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Onus on Braves to rise up for stretch run

Onus on Braves to rise up for stretch run

ATLANTA -- Given the fact that they're less than three weeks removed from an eight-game losing streak, the Braves are obviously in a better state than they were earlier this month. But as they prepare to enter the final week of August, they still have not provided a clear picture of what September might bring.

With that being said, the Braves are also just three years removed from proving that it does not necessarily matter how much optimism you carry into September. More important is the level of optimism created as the regular season's final four weeks unfold.

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In order to overcome this year's flurry of disappointments, the Braves will need to end this season much differently than they did in 2011, when they squandered a 9 1/2-game National League Wild Card lead that they had owned as late as Aug. 25. They currently sit eight games behind the Nationals in the NL East race. While its hopes of defending the division crown might now be bordering on the unrealistic, Atlanta is just one game behind the Giants in the battle to secure the NL's second and final Wild Card berth.

The Braves are also just three games behind the Cardinals, who own the NL Wild Card lead. But it should be remembered that Atlanta does not own the tiebreaker against St. Louis or San Francisco.

Here are some storylines to follow as the Braves attempt to secure a postseason berth:

Is Atlanta pointed in the right direction?
The Braves have gone 10-7 since their eight-game losing streak and 7-3 since losing a home series to the Dodgers two weeks ago. It seemed like they were headed in the right direction when they won their fifth straight game on Tuesday. But then they stumbled through the final two innings of a three-game series in Pittsburgh, and then saw their maddening lineup go silent yet again during most of this past weekend in Cincinnati.

The Braves scored in just six of the final 30 innings played against the Reds, who had produced a 6.17 ERA in the process of losing nine of their past 10 entering Friday. With back-to-back losses on Saturday and Sunday, Atlanta lost a prime opportunity to escape the path of mediocrity it has followed while going 51-56 dating back to April 29. During this 107-game span, the Braves have averaged 3.81 runs, which ranks 11th in the NL.

Will Upton continue to be a significant influence?
While some have questioned whether Justin Upton is making himself a legit NL MVP Award candidate (1.029 OPS in his past 24 games since July 30), Jason Heyward is the most valuable player the Braves put on the field on a daily basis because of his offensive/defensive mix. With that being said, Upton has been as influential as any Atlanta player from an offensive perspective since the start of last year.

J-Up makes braves go
Streak Record BA/HR/OPS
4/1/13-4/18/13 13-2 .328/9/1.256
7/26/13-8/16/13 18-2 .392/7/1.234
3/31/14-4/27/14 17-7 .330/7/1.031
6/27/14-7/5/14 9-0 .273/1/.799

Minus that nine-game winning streak earlier this year, the Braves' best streaks have coincided with Upton's. As he went hitless during the final two days in Cincinnati, Atlanta's offense totaled three runs, two of which scored during Sunday's ninth inning. If the Braves are going to finish this season strong, they might need Upton to end it much like he started the past two.

Is Minor truly back?
Hours after the non-waiver Trade Deadline passed, it was revealed that the Braves had been shopping B.J. Upton. Unless you are of the opinion that "the sun came up" is newsworthy on daily basis, this obviously did not merit any surprise. But a disturbing side note to this rumor came from the fact that the Braves were thinking about using Mike Minor to be the piece that would lure teams to agree to what would have been a bad-contract-for-bad-contract deal.

This has certainly not been a season to remember for Minor, whose troubles began when an internal procedure pushed him a month behind schedule entering Spring Training. But since getting a chance to clear his head as his start was skipped during this month's first week, he has produced three strong outings and looked like the dependable lefty he was from July 2012 through the end of last year.

There's no doubt the Braves would like to part ways the approximately $50 million still owed B.J. Upton through the end of 2017. But to have done so at the expense of Minor would have likely drawn ire for many years to come.

Will this be a September to remember for Fredi?
This has been a challenging season to say the least for manager Fredi Gonzalez, who bid adieu to two starting pitchers (Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy) in Spring Training and entered this season with the task of placing Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton back in his lineup for a second straight year. While the plug was pulled on Uggla after the All-Star break, Gonzalez still had to deal with the consequences of having the frustrated and disgruntled veteran stay within his clubhouse for two months after being benched in early May.

While the consequences of the Upton deal will likely need to be addressed during the offseason, Gonzalez does at least have the benefit of occasionally playing Emilio Bonifacio in center field. The skipper has said he would likely shy away from using Phil Gosselin in left field unless he's forced to do so. But Gosselin has been taking fly balls in the outfield during batting practice, and he made a late-inning appearance there in Thursday's blowout win in Cincinnati.

Given what happened three years ago, Gonzalez might be more apt to pull the trigger on the decision to place Gosselin in left field, move Justin Upton to the right and use Heyward as his center fielder. Or maybe he will continue showing patience with the hope that B.J. Upton suddenly erupts like he did at the end of the 2012 season, when he convinced the Braves to give him a franchise-record contract.

Whatever happens, these next few weeks are shaping up to be quite interesting for the Braves.

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

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