Atlanta Braves

Can the Braves go all the way? Is Matt Harvey a Cy Young candidate? Atlanta taking baseball by storm

With their completion of a sweep of the Washington Nationals (my pick to win the World Series) this weekend, the Atlanta Braves improved to 11-1 on the season, their only loss a 2-0 decision at the hands of Cliff Lee and the Phillies.

Off to its best start since the 1994 season, Atlanta owns a rotation in which four starters own a 2.50 ERA or lower. Paul Maholm, the winning starter on Sunday, is 3-0 and hasn’t allowed a run in 20 1/3 innings pitched. He is the first Braves pitcher to open a season with three straight scoreless starts. Perhaps a more startling stat is the fact that he has allowed just one hit with his off-speed pitches. Closer Craig Kimbrel has six saves in six opportunities and hasn’t allowed a run either.

Although B.J. Upton has struggled in his first few games as a Brave, his brother, Justin, leads the league in homeruns, with seven in 12 games. Evan Gattis is making Braves fans forget about the fact that their all-star catcher, Brian McCann, is hurt after he underwent shoulder surgery in October. The catcher who thought he was done with baseball in high school is hitting .324 with four bombs and 10 RBIs in his first nine games as a Brave.

A pleasant addition to the explosive Braves lineup has been former Astro, Chris Johnson. The third baseman is third in the National League, sporting a .405 batting average.

Now, however, perhaps some bad news: according to the Elias Sports Bureau, of the four other teams to start the season 11-1 since 1995, only one (the 2003 San Francisco Giants) made the postseason. None of the other three (the 2002 Cleveland Indians, 2003 Kansas City Royals, and the 2009 Miami Marlins) even made the playoffs.

Other NL East news:

New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, who took a no-hitter into the seventh inning on Saturday against the Minnesota Twins, is, along with Maholm, one of the hottest pitchers in baseball right now. He is the fourth pitcher in the liveball era to begin a season with three straight outings of at least seven innings pitched and three or fewer hits allowed. He is currently 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA with 25 K’s in 22 innings. Opposing hitters have gotten are hitting at a .088 clip against him so far this season. No one pitcher has been as visibly dominant on the mound as Harvey has been this season. With a fastball that can reach up to 98 mph with movement and filthy slider that can get up to 90 mph, Harvey has completely overpowered opposing hitters.

Grapefruit League Spring Training preview: Upton brothers suit up with Braves for first time, while Yankees still have many unanswered questions

The most exhilarating organized stretching and long toss practice of the season took place Monday afternoon, officially marking the unofficial start to the 2013 baseball season. While it didn’t take place for every team in Major League Baseball, the battery mates got the ball rolling yesterday, with a flood of more pitchers and catchers set to report. In honor of one of the single greatest days of the year, here is the reporting date for each team followed by a single sentence that summarizes each team’s 2013 campaign.

Grapefruit League, Florida (date pitchers and catchers are due to report in parantheses):

Atlanta Braves (Monday, Feb. 11)
• How much impact will the Upton brothers have, now united in the Atlanta outfield?

Baltimore Orioles (Tuesday, Feb. 12)
• Can they bottle the magic of 2012 that saw them win 93 games?

Boston Red Sox (Feb. 11)
• After last season’s salary dump, trading Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, are they ready to contend for the AL East crown?

Detroit Tigers (Feb. 11)
• Will 2013 be the season they get over the hump after losing the in the World Series in 2012?

Houston Astros (Feb. 11)
• How ugly is it going to get in their new AL West home?

Miami Marlins (Feb. 11)
• Speaking of salary dumps, at least these guys will look good in their sparkling new uniforms.

Minnesota Twins (Feb. 12)
• Can Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau overcome the team's pitching deficiencies?

New York Mets (Feb. 12)
• Nothing to see here, just a rebuilding project.

New York Yankees (Feb. 12)
• With Nick Swisher and Russell Martin gone, Derek Jeter recovering from a broken ankle and an injured A-Rod, can the Yankees repeat as AL East champions?

Philadelphia Phillies (Wednesday, Feb. 13)
• Can these guys stay healthy enough to give themselves a fighting chance against the Braves and Nationals in the NL East?

Pittsburgh Pirates (Feb. 12)
• Maybe this is the year they finally finish above .500, but don’t bet anything substantial on it.

St. Louis Cardinals (Feb. 11)
• Don’t worry about Chris Carpenter; they’ll be a contender in late September.

Tampa Bay Rays (Feb. 12)
• Trying hard to suck the last two years of awesomeness out of David Price before his impending free agency.

Toronto Blue Jays (Feb. 12)
• The Canadians are praying that adding $165 million of total payroll overnight will deliver their first AL East title since 1993.

Washington Nationals (Feb. 13)
• After tasting success in 2012, can the young squad repeat its dominance of the NL East?

National League East Preseason Power Rankings

Decisions are starting to be made, pitchers are being stretched out for more than 30 pitches an appearance, and lineups are starting to get closer to resembling major league lineups rather than a mixture of hopeful minor league prospects. As the season draws closer, we’re going to give you a preseason set of power rankings to get you up to speed for Opening Day.

