Back on June 1, the Braves had turned their season around, and the Phillies, in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal, were moving backward, into 2nd place, where they remain today.
What's more interesting about this whole thing is that if you looked at the performance of players back on June 1 versus September 1, you see that the Braves have largely changed their entire starting 8. Of the players we looked at back on June 1, the following are no longer getting any significant playing time:
- Chipper Jones - torn ACL - probably a career ending injury.
- Yunel Escobar - traded to Toronto for Alex Gonzalez
- Troy Glaus - knees finally caught up to him, back on the team with roster expansion, but, not likely to see much playing time at first base with Derrek Lee and Freddie Freeman occupying that spot now.
- Nate McLouth - Got seriously injured in a collision and spent most of the summer in AAA. Back now, but, just as bad.
In case you didn't notice, that means 3/4 of the Braves infield on June 1 is no longer starting. The only constant has been Martin Prado, who was hitting .323 in June 1 and is hitting .317 now and was the starting 2B in the all-star game. Of couse, Martin has replaced Chipper at 3B and that has allowed super-sub Omar Infante to play 2B, and contend now for the batting crown, where, once he qualifies for it, is nearly 20 points ahead of Joey Votto (.347 vs. .327 as of tonight). Alex Gonzalez was acquired to replace the powerless, sulky Escobar, and has been a general upgrade. The fact that guys in the clubhouse cheered when he arrived tells you all you need to know about Escobar.
In the outfield, Matt Diaz has rebounded nicely from his early season injury, Rick Ankiel (acquired from KC), while not spectacular at the plate, has been an upgrade from McLouth, and is one of the best defensive CF's in the game. Jason Heyward, batting .292 on June 1, battled a thumb injury, saw his power decline, and his average dip into the low .250's, but, is back up to .285 at press time with 5 homers this in the last 30 days and will probably be rookie of the month for August.
Brian McCann has improved his power and average and is getting back to his normal numbers.
The other constant has been the strength of the bench. While Infante was forced into an everyday role, the LF platoon of Melky Cabrera/Diaz has worked out pretty well, and Brooks Conrad has been the PH force, with Erik Hinske, and David Ross has been such a good back-up catcher, the Braves signed him to a 2 year deal recently.
The other constant on this team has been good pitching. Tim Hudson has 15 wins, and is in the Cy Young conversation. Kris Medlen was great until tearing up his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery (read his blog as he recovers). Mike Minor, last year's #1 draft pick, has stepped into Medlen's spot and been pretty good. Tommy Hanson has pitched good enough to win 15 games, but has been the victim of no support. Jair Jurrjens has returned to form. Only Derek Lowe has been awful, as well as Kenshin Kawakami. Lowe hasn't been bad enough to lose his rotation spot, but, he's been pretty bad. KK spent the last month in Gwinnett, but, with Lowe missing his next start with elbow soreness, KK will get a chance to redeem himself.
The real constant this season has been the bullpen. Billy Wagner has been amazing mostly, and Johnny Venters has turned out to be a beast, and, while he's nominally a starter, Frank Wren must be thinking he's a potential replacement for the retiring Wagner for next year. No one has been a real bust in the pen. Takashi Saito has been quite good, as has Eric O'Flaherty and even the sometimes spotty Peter Moylan (what's interesting is that Venters seems to have replaced Moylan as the 8th inning guy, with Moylan likely being used against predominantly RH batters and when a ground ball is desperately needed). Even Christian Martinez has filled a long relief role, and looked good (leaving hope that he might be a potential valuable starter some day).
Anyway, the Braves bashed the hapless Mets again tonight, and hold on to their 3 game lead over the Phils. If you're a Phillies fan (and I know some of you are), you have to wonder how the Phils can play so well lately and still be 3 games back. Take heart, the Braves go to Florida this weekend, where the Marlin give them fits. But, then it's on to Pittsburgh against the worst team in the NL before coming home again.
Personally, I think both Atlanta and Philly make it, as well as Cincinnati and San Diego. Doesn't matter, because the Rays will win it all.