My 3 focal points as Braves enter final stretch

Braves-Nationals pitching matchups.

The Braves are entering the 20ish games with a comfortable National League East lead and an outside shot at the No. 1 seed. For all our questions in February and March, this team exceeded expectations — and that's with plenty not going as planned.

It seems the team is on course to face St. Louis or Chicago in the NLDS. The Cubs are formidable and champions just three seasons ago. I don’t need to tell Braves fans how dangerous the Cardinals can be in the fall.

But before we get there, here’s what I’m watching for the rest of September:

Peaking too soon?

The Braves are destroying teams. The opponent hasn’t mattered. They’ve beat up on the Mets, White Sox and Blue Jays lately. We remember their 4-2 trip to Philadelphia and Washington last month. They’ve taken two of three from the Dodgers.

We’ll see how they’re playing by the end of the month. Keep in mind the team sputtered to the finish line last year, losing series in New York and Philadelphia to end the regular season before they were ousted by the Dodgers. The division was already locked up, and while those games were largely meaningless, the offense’s struggles carried over into October.

I don’t anticipate any sort of lackadaisical offense this time around. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna will finish in the top 10 in MVP voting, both having magnificent campaigns. Few are more dynamic on the base paths than Ozzie Albies.

Oh, and Josh Donaldson — it’s a good thing that money wasn’t “spent elsewhere” after all. He’s the biggest difference between this year and last. The top of the lineup — Acuna, Albies, Freeman and Donaldson — will be the team’s greatest asset.

We’re seeing the Braves’ best right now. The extent of their potential (without Nick Markakis). If this is the edition we’ll get next month, the World Series is a legitimate topic. I’m intrigued to see when — or if — the team cools off before the postseason.

The rotation

Since allowing four runs in Miami on Aug. 11, it’s easy to be encouraged by Mike Foltynewicz. He hasn’t looked like the All-Star of 2018, but his past four starts are progress: He’s posted a 2.11 ERA in 21-1/3 innings, striking out 17 and walking 10 while holding the opposition to a .238 average.

Foltynewicz could swing a postseason series for this team. Just the fact he’s serviceable now is important from an innings perspective, but his ceiling provides hope for a real asset in a playoff series.

Mike Soroka is brilliant, so the only potential downside there is if he drops off even slightly with his career-high innings workload (the guess here is he won’t). Max Fried has hit his stride, and the blister in July that gave him a short break might’ve been a blessing in disguise.

Then there’s Dallas Keuchel, the wily veteran with a reliable postseason resume. The Braves will play the matchups with how they construct their postseason rotation, which is especially relevant to Julio Teheran. We’ll see who has the hot hand and how each projects against the Braves’ postseason opponent.

The only locks, I’d guess, are Soroka and Keuchel. You could convince me of a scenario where any of the others ultimately don’t start, though that’s becoming increasingly hard to conceive in Fried.

How the bullpen finishes

I’m curious to see if the new-look bullpen extends its success for another few weeks. We all love the offense, but the bullpen has been a true catalyst to the team’s surge.

As it turns out, there’s a reason Shane Greene was an All-Star. It just took us a while to see why. Chris Martin has matched his hype as a true control artist, issuing one walk in 12-1/3 innings with the Braves.

Mark Melancon is the closer — an experienced, reliable one that the Braves have lacked for quite some time. Melancon isn’t overwhelming hitters, but he brings a sense of comfort when he enters. His propensity for ground balls doesn’t hurt either.

I’m intrigued in how the group shakes out over these final games. The Braves have plenty of options for their postseason bullpen. They left behind several contributors last season, almost forming a new bullpen from scratch for the postseason. That won’t be necessary this time, but performances in this final stretch might determine these last few spots.

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