Injury-laden Braves still chugging along with the bigs' best record
Cardinals have four games to show they can compete with MLB's hottest (but an injured) team
By STAN McNEALFS Midwest
ST. LOUIS -- Right fielder Jason Heyward became the latest Braves player to land on the disabled list when a 90-mph fastball broke his jaw Wednesday afternoon at New York.
Heyward joined second baseman Dan Uggla who, with his average at .186, decided last week he could not wait any longer for Lasik surgery. Uggla's main backup, Tyler Pastornicky, was lost for the season after wrecking his left knee earlier this month. Opening Day starter Tim Hudson broke his ankle last month and also is done for the season.
With all the injuries, how have the Braves won 20 of their past 24 games and built the majors' best record as they enter a four-game series at Busch Stadium on Thursday night?
Well, kind of like the Cardinals have done what they've done this season. That is, with a lot of young, homegrown pitching. Five of Atlanta's six current starters -- Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and rookie Alex Wood -- all came up through the Braves' system.
The bullpen, led by homegrown closer Craig Kimbrel's 1.07 ERA and 32 saves, has the best ERA in the majors.
The Cardinals saw how tough Braves pitching can be when they scored a total of three runs in three games at Atlanta last month. That weekend sweep started a 14-game winning streak for the Braves and a seven-game losing streak for the Cardinals.
Offensively, the Braves have outscored every team in the NL except the Cardinals. Unlike the Cardinals, the Braves have relied on the long ball. They lead the NL in homers as well as strikeouts. Eight Braves have hit at least 10 homers, with Justin Upton's 23 leading the way.
The Braves' hitter challenging Yadier Molina in the batting race, third baseman Chris Johnson, hit his 10th on Wednesday, and it was a big one. His three-run shot in the 10th inning proved the difference in a 4-1 victory over the Mets. Upton also has been hot in August, with a .350 average and seven homers in 15 games.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez might have given the Cardinals a break by resting Minor and opting for left-hander Paul Maholm in the series opener. But with a 15-game lead in the NL East, the Braves can afford to skip Minor and save some of his innings for October.
Maholm, who will be making his first start since returning from the disabled list (wrist), is no stranger to St. Louis. The former Pirate and Cub has made 18 starts against the Cardinals, with a 4-7 record and 4.06 ERA.
For the Cardinals, the Braves series starts what shapes up as the most critical stretch of their regular season, along with a touch of deja vu. After the Braves leave, the Cardinals face only the Reds and Pirates in their next 13 games. The Cardinals played at Atlanta, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh on a trip less than a month ago. They need to go better than 3-8 in this round to improve their chances of winning the NL Central.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.