Win one for the Chipper
Chipper Jones is 40, and this is his farewell season. He arrived in Atlanta in the midst of the Braves' 14 consecutive division titles, appearing in the postseason in each of his first 11 seasons. His big league debut in 1995 was capped by the only World Series championship have claimed by the Braves since their arrival in Atlanta. He has accepted a lesser role this year, designed to keep him stronger, and he's ready to carry the team down the stretch. A worn-out Jones hit only .269 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in September last year. He played in only his 90th game on Tuesday, all a part of the plan.
A year ago, the Braves turned to three rookies in the rotation. Randall Delgado, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy were a combined 2-2 in 11 starts, which was compounded by the implosion of veteran Derek Lowe (0-5, 8.75). This time around, the Braves have more depth, starting with the return to the rotation of Kris Medlen, who was brought along slowly in his return from Tommy John elbow surgery and joined the rotation on July 31. He is 6-0 and the Braves are 7-0 in his starts this year and have won all of the last 18 games he has started going back to 2010.
Oh, what a relief he is
Craig Kimbrel has had no problem with a sophomore jinx, and in fact he gives the Braves reason to believe he will be even stronger because he has been used with more restraint, leaving him more rest this time. Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Arodys Vizcaino combined to convert only four of 10 save opportunities down the stretch last year. Kimbrel was called on 68 times before the final four weeks a year ago, 19 more times than this season.
The Braves play only six of their final 26 games against teams with winning records -- three each against Washington and Pittsburgh. A year ago, they closed out the season with
16 of their final 26 games against teams with winning records.
Third time's a charm
In his third big league season, Jason Heyward continues to grow in his role as a run producer, providing additional lineup leverage for manager Freddi Gonzalez. After struggling with runners in scoring position a year ago, when he batted .218 in such circumstances, Heyward has raised his average in run-production situations by 34 points and has shown an ability to hit in the middle of the order. He has had 95 starts hitting third, fifth or sixth this year, roles he filled only 57 times combined in his first two seasons.
Freddie Freeman has joined with Heyward to give the Braves a youthful corps for the middle of the lineup. Freeman has already surpassed his rookie RBI total of a year ago (84 to 76) with four weeks to go and has settled into a middle-of-the-lineup role.
Breath of fresh air
Rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons, out since July 9 with a broken right little finger, has begun his rehab assignment. Paul Janish has been impressive defensively in his absence, but Simmons brings not only defense but an offensive impact to the game. In his five-week big-league debut before the injury, he hit .296 and scouts were raving about his huge upside. He is certainly on a fast track. The native of Curacao was a second-round Draft pick out of Western Oklahoma Junior College in 2010 was promoted after only 44 games at the Double-A level.
A year ago, Eric Hinske was the one veteran bench player on the Braves' roster. This year, they have given Hinske some company with the recent additions of left-handed-hitting Lyle Overbay and right-handed-hitting Jeff Baker.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has settled in during his second year as the replacement to Bobby Cox, who oversaw the resurrection of the franchise. Gonzalez has better options this time around, and has addressed concerns that were raised about his usage of the bullpen a year ago. He's ready to begin establishing his own legacy in Atlanta.
Major League Baseball has added a second Wild Card in each league. Had they existed last year, the Braves would have advanced to a one-game playoff and the late-season fade would have become a side note instead of an unpleasant chapter in Braves history.