Braves stand poised to win division title

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Mary Elizabeth Sheley

Center fielder Michael Bourn scores one of his team-leading 28 runs in a home game against the New York Yankees. Bourn has sparked the Braves so far, also leading the team in batting average and stolen bases.

The 2012 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is kicking into full swing, and, just like every year, southern sports fans have shifted their collective focus towards Atlanta, the home of the Braves. Historically, the National League (NL) East, the Braves’ division, has been very strong, accounting for four World Series titles and eight overall World Series appearances in the past two decades. Rarely do opportunities come along for any of the five NL East teams to have a clear shot at a division title and playoff appearance. Through the first 39 games, however, the Braves appear to have the rare opportunity to easily take home the pennant. The following is a list of five key reasons why the Atlanta Braves are poised to (and will) do the impossible in 2012.

1. The Philadelphia Phillies are in last place.
The division appears to be in the midst of a major power shift. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still the best in baseball – only the NL East consists solely of teams with winning records – but the division powerhouse Phillies, who won the World Series in 2008, are sitting four games back of the Braves in dead last. With this juggernaut struggling, the Braves can build on back-to-back second place finishes to the Phillies and emerge as the leader of the pack.

2. The Braves’ roster has no superstars.
This sounds like a bad thing. It’s not. As Jonah Keri said in his article “The 30, Week 5: Braves Are Bourn Again” for grantland.com, “few teams can match the Braves’ balance, with everyone from post-hype phenom Jason Heyward to the ageless Chipper Jones to the killer bullpen combination of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters making big contributions. … Subtract any one player from the Braves and they’d likely remain in good shape.” This is a testament to the Braves’ well-rounded nature. Clutch play can come from anyone, anywhere in the lineup, at any time.

3. Offense is up.
Offensively, the Braves have not been spectacular in recent years, nor have they pretended to be. Last season, for example, no Brave batted above .300, the consensus threshold for an elite batting average in the majors. In spite of past woes, the Braves have exploded onto the scene this season, and are second in the MLB in runs scored and fourth overall in batting average. This turnaround, if it continues at such a pace, will be one for the history books. Diane Firstman, in an article for espn.com, said “The Braves are averaging nearly 1.5 runs per game more than last year, and are up 37 percent year-to-year against the league norm.” A 37 percent increase in year-to-year production has only been acheived twice in the past 110 years, by the 1903 New York Giants and the 1915 Chicago White Sox.

4. The pitching staff is full of unsung heroes.
On May 17, pitcher Brandon Beachy threw his first complete game shutout for the Braves, exemplifying his torrid start to the season. Beachy leads the MLB in Earned Run Average (ERA), a highly important statistic for pitchers, at 1.33. Even more impressive is the fact that he is just 25 years old and in his second major league season. To back up Beachy and a pitching staff of veterans Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson (who is coming off of reconstructive Tommy John surgery, which often improves a pitcher’s performance) and young talents Mike Minor and Randall Delgado, the Braves have the NL’s best closer in Craig Kimbrel, who set the rookie saves record last year.

5. The only place to go is up.
After last season’s historic collapse, the Braves have sufficiently lost significant respect around the league on clutch performances (or lack thereof). These diminished expectations have helped enable the Braves to fly under the radar and wind up with a division lead and a record only 1.5 games back of the majors-leading Los Angeles Dodgers as teams approach the 40-game mark.

Note: All statistical data are accurate as of 12 p.m. ET, Friday May 18, 2012.