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Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 08/10/2012

Atlanta Braves stay a step behind the Nationals


(Scott Cunningham - GETTY IMAGES)
Remove the Washington Nationals from the National League and the Atlanta Braves would not only hold the division lead but the league’s second-best record, among the best in baseball. It shows not only how little room for error there is atop the National League East this season and how well the Nationals have played but also, if it wasn’t already clear, that the Braves are a force to be reckoned with.

For much of the past two months, the Braves have stayed in second place in the division standings and within arm’s length of the Nationals. The Nationals posted a 17-9 record in July, and the Braves did just as well with an 18-8 month. The Braves have the league’s third-best run differential behind the St. Louis Cardinals and, of course, the Nationals. The two-horse race atop the division will likely not fade away anytime soon.

The Braves have stayed in contention thanks to their offense and bullpen. The offense, though left-handed heavy, is among the league’s best. And it’s young behind in-house-developed talent such as Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and Martin Prado. The Braves draw a lot of walks (second-most in the majors, as of Friday) and score a bunch of runs (third-highest total per game in the league). The team’s overall earned run average ranks among the top 10 in the major leagues, buoyed by the bullpen and one of the game’s best closers, Craig Kimbrel, another young player scouted and drafted by the Braves.

But one of the most glaring weaknesses is their starting pitching, a need General Manager Frank Wren looked to shore up a few weeks ago by trying to trade for Ryan Dempster and adding left-hander Paul Malholm. Without top starter Brandon Beachy until next season because of injury, the Braves have turned to inconsistent starters to help carry them. Of their main six starters this season, only two (Beachy and Tim Hudson) have a sub-4.00 earned run average.

If Ben Sheets can continue his stunning comeback from major injuries, and Maholm and Kris Medlen can bolster the back end of the rotation, the Braves are in better position to stay in contention.

Despite the Braves’ success this season, the Nationals have beaten them eight of 12 meetings, outscoring them 68-47. The most recent series, a four-game set split by both teams, was a compelling back-and-forth affair. And if that is any indication of what may continue to come, then the three-game series beginning Aug. 20 should be circled on many calenders.

By  |  01:00 PM ET, 08/10/2012

 
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