Three Cuts: Braves celebrate division title with 5-2 win
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez shed a few joyful tears after receiving the news that his team had clinched the National League East division title during the sixth inning of a 5-2 win against the Cubs.
"We knew the Nationals had lost (to the Marlins), but we wanted to win," Gonzalez said. "We wanted to celebrate the right way."
As the news traveled through the visiting dugout, the bullpen, the Wrigley Field crowd and elsewhere, smiles began to appear on the faces of Braves players and the team's no-so-small contingent in the Friendly Confines. Its the 17th division title in team history, first since the 2005 campaign. And yes, champagne was appropriately popped (or twisted off). Here are three observations from a game that did not officially erase the division-clinching magic number, but did keep the Braves in the driver's seat to capture the NL's No. 1 overall seed:
Eight years is a long wait, especially in sports where youth and potential are coveted (and more affordable) and players are considered "veterans" prior to their 30th birthday. Things change rather quickly; see the '05 Braves roster for a prime example. Tim Hudson and Brian McCann — McCann, the greatest catcher in team history, backed up starter Johnny Estrada that season — are the lone holdovers from the team that last captured the NL East crown.
Everyone else has since moved on, from Chipper Jones and Jeff Francoeur to John Smoltz and Joey Devine.
As Jason Heyward repeated during the champagne shower, these moments are not to be taken for granted.
"We set this precedent at the beginning of spring training," said closer Craig Kimbrel, who logged Sunday's game-winning save. "We said, 'You know what, let's win the division and let's not worry about what we had to worry about last year.' And that's what we've done. Coming out tomorrow, we still have a lot to do. We got a lot of games to win and hopefully we can do this three more times."
Added general manager Frank Wren: "We're thrilled. It gives us a great leg up. Last year we saw what happens getting into that wild card game, anything can happen. We're ecstatic. It gives us a chance with a week to go to get things lined up."
Still, the complexion of this team is different than 2005. Wren and his staff have done a good job on the whole of building a foundation that not only delivered the 2013 division title, but one that looks to improve into the future.
The corps of this team's success still revolves around its young stars — many of whom are still in their arbitration years contractually — and with Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran (six innings, one earned run, seven Ks on Sunday), Mike Minor, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Alex Wood and others on the roster, it's difficult to envision another drastic turnover between now the Braves next division title. It's a certainty that there will be some turnover, but unlike 2005 — a team that featured six starters/regular contributors in their age-25 season or younger (McCann, Francoeur, Blaine Boyer, Kyle Davies, Wilson Betemit, Kelly Johnson) — do not expect such drastic changes.
It's not a well-kept secret that the right fielder's absence left the Braves offense in a bit of bind. The Braves averaged right around three runs per game in Heyward's absence, posting a .500 record over a stretch of 26 games. If that doesn't sound like a World Series contender, it's probably because Atlanta did not look like a viable contender with Heyward out of the lineup.
His much-anticipated return off the disabled list (fractured jaw) in Chicago provided exactly the lift the Braves needed, though: the Braves won both of the games in which he played, scoring 14 runs overall. Sure, the Cubs are among the worst pitching teams in baseball this season … but the Padres are even worse, and that didn't stop them from holding the Braves to just five runs in three outings last week with Heyward looking on from the dugout. But now he's back, and it's undeniably important for a team now preparing to face the winner of the one-game wild card playoff just 11 days from Sunday.
Heyward wore his protective helmet-slash-face mask throughout the champagne celebration for good measure, but he said he wasn't about to miss out on the festivities.
"Every time you get a chance to celebrate, you should," said Heyward, who is 1-for-7 with two runs We got some work to do. I wanted to win the game here in Chicago and celebrate on the field the way it should be done. You don't take it for granted."
The Braves are now 19-5 this season in games where Heyward bats in the No. 1 spot. Overall, counting his lone 2011 appearance at the top of the lineup, the team is 20-5. Those are pretty good odds. Heyward is now batting .251/.345/.418 with 62 runs scored this season, but it's clear he's just happy to be back in the lineup.
"It's a blessing for me personally. It's been a rough year, been in the hospital a few too many times," Heyward said, referencing his early-season appendectomy. "I'm proud of this group. I'm really proud of this group. Somebody stepped in every time somebody went down."
Let's get this straight: Andrelton Simmons, 24, is the greatest defensive player in baseball and he ranks fourth among all MLB shortstops with 17 home runs behind J.J. Hardy (Brewers), Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies) and Ian Desmond (Nationals). His defensive game is already fully developed — in terms of advanced metrics, it's one of the greatest individual seasons on record — and his work with the bat is steadily developing, especially the power numbers he displayed in the preseason during the World Baseball Classic.
On Sunday, Simmons helped to ensure the team's 92nd win of the campaign with two home runs — his second career multi-HR game (he pulled off the feat earlier this season in Cincinnati). Last season, the general consensus surrounding Simmons' game was that anything he does with the bat is gravy. After giving the viewing public glimpses at just how high his ceiling actually is, that's no longer the case.
Despite the fact that Simmons is still searching for consistency on offense — hitting .246/.294/.394 with five steals still slots him as a middle-of-the-pack offensive player for his position — he's still one of the most valuable shortstops around. According to FanGraphs, Simmons boasts the third-best WAR in the majors.
It doesn't hurt that he's now hit five September homers leading into postseason play — just another dangerous bat at the back end of a lineup that looks re-energized.