star break, they knew the challenge that was awaiting them when they began their current eight-game road trip. It seemed they'd deal with the Dodgers, get healthy against the Padres and then try to bruise Seattle's postseason hopes. Never did they envision beginning this trip 0-6.

Things will not get any easier as the next homestand includes a series against three first-place clubs: the Nationals, Dodgers and A's. Then the Braves will hit the road for a three-game set in Pittsburgh. By the time Aug. 21 arrives, they will have a strong understanding of whether they truly are a legitimate postseason contender.

"You've just got to bear down and get it done," said Laird, a three-time World Series participant. "The good teams do that."

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