The Atlanta Braves might be the most underappreciated team in baseball, and they have no one to blame but themselves. They're so efficient and so quiet -- and so thoroughly professional -- it's easy to overlook them.
Tension? Child, please.
The Braves took sole possession of first place in the National League East on April 7 and have been there ever since. Their 11 1/2-game lead is more than twice as large as that of any other division leader.
In a season when the races are so competitive and when virtually nothing seems guaranteed, Atlanta going to the postseason for the 17th time in 22 seasons is about the only slam dunk.
The Braves are winning with the NL's best bullpen and by being solid in pretty much everything else they do. They hit home runs and catch the ball. They get contributions from here, there and everywhere.
They're not winning with their original blueprint, which makes this season even more impressive. General manager Frank Wren's work is a reminder that every roster spot is important, and that money -- 17 teams have higher payrolls -- isn't as important as smarts.
Seven Braves have already reached double figures in home runs, led by Dan Uggla's 21 and Justin Upton's 19. Third baseman Chris Johnson, whom Wren acquired from Arizona in the Upton trade, is leading the NL with a .344 batting average. First baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons are among the NL's best at their positions.
Pitching? Craig Kimbrel remains the best closer not named Mariano Rivera, and is on his way to leading the NL in saves for a third straight season. Left-hander Mike Minor is 11-5 and in the conversation for the NL Cy Young Award. Rookie right-hander Julio Teheran has eight victories and a 3.02 ERA in 131 innings.
On Opening Day, pretty much everyone liked the Braves. But pretty much everyone thought they'd be in a dogfight with the Nationals for the NL East crown. Pretty much everyone was wrong. Since June 1, Atlanta has had a lead of fewer than five games for only one day.
Here's the remarkable part of this story -- the part that gets overlooked, the part that tells you what a really remarkable story these Braves have been. This season has not been a smooth ride, regardless of what the standings tell you. In fact, so much has happened that it seems incomprehensible that they've got a nine-game winning streak and are 21 games over .500 at 66-45 heading into play on Sunday.
In fact, if you'd tapped Wren on the shoulder on the first day of Spring Training and told him how this season was going to unfold, he might not have believed 66-45 and an 11 1/2-game lead would be possible.
• The Braves lost two important parts of baseball's best bullpen, when Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty suffered season-ending elbow injuries. Wren's offseason acquisition of Jordan Walden has turned out to be critically important, and Atlanta's 2.48 bullpen ERA is the best in the Majors.
• One of Wren's two big offseason acquisitions, B.J. Upton, is hitting .177. His brother, Justin, is hitting .245 the last three months, after a great start.
• Jason Heyward is hitting .235, and is just now getting hot.
• Right-hander Kris Medlen has a 6.75 ERA in his last five starts.
• Right-hander Tim Hudson suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury on July 24.
The Braves have survived all those things because of the depth of their roster, because "picking each other up" is not a cliche when it actually works. Rookie catcher Evan Gattis has been invaluable as a fill-in and player off the bench. Teheran has helped stabilize the rotation.
And things have worked out. Justin Upton was hot for a month. As he cooled off, Johnson got ridiculously hot. Now, Heyward is starting to hit.
Now, about Wren's roster construction. For instance, when he brought outfielder Jordan Schafer back to the organization, there was doubt he'd even make the club. He has done more than that. Schafer has matured dramatically, and he has been invaluable filling in for the Uptons with a .312 batting average. He's terrific defensively and a weapon on the bases.
The Braves are a reminder that leadership can't be overestimated. Just as Wren served under the master, legendary general manager John Schuerholz, for eight years before taking over, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez is cut from the same cloth as his mentor Bobby Cox.
Gonzalez's players have some of the same respect for him that they had for Cox. And as the season has unfolded, as he dealt with slumps and injuries, Gonzalez has made it all work.
The Braves wouldn't have an 11 1/2-game lead if the Nationals were what we thought they'd be. But it's clear they are built for October -- regardless of what any other team does.