Score one for Atlanta's chances in October
Braves' offense clicks on all cylinders in victory over Nationals
WASHINGTON -- The Atlanta Braves look at a victory like this one and see the team they envisioned being all along.
"Absolutely," third baseman Chris Johnson said.
As good-news days go for a baseball team, Wednesday was close to the top of the list.
First, there was right fielder Jason Heyward back in the batting cage, swinging free and easy, looking strong and relaxed. If there are no setbacks, he could be back at the top of the Braves' lineup early next week, just in time to get a few games under his belt before the playoffs begin.
The Braves were at their best offensively this season in the 22 games after manager Fredi Gonzalez inserted Heyward in the leadoff spot. He batted .341 as Atlanta went 18-4 and scored 5.0 runs per game.
The Braves haven't been the same since Heyward suffered a broken jaw August 21. They've scored just 3.5 runs a game this month, the 10th-highest average in the National League. And that's why Wednesday's 5-2 victory over the Washington Nationals was so encouraging.
First, Heyward passed another test. And then second baseman Dan Uggla hit his 22nd home run of the season. Uggla's playing time has been reduced in recent days as he has struggled and Gonzalez looked for an offensive spark.
Against the Nationals this week, Uggla has a hit in all three games and hopes he can regain his starting job.
"I was feeling good before he decided to sit me," Uggla said. "I've got to keep working and wait for him to give me another opportunity."
And there was more.
Right fielder Justin Upton hit his 26th home run of the season in the sixth inning, and then catcher Brian McCann doubled in a run in the seventh.
Johnson and first baseman Freddie Freeman have been consistent and productive since Opening Day. If others add depth to the lineup, the Braves believe they're capable of a nice little October run.
"We've been fighting our offensive inconsistency all year," Gonzalez said. "We've just got to keep battling. Who knows? Maybe the offense wakes up."
Gonzalez called the playoffs "a different season."
"We've talked about this before," Gonzalez said. "Guys that are struggling can be MVPs."
Atlanta reduced its magic number for clinching the NL East to two, and it could officially wrap it up this weekend at Wrigley Field.
Are the Braves confident? Let's put it this way: They feel very good about a rotation that may begin with Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran. And they're confident that the Senior Circuit's best bullpen -- and the NL's best closer, Craig Kimbrel -- can match up with any team in either league.
Nothing is guaranteed, but if Atlanta can get its offense going in these final 10 games, it will be as well positioned as a team can be.
"I thought we had some great at-bats tonight top to bottom," McCann said. "We've got an offense that if we get rolling, we're tough to beat."
McCann is excited about having Heyward, and not just because of the offense he'll provide.
"He's a huge part of this team," McCann said. "Not only what he does with the bat and the bases. He's the best defensive outfielder in the game. I get to watch him and [shortstop Andrelton] Simmons play every night. I've never played with two guys who are better playing defense than them. To get Jason back helps in more ways than one."
The Braves saw these three games against the Nats, a team desperately hanging onto playoff hopes, as a good warmup for the kind of tension and pressure they'll deal with in the postseason.
"It has given everyone a chance to buckle in," Johnson said. "This series had that playoff atmosphere. It did for me. Maybe it locked some guys in. Hopefully, we can all get rolling."
For veterans like McCann, the end of a long regular-season grind is the beginning of the really good stuff. The Braves haven't won a division title since 2005.
"I've been here eight years," McCann said, "and this is the best team I've played on. The most talented team. We show up every day and expect to win. It's been a great year, and we want to finish this thing off and go into the postseason and have some fun."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.