NL East: Hotlanta

For the last 5 weeks, the Atlanta Braves have been even hotter than the hometown weather.

Since the beginning of June, the temperature in Atlanta has been steadily hovering around the 90 degree mark.   For the Braves, that’s nothing.  Following their four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies, the Braves are now 23-10 since June 1st, baseball’s best record in that time span.  They have also won 14 of their last 17 and 9 of their last 10.  Yeah, hot.  They now head to Philadelphia for a weekend series against the first place Phillies.  This is as close to a “showdown” as there can be prior to the All-Star break.

Coming into the season, many expected the veteran trio of Brian McCann, Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla to lead the Atlanta offense, with some contributions from the team’s youngsters.  While McCann has certainly done his part with an MVP-caliber first half (.901 OPS, 14 Hr’s, 48 RBI’s), rookie Freddie Freeman and sophomore Jason Heyward have been most recently leading the charge.  Freeman went 7-14 with 4 HR’s in the Rockies series and now has 13 homeruns and 42 RBI’s on the season.  Impressive numbers on their own, even more impressive after his rough first month in the majors (.225 batting average, 3 HR’s, 8 RBI’s).  Heyward’s story has been a little more of a roller coaster.  After a respectable April (.840 OPS, 6 HR’s), injuries stopped him from really taking off.  Since returning in June, he’s begun to pick things up and seems poised to take off in the second half of the season.

The offensive output from McCann and Freeman has made up for the remarkably struggling Uggla.  While his power numbers may be intact (14 homeruns, .615 slugging percentage), the sub-.200 average as the break nears is certainly troubling.  Then again, he went 5-9 with 4 extra-base hits in the last 3 games of the Rockies series so maybe it’s the start of something.

Another Braves rookie, closer Craig Kimbrel, made some noise of his own in the sweep.  On Thursday Kimbrel notched his 3rd save of the series, which was his 4th save of July, his 12 save since June 1st, and perhaps most impressive, his 27th save of the season, a new rookie record (most saves by a rookie prior to the All-Star break).

Look at that, four paragraphs in and the Braves starting pitching, their most dangerous component, hasn’t even been mentioned yet.  When the Braves signed Derek Lowe a few years ago he immediately became their ace.  Now he’s their least effective starter, and he’s not even having that bad of a season (5-6, 4.21).  Of course, with Tim Hudson (8-6, 3.57), Tommy Hanson (10-4, 2.52) and Jair Jurrjens (12-3, 1.87!) ahead of him, it’s an understandable spot to be in.

Of course, no writeup of the Braves hot streak would be complete without at least mentioning their bullpen.   All-Star reliever Jonny Venters has put to rest any concerns that arose from his June, which was only very good (compared to his unbelievable April and May).  Venters (1.52 ERA, 0.96 WHIP) and fellow lefties Eric O’Flaherty (1-2, 1.13) and George Sherrill (1-1, 2.35) are way more than specialists.  They form one of the most consistently dominant non-closing relief corps in the majors.

The Braves are going to need all of these pieces to remain hot when they face first-place Philadelphia this weekend.  Of course, with the way they’ve been playing over the last 5 weeks, the heat may just be on the Phillies.

Around the Division:

Philadelphia Phillies – Despite a sprained thumb, centerfielder Shane Victorino was named the 34th (and final) member of the NL All-Star squad in an online vote on  Victorino is the first player to achieve this honor twice in the ten years that MLB has had the All-Star Game Final Vote (Sponsored by Sprint).  The thumb injury has been declared “mild” by the Phillies, but Victorino and the team have yet to determine whether or not he’ll play in the midsummer classic.

New York Mets – A strained left hamstring has landed Jose Reyes on the 15-day DL.  While the injury is listed as a Grade 1 strain (the mildest of all the strain grades), Reyes’ history of injury problems has prompted the team to take it slow with this setback.  The team has called up outfielder Nick Evans to take his place on the roster.  While the injury to Reyes had many thinking Mets doom, the team has responded with 4-straight wins.

Washington Nationals – Each of the Nationals first five wins under new manager Davey Johnson were by one run.  The team is 6th overall in the majors in one-run victories.   Reliever Tyler Clippard (1-0, 1.86 ERA, 0.83 WHIP) will be the Nats lone All-Star representative.  Chien-Ming Wang (remember him?) has made 3 starts for Double-A Harrisburg, the last two being impressive outings.

Florida Marlins – Since “new” manager Jack McKeon took charge of the team on June 20th, shortstop Hanley Ramirez is batting .404 with 3 home runs and 15 RBI’s.  While the Marlins rapid descent to last place makes it hard to picture them challenging for a postseason spot, Ramirez’s sudden resurgence should at least bring a smile to Marlins fans.

Shai Kushner is a Senior Writer for  Email Shai at:  Follow Shai on Twitter at: @BD_ShaiKushner.