The first-place Braves have room for improvement

On Sunday, the Atlanta Braves stepped smartly into the second half of what has the makings of a superb season. They beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-2, sweeping the weekend over the National League West leaders. The Braves’ advantage over Washington in the NL East held at a healthy 6 ½ games. In sum, they’re doing nicely.

They can, however, do better.

A year ago, Fredi Gonzalez was asked before Game No. 82 to rate the first 81. “Just OK,” he said then. “We have pretty high standards around here.”

Early Sunday, the same manager was asked the same question. “I think we’ve done OK,” Gonzalez said, but let the record reflect that this was a far more effusive “OK.”

Then this: “We’re in a better position (standings-wise). I think the pitching has been consistent, and the offense is showing signs of getting there.”

The 2012 Braves were 42-39 at the midpoint, six games behind the Nationals and 1 ½ games behind the second-place Mets. They occupied third place because their rotation had posted the 12th-best ERA in what was then a 16-team league.

Jair Jurrjens had gone south. (Actually, he went northeast to Gwinnett.) Randall Delgado was 4-9 and was likewise bound for demotion. Mike Minor was 4-6 with an ERA of 6.20. The Braves were so strapped for starters that they signed Ben Sheets out of his backyard and redeployed Kris Medlen, whose return from surgery had begun in relief, and traded for Paul Maholm. Only then did they get going.

The 2013 Braves have had no such issues. When Tim Hudson is the worst of your five starters, you’re in great shape. Maholm’s win Sunday was his ninth, and the two young guys – Minor and Julio Teheran – have been terrific. At 3.20, these starting pitchers held the fourth-best ERA among NL rotations after 81 games. That was down nearly a full run from 4.01 of last season’s first half.

That these Braves are 48-34 is mostly due to pitching. (The bullpen, even without Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, remains baseball’s best.) For all the talent and power in this lineup, the offense has excelled at only three things – hitting home runs, walking and striking out.

After 81 games, these Braves were 10th in batting average at .245. (A lesser Braves’ batting order hit .255 and scored 29 more runs over the first half last season.) Imagine the damage this team could do if it married some singles with all those clouts. And that could be coming.

Of the three Braves who lugged sub.-200 averages into June, two have escaped the Mendoza Zone. Jason Heyward raised his average from .142 to .231 in 30 days. Dan Uggla hit .250 in the month and has, believe it or not, only one fewer home run than Justin Upton on the season. Even B.J. Upton, still batting an unprepossessing .177, had more RBIs in June (11) than in April and May combined (8).

The final two games of this series offered a tutorial on how the first-place Braves can raise their game. They fashioned a seven-run rally Saturday on the strength of two doubles, three singles, two hit batsmen, an error, a walk and a sacrifice fly. On Sunday they set the table for Freddie Freeman’s tie-breaking three-run homer with two singles and Heyward’s takeout slide to thwart a double play.

Said Uggla, whose two-run homer clinched Sunday’s victory: “We do need to get better at situational hitting. We have the personnel to do that.”

These Braves aren’t going to morph into the ’85 Cardinals. They were built to be a team of big swingers, and for better and worse they’ve fit the bill. But there’s a saying that has come into baseball vogue – “keep the line moving” – that could stand greater implementation.

The reason the Braves have been shut out 11 times – more than any other team in the majors – is that too often there’s no line and no movement. Too many innings go strikeout, flyout, strikeout. Too many innings are too easy on the opposition.

The Braves are on pace to win 95 games, one more than last season, but they have the talent of a 100-win team. Other than Freeman and Evan Gattis, there’s no hitter who had a banner first half. If Heyward and Brian McCann really get going – to me, they’re the keys to this lineup – a very good season could turn into something more.

Most baseball folks believe the Nationals are too gifted not to make a run, but the Braves are no less talented. “We put ourselves in a great position,” Uggla said, “but we could be in an even better position if we’d played up to our full potential.”

Eighty games remain — time enough for that to happen.

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