By Julian Linden
(Reuters) – For the first time in nearly a decade, the Atlanta Braves have won the National League East division crown, raising fresh hopes they can rekindle their glory days and make a charge at winning the World Series.
The Braves (96-66) finished the regular season 10 games clear of their nearest rival in the division with a win total that was just one shy of the best in the league, shared by the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals.
But for all their success, doubts remains about how far they can go in the postseason, partly because of their poor record in the playoffs but also because of their lean run in recent years.
“We’ve kind of been under the radar all season,” said Braves third baseman Chris Johnson. “Every time we win people say, ‘They’re playing weaker teams,’ or, ‘They strike out too much,’ or, ‘They’re not going to win in the playoffs.’ After a while it becomes a challenge. And it fuels you at the same time.”
Not so long ago, it was almost expected Atlanta would reach the postseason. Between 1991 and 2005, they won 14 consecutive division titles and five National League pennants.
But not so in recent years and Atlanta’s record in the postseason continues to haunt them. Despite all their success in that golden era, they won the World Series just once, in 1995.
Since 2000, the Braves have made the playoffs eight times but only made it past the first round once. Last year, they were eliminated in the Wild Card game.
With that type of playoff record, it is little wonder that confidence among their supporters is not high, even though they had a great season.
At one stage they were 15 games clear in their division but took their foot off the gas in the last month, which ultimately cost them the top seeding in the National League.
As a result, instead of playing the wild card winner in the division series, they face the daunting prospect of playing the Los Angeles Dodgers, a star-studded team with one of the biggest payrolls in baseball.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told reporters he could not have been happier with their progress so far but said the real competition was only just starting.
“I’m proud of a good season – 30 games over .500, 96 wins, it’s a (great) accomplishment for our ballclub. The fun begins now,” said Gonzalez.
The Dodgers are favorites to beat the Braves in their best-of-five division series although everything points to a tight contest.
Atlanta beat the Dodgers in five of seven games this season and have home-field advantage after Los Angeles also struggled in the last month, finishing with 92 wins to win the NL West.
In offense, Atlanta’s 181 home runs were the most in the NL and their slugging percentage was second only to Colorado but the real strength of the Braves lies in their depth of pitching.
Each of Atlanta’s four starters – Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Paul Maholm – won at least 10 games and their bullpen had the best ERA in the majors, led by Craig Kimbrel, who finished the season tied with Baltimore’s Jim Johnson for the most saves (50) in MLB.
“Nobody’s picked us all year anyway,” said Johnson.
“Nobody picked us to win the division, it was the (Washington) Nationals’ year. So we’ve already been through stuff like that and we’re fine like that. And I don’t really think it matters whether you have the (NL’s) best record or not.”