In Atlanta, making the playoffs became so common for the Atlanta Braves that the fans would just shrug off the feat and stay away from coming to the ballpark until the NLCS if they happened to make it.
They have 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005 and spoiled the fans each season to take it for granted. Five World Series appearances, but a 1-4 record, nine NLCS Appearances (5-4 record) and a 9-5 NLDS record. After a playoff loss in 2005, the team was smart enough to rebuild for five years before making another playoff appearance in 2010 as the National League Wild Card team.
That was when Jason Heyward‘s rookie campaign, in which he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting with a .277 batting average, 18 home runs and 72 RBIs. The team lost out to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants in the NLDS.
The next year, in 2011, it was Freddie Freeman‘s turn to finish second in Rookie of The Year voting, batting .282 with 21 home runs and 76 RBIs. Freeman was arguably the best Braves player last year and he did all he could to help the team make the playoffs but only to see the club lose the Wild Card spot to the eventual-champion St.Louis Cardinals on the last day of the season.
It was one of the biggest collapses in playoff-clinching history. In the after-season analysis of the club, the startling sophomore drop-off from Heyward was one of the biggest reasons why Atlanta struggled. Heyward battled injuries, plus a lack of plate discipline, to hit only .227 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs.
He wasn’t alone in struggling with the Braves during the 2011, however patrolling a highly productive position like right field surely didn’t help in the late season charge.
So heading into the 2012 season, the Braves had a mission to make the playoffs, to not only have Chipper Jones receive one last crack at the Fall Classic, but to erase the misery of the 2011 September meltdown. In contrast to their collapse AL counterparts, the Boston Red Sox, the Braves have played spectacularly all season long in 2012.
At 91-66at the time of this article, they currently have clinched the No. 1 Wild Card position in the NL and have a long-shot chance to run down the Nationals being four games back with six games left in the season.
Leading the offensive charge all year has been the brilliant young duo of Heyward and Freeman. These 23 year-old’s are taking charge of the club. Freeman’s stat line of .265/.346/.809 is accompanied by 22 homers and 93 RBIs. These numbers rank him in the upper half for first baseman in the National League-and represent a significant upgrade to last year’s collective numbers.
Freeman has been a solid run producer with 49 RBIs in the 1st half of the season and another 44 in the second half. His steady glove at first base has helped out the infielders all season. Perhaps the most telling stat for Freeman is the club’s record with him in the lineup, which is 87-54 (.617), versus 4-11 without him (.364.)
Heyward has numbers of .271/.338/.825, along with power numbers of 27 homers and 79 RBIs. He is going to double his production of last years totals. While he is still striking out more than he would like with 159 K’s, the Braves will take his totals. His OBP is also only .338 compared to his rookie year of .393, again the club will chalk this up to a learning curve.
The power numbers are up, therefore his numbers are completely acceptable. At such a young age, Heyward is sure to keep finding the right balance and become a better hitter each season going forward. He has stolen 20 bases to make him a 20/20 member in 2012.
He has unlimited potential as one of the best 5-tool players in the MLB today. I would not be surprised to see him hit 30/30 next year and challenge 40/40 in subsequent years.
I kind of chuckled when I watched the highlights of the Braves celebrating their post-season birth the other night with champagne and jubilation. Yet, you have to see it what if was for. After the horrible end to the 2011, added to the pressure of playing for the postseason in Jones’ last year, it must have been a great to at least make it to the playoffs.
So for this alone, I will give them a pass on a one-day celebration. Besides, they are currently on a five-game winning streak and are 9-2 in their last 11 games. They still would love to chase down Washington. While it is unlikely to happen, they certainly would love to enter the Wild Card playoff game next week, playing their best baseball of the season.
This begs the only question left, how will the Braves fans support a home game (one-game playoff) at Turner Field? Regardless of the fan support, Heyward and Freeman will have a chance to showcase themselves on the National Stage for at least one day.
Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
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