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Atlanta Braves catcher Gerald Laird (11) and left fielder Justin Upton (right) celebrate after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-3 at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

How the Atlanta Braves can win the National League East

The Atlanta Braves currently sit six games back of the red-hot Washington Nationals in the NL East and in a tie with the San Francisco Gants for the second Wild Card spot. The ‘experts’ are starting to count Atlanta out of contention for the division crown, but that won’t stop Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves from keeping their sights on the Nationals.

“I think it’s easier to keep our sights on [the division]” said Gonzalez when asked if his team was more concerned the Wild Card chase. Obviously, Gonzalez doesn’t want to publicly say they are out of it, but even if he is just using rhetoric, I tend to agree with him.

The Braves have 37 games remaining in the regular season and I believe the East can still be won by Atlanta.

The Wild Card game does not bode well for Atlanta if they do find themselves matched up against St. Louis, a team the Braves have struggled against in recent years (see infield fly). The Braves may need to win the east, and three key factors will ultimately decide if they do so.

1) Beat up on the little guy

The Braves have a relatively weak schedule down the stretch, playing 19 of their last 37 games against teams with a sub .500 record including three September games with the Texas Rangers, one of the worst clubs in baseball. The combined opponents winning percentage on the Braves remaining schedule is a woeful .489 and they also play six games each against the Phillies, Marlins, and Mets. If Atlanta can win, say 13 out of those 18 (that isn’t not asking too much), they should put themselves in good position to catch Washington.

Speaking of Washington, Atlanta still gets six matchups with the Nats as well. I wouldn’t necessarily qualify Washington as a “little guy”, but the Braves have absolutely owned them since the beginning of 2013, and that must continue if the East is to be won by Atlanta. The Braves will need to win both of those series (September 8-10 & 15-17) and, ideally, sweep at least one.

2) Hot Heyward at the top

If the Braves make a run at the division crown, Jason Heyward may very well be the reason why. The Braves leadoff hitter has heated up of late, hitting .300 (9-30) since returning to the leadoff spot. Heyward feels “it’s harder to influence the game” from the leadoff spot, but the Braves are winning since he returned there, and he is certainly an upgrade over what was previously deployed.

Hitting .323 in August and getting on base at a .361 clip has helped Heyward jump start the top of the Braves lineup, and if you think Heyward getting on base doesn’t impact the middle of the order, think again. The #3 hitter, Freddie Freeman, is hitting .264 on the year with the bases empty. In contrast, the first baseman is hitting .342 with runners on base while slugging .573 in the same situation, and while that certainly isn’t a huge sample, Heyward being on base makes a dramatic impact for the Braves. If he stays hot, good things will continue to happen for Atlanta.

3) Mike Minor must become major down the stretch

It’s no secret that Mike Minor has struggled mightily in 2014, and if you ask me, it’s no secret why. Rather than attacking batters with his four-seam fastball (as he did so well in 2013), Minor chose to depend on a shaky (at best) cutter through most of his starts. This decision cost him dearly. He currently owns a 5-8 record while posting a 5.16 ERA. Clearly this won’t cut it next year, but Minor needs to improve now if the Braves hope to catch Washington in the East.

However, Minor has potentially turned a corner. In his last start on August 17th, he won the game going 7.0 innings while allowing just two runs against the Athletics. He was noticeably attacking the inner half of the plate with fastballs and it paid off. The Braves need Minor to pitch like he did in 2013 for the rest of August and through September. If he gets going, it could prove to be a major boost for the Atlanta rotation.

Tags: Atlanta Braves

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