1: Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are at the head of the class in what could be baseball’s tightest division, but it is not by a wide margin. Chase Utley is banged up again, and Ryan Howard is still working his way back from blowing out his Achilles in last year’s NLDS. They lost closer Ryan Madson in the offseason, but the Phillies still have plenty of ammunition to go to war with. They boast what could be the best top 3 of any rotation in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. They still have Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence, and if they can survive the injuries until the cavalry arrives, the Phils should find themselves in great shape.

2: Atlanta Braves: We all heard it last September: that loud, wheezing, coughing noise coming from Atlanta as they choked away a 10 game lead in the wild card to the Cardinals in the season’s final month. But if you’re a Braves fan, and you have somehow managed to move past that debacle, there was a silver lining to that ominous cloud. The Braves lost both Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens down the home stretch, and surely one of those two could have won A SINGLE game last September, changing history forever. Jason Heyward had a sophomore slump, but appears to be back to his old ways this spring. If the Braves can avoid that nasty injury bug that bit them late last year and Jason Heyward can rediscover his stroke, they should also be able to avoid that monstrous bone that they choked on so violently in 2011.

3. Miami Marlins: This has to be the most intriguing team to watch out of all 30 heading into the season. Formerly the Florida Marlins, they were known for being frugal with their players, even if they have won 2 World Series in the last 15 years. Add a new stadium, then water, and all of a sudden you had a team attacking the free agent market like Mike Tyson on Evander’s ear. They added all star shortstop Jose Reyes, starting pitcher Mark Beurhle, and closer Heath Bell. The Marlins have never had a payroll over 60 million in their franchise’s history. This season, it’s set to be about 109 million. If Josh Johnson can come back to full health and all of the new faces, along with new manager Ozzie Guillen, can jibe together, this team could be the one to pay attention to.

4. Washington Nationals: Sorry to the National’s faithful, but if the Nats played in the central, or even the west, they could be set to make much more noise than ever before in 2012. As it stands, they still play in the east, and will more than likely still continue to struggle. The good news, however, is the Nationals are building, and it looks sexy on paper. Stephen Strasburg returned from Tommy John late last summer and appeared to still be oozing potential. Earthquake creating hitting prospect Bryce Harper could force his way to the big club at some point in the year, and Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse will hold down the corners for what appears to be a budding franchise. The Nationals are probably realistically a year or two away from really wreaking havoc in the East, but if the kids come on a year or two early, look out.

5. The New York Mets: The Bernie Madoff scandal is waving goodbye in it’s rearview as it leaves the Mets in rubble. Poor David Wright, he appears to be wasting the prime of his career on the Titanic, although he could, and probably should be traded at the deadline. The Mets are looking the Astros dead in the face for the worst record in baseball, and it is going to be an ugly duel.

HOUSTON — Soaked with beer and champagne, Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman embraced in the St. Louis Cardinals plastic-wrapped clubhouse, basking in a celebration no one thought possible less than a month ago.

Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals completed one of baseball’s greatest comebacks on Wednesday night, clinching the NL wild card with an 8-0 win over Houston and a later loss by Atlanta.

The Cardinals got their playoff spot when the Braves fell to Philadelphia 4-3 in
13 innings.

St. Louis trailed Atlanta by 10½ games on Aug. 25, then won 23 of the last 31 games to finish its improbable charge.

“Any time you’re on a playoff team and you make a run like this, you invest a lot of yourself in the season with a great group of guys,” Berkman said. “It just makes
it special.”

The Cardinals will open the postseason on Saturday at NL East champion Philadelphia. In the other NL playoff matchup, Arizona visits Milwaukee.
St. Louis went 6-3 against the Phillies in the regular season. Amid the smiles and spray, the Cardinals were already looking ahead.

“A lot is going to be made of the fact that we played pretty well against the Phillies this year,” Berkman said, “But with the playoffs all around it’s a different story.”
The Braves and Cardinals entered Wednesday’s regular-season finales with 89-
72 records.

St. Louis made quick work of the punchless Astros, then rushed back into the clubhouse to watch the end of the Atlanta game. With the Braves two outs from defeat, a clubhouse attendant wheeled in a dolly stocked with cardboard
boxes of beer.

And when Freddie Freeman rolled into a season-ending double play, the party began. The Cardinals passed out black caps with “2011 MLB Playoffs” emblazoned on top and black T-shirts with NL wild-card logos.

Within minutes, the floor of the clubhouse was littered with bottle caps and corks.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to come from so far down,” Berkman said. “We felt like we had a run like this in us, and we executed it just in the nick of time. And
here we are.”

Carpenter (11-9) pitched like an ace, striking out 11 and allowing two hits in his 15th career complete-game shutout. The Cardinals poured onto the field after Carpenter fielded J.D. Martinez’s weak grounder for the final out.

“It was exciting, there’s no doubt about it,” Carpenter said. “The way these guys have played the past month-and-a-half has been amazing, every single night grinding, playing their butts off, not giving up.”

Atlanta’s game started an hour earlier, but the Cardinals virtually took away any hope for a Houston victory in the first inning, jumping to a 5-0 lead against Brett
Myers (7-14).

Pujols and Berkman drove in runs with singles, and David Freese doubled to left-center before Myers even recorded an out. Berkman scored when Skip Schumaker’s hard grounder ricocheted off Myers’ glove for an infield hit, and Freese came home on Nick Punto’s single to right.

“I’m glad that we contributed early in the game,” Pujols said, “and Carpenter obviously took them out and took care of business.” 

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Berkman, Pujols pace Cardinals in win