Braves aren't playing their best, but they're still in first

The Braves' Gerald Laird argues with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez. He was ejected.
The Braves' Gerald Laird argues with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez. He was ejected. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff)
Posted: July 07, 2013

The Atlanta Braves don't fit the division leader profile, but they entered their weekend series with the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park tied for the third-best record in the National League. The Braves hold a five-game lead in the NL East over Washington and 71/2 over the Phillies.

Atlanta is the prototypical hit-and-miss team, entering the weekend leading the league with 747 strikeouts while sitting second in home runs with 103 and fourth with 363 runs.

The Braves have been shut out a major-league-high 11 times this season. The team batting average (.248) was lower than the Phillies' (.257).

None of the top three hitters in Atlanta's lineup for Friday's game against the Phillies - Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and Justin Upton - was batting above .250. Two others lower in the lineup, second baseman Dan Uggla and centerfielder B.J. Upton, were both batting below .200.

With plenty of holes in his lineup, manager Fredi Gonzalez was asked a simple question before Friday's game - how in the heck did the Braves enter the weekend 12 games over .500?

"We haven't been as consistent offensively like we would like to, but we are seeing signs," Gonzalez said.

He then issued this caution.

"Don't look at the numbers," he said.

The Braves do have the true equalizer - pitching.

"They get runs when they need to get them in, and they got some guys who can hit the ball out of the ball park at any time," Phillies leftfielder Domonic Brown said. "And their bullpen is one of the best in baseball as well."

Led by closer Craig Kimbrel, the Braves entered the weekend leading the National League in relievers' ERA (2.16) and opponents' batting average against the bullpen (.216).

What makes the bullpen numbers even more impressive is that the Braves lost two quality relievers, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, who both underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this season.

"They score runs by hitting home runs and doubles, but they also have good pitching," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "They've got a big-time closer, they got a good bullpen and good pitching."

The Braves starters' ERA (3.47) was fourth in the NL (.347), while the Phillies' (4.00) was 10th. The Atlanta staff doesn't have any superstars, but some better-than-solid starters.

"We have hit some big home runs, and our pitching has been good enough to keep us within striking distance for the most part," said Tim Hudson, one of four active pitchers with 200 wins.

Hudson, who will start Saturday's game, is 4-7 with a 4.22 ERA, although Gonzalez said he has pitched much better than his record. The righthander feels the Braves could still improve, but cautions so could teams such as Washington and the Phillies.

"I definitely think we haven't played our best baseball, and we came here in first place up by six games," Hudson said. "We aren't comfortable with that."

And for good reason.

"We know the teams in our division haven't played their best baseball, either," he said. "We know they will begin starting to play better, and we have to do the same."

Contact Marc Narducci

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