Anthony Castrovince

Braves have put September swoon in the past

Castrovince: Braves have buried the past

Braves have put September swoon in the past
The Atlanta Braves famously finished 9-18 to complete an epic National League Wild Card collapse in 2011. In 2012 they went 1-10 to start Spring Training, and 0-4 to start the season.

So as confident as the Braves might have been in their vision of themselves as legit NL East contenders, the question undoubtedly crept into their subconscious.

"Are we the team that finished the way we did in September?" general manager Frank Wren asked, "or are we the team that had one of the best records in baseball the first five months last year?"

Wren placed quite a gamble on the latter, making no moves of major significance over the winter. Because he had a deep pitching staff and a healthier lineup, Wren felt the club he had compiled for manager Fredi Gonzalez had the pieces to remain a first-place factor even in the vastly improved East.

Though it's obviously still early, Wren, thus far, has proven right.

The Braves awoke on Tuesday with a 22-14 record, sitting a half-game behind the upstart Nationals and five games in front of the five-time and defending division champion Phillies.

But what's most notable -- and most surprising -- about the strong start is that it's due in large measure to an offense that's completely reinvented its reputation.

As good as the Braves were for the bulk of 2011, they averaged just 3.96 runs per game, with a sore-shouldered Jason Heyward enduring a sophomore slump and Michael Bourn making only a meager impact after the Trade Deadline.

This year? The Braves are scoring 5.28 runs per game -- fourth-most in the Majors. Heyward (.252 average, .813 OPS) and Martin Prado (.288, .781) have been healthy and more productive. Chipper Jones, making his final rounds, is among the league leaders in RBIs, with 22, Freddie Freeman (.277, .830) has avoided the sophomore skid that plagued Heyward, and, perhaps most important, Bourn has been spectacular out of the leadoff spot, getting on base at a .393 clip.

"[Bourn is] a true leadoff hitter, which we haven't had the last half-dozen years," Wren said. "He's been everything we want and more."

And the offense has produced at this rousing rate despite a slow start by catcher Brian McCann (.231, .715), so there is still considerable room for improvement if he performs more toward his career norms.

When Wren watches this club, he sees a group of hitters grinding out at-bats (the Braves are seeing the sixth-most pitches per plate appearance in the league) and taking a competitive attitude toward the plate.

It's something Wren admits he didn't see as much of last year, and he believes that new hitting coach Greg Walker and his associate, Scott Fletcher, are big reasons for the overall turnaround.

"Greg made it clear that that's the attitude and approach he tries to instill in the hitters he works with," Wren said. "I think we're seeing the dividends. He and Fletcher have been a good tandem, and I think the players have responded because they're positive, know they're in their corner, are relentless and will work as much as the players want to work."

That a deep and productive offense is carrying the Braves as their starting pitchers compile the third-highest ERA (4.31) in the NL is, indeed, a shock.

This leads to two schools of thought: Either that the starting staff is due to improve and the Braves have the goods to distance themselves from the pack in the East, or that staff simply isn't as strong as advertised and the Braves have reason to worry.

Here's the good news: Brandon Beachy has been one of the best starters in the big leagues, posting a 4-1 record and 1.60 ERA with just one home run allowed in 45 innings. The 25-year-old has gone from undrafted to unhittable in a hurry.

"The one thing we saw in the Minor Leagues when we made him a starter at the Double-A level was the outstanding command of his fastball," Wren said. "As a young pitcher last year in the big leagues, that left him for a little while. We were hoping he could get that back. I think his command is getting closer to what it was in the Minor Leagues. He's settling down."

And the steady veteran Tim Hudson, who starts on Tuesday against the Reds, is settling in after missing most of the first month following back surgery. Rookie Randall Delgado (2-3, 3.79) has shown improvement in May.

But the rest of the rotation hasn't inspired much awe. Jair Jurrjens, an All-Star in 2011, was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in April. Tommy Hanson, whose shoulder woes in the season's second half were arguably the key to the collapse, has had control issues and trouble going deep into games, and therefore has not lived up to his ace potential. Mike Minor, the rotation's only lefty, has been a major disappointment, posting an 11.81 ERA over his last three starts.

If the Braves get their rotation in working order -- perhaps eventually turning to electric young right-hander Julio Teheran, who is off to a solid start at Gwinnett -- they can be an elite club. Their offense has made huge strides from a year ago. And although the three-headed bullpen monster -- closer Craig Kimbrel and setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty -- is allowing runners at a higher rate than '11, the bottom line is that Atlanta has yet to lose a game it has led after six innings.

The Braves' fortitude -- and keep in mind, 22 of their first 36 games have come on the road -- stands in contrast to what the last-place Red Sox have endured. September hasn't hounded them, a silent winter hasn't fazed them and the dynamics of a changing division haven't daunted them.

"Our guys have been very resilient and tough-minded," Wren said. "In our individual conversations over the winter and in conversations with the staff, they were focused that they were going to make sure everyone knew, whether it was in Braves country or around the U.S., that September was not reflective of the makeup of this team."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.