Philadelphia, PA – There is very little standing between the Atlanta Braves and their first division title since 2005.
Certainly not the rest of the NL East, where the Braves own the largest division lead in baseball at 15 1/2 games over the Washington Nationals. Any chance the Nats seemed to have of even beginning to start a rally to overtake the Braves was dashed this week when Atlanta swept a three-game series in Washington.
That marked the fourth straight series sweep for the Braves and extended their winning streak to 13 games in a row, the longest for Atlanta since a 15-game run from April 16-May 2, 2000.
"Our goal is to win series," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after the sweep of Washington. "These guys are playing good baseball. We're pitching really, really good and playing good defense. Let's just keep going."
Thanks in part to a quick start, the Braves have been in first place an MLB- high 128 days this year heading into Friday and haven't had a lead fewer than four games since May 21.
Atlanta figured to challenge the Nats, the reigning division winners, for NL East supremacy after trading for Justin Upton this past offseason. It marked the second Upton brother that the Braves added, having earlier signed free agent B.J. to a five-year, $75.25 million deal.
The season got off to a good beginning, 13-2 to be exact, but Atlanta followed by losing 16 of its next 25. However, the Braves countered that stretch by winning eight and in a row and turning a half-game lead for first place into a 5 1/2-game advantage.
And it continues to grow. Atlanta is 16-4 since the All-Star break, calming fears that the season-ending fractured ankle starter Tim Hudson suffered in late July would derail the club's momentum. The Braves dropped the first contest after losing their valued leader, but have not lost since.
The Braves seem to have gone as Justin Upton goes, winning when he is slugging at the plate and losing when he is struggling. Not surprisingly, Upton is hitting .440 with five homers and 13 RBI over the current win streak.
During the aforementioned 9-16 slide, he hit just .256 with four homers and 10 RBI after going deep nine times in his first 15 games of the year.
Even more surprising is the play of third baseman Chris Johnson, who was also acquired in the trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for Justin Upton and eventually beat out Juan Francisco for the starting spot at the hot corner after the two shared duties through May. Francisco has since been traded and Johnson leads the NL with a .339 batting average, behind only Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera and his .359 average.
Johnson ripped off an 11-game hitting streak that bridged July and August and that burst featured a string of eight straight multi-hit games, a club record since the Braves moved to Atlanta. In all, Johnson hit .477 during his streak.
First baseman Freddie Freeman and catcher Brian McCann have also been consistent contributors on offense, while Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have surpassed expectations in the rotation.
Atlanta's new core got some recent high praise from McCann, one of the few elder statesman on the club.
"This team we have here -- from our starting lineup to our bullpen to our starting pitching -- this is the best team I've played on," McCann told Atlanta's website. "Everybody is young. This is a team that can do this for a while. This is a fun team."
That is high praise from a former All-Star who has been on the club since '05 and has played with the likes of Chipper and Andruw Jones, John Smoltz, Mark Teixeira and Derek Lowe.
Atlanta's massive advantage for first in the NL East also comes with B.J. Upton struggling in his first season with the Braves. He was hitting just .177 before going on the DL for almost a month due to a right adductor strain, but has a hit in all five games since his return. The outfielder, signed to replace free agent departee Michael Bourn, is 10-for-21 in that time to up his season average to .198.
If B.J. can maintain that production from here on out, the Braves will somehow become even more dangerous and put themselves in the driver's seat to return to the World Series for the first time since 1999.