Does anyone still doubt these Braves?
Lindsay Vaught, Guest Columnist
The recent Braves West Coast swing against Oakland and Seattle, two of the best teams in the American League, were possible World Series previews. If it had been, the outcome wouldn't have been decided until the ninth inning of the seventh game. That's how close the games were. The teams had some streaks going that were hard to believe. Seattle had just finished an 11-1 road trip, was 17-0 in day games, and Jaime Moyer was 10-1 and unbeaten at home until the Braves beat him 3-1. The Braves are 8-4 in inter-league games this season.
It is easy to see why the Braves have the best record in the National League and an 8-game lead in the NL East. Start with leadoff man Rafael Furcal. He leads the league in runs, hits and triples. Marcus Giles at second base is hitting over 300. Gary Sheffield is having an MVP-type season and is among the league leaders in average, home runs, and RBI's. No pitcher has been able to sneak a fastball by Sheffield who has the quickest bat and strongest hands in baseball. Andruw Jones is a five time gold glove winner in centerfield. He is also among the league leaders in homeruns and provides protection for Sheffield in the lineup.
The biggest surprise has been Javy Lopez. The veteran catcher struggled last season hitting only 11 home runs, he already has 21 this season to lead all catchers. Behind the plate, Lopez has been steady. He has thrown out 11 of 30 base stealers to lead the league while handling a retooled pitching staff. Some observers have speculated Lopez's improved play is a result of his being in the final year of his contract with the Braves. I think it has much more to do with the powerful lineup around him. After pitching around Chipper and Sheffield, Lopez is getting better pitches to hit because opposing pitchers have to pitch to someone.
As good as the hitting has been the pitching has not been up to the standards of past Braves' staffs. After finishing first in the National League ERA for the past 6 seasons the Braves are currently tenth, a full run behind the Dodgers. The starters have struggled at times. Only two, Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton have an ERA under 4 compared to last season when all 4 starters had ERAs in the 3.5 range. Shane Reynolds, a bargain basement pickup when the Astros cut him in spring training, has an unimpressive 5.30 ERA but is 5-2 with 10 team wins in his 13 starts. Paul Byrd, a 17-game winner last year, has been impressive in rehab and is ready to come off the DL.
As a team the Braves are hitting a robust .286 and lead the National League in home runs, all without a single corked bat. The two teams who knocked the Braves out of the postseason the last two years, the Cardinals and Mets, likely won't be around in October.
The Mets are in last place and the Cardinals are battling the Cubs and Astros in a Central race that appears to favor the Cubs. It's the Giants and Dodgers who will challenge Atlanta for the best record in the National League and home field in the playoffs.
The All-Star game, July 15 in Chicago (AL), will decide home field advantage in the World Series. All-star games are normally a lark for the players.
Now, for the first time we will see the best players pushing the envelope, playing all out for nine innings. In a strange twist, Barry Bonds may hit a home run to give the Braves a World Series game seven at Turner Field.