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April 7, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward (22) reacts to being tagged out by Chicago Cubs infielder Alberto Gonzalez (not pictured) in the seventh inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Braves Gotta Wear Shades

The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.  Remember that popular song from the punk band, Timbuk3?  I heard it the other day, and it got me thinking about the Braves.  My friends will tell you that with me, most things do.  The future in the 2013 season for the Atlanta Braves is starting to shape up to be better than it’s been so far, but not so bright that Braves or Braves fans ought to have blinders on.  Shades perhaps, but not blinders.

After last evening’s win against the LA Dodgers in game 1 of the series, all the talk around Braves Country was positive, upbeat, and for now at least, appropriate.  The Braves have their originally planned lineup back fully in place, all of them appear healthy, and the hurtin’ they put on the Dodgers last night would suggest that the universe is sound and that the Braves are tucked safely in their beds with visions of October dancing in their collective heads.

Let’s go with that for a moment.  With Jason Heyward returning to the lineup last night, and signs of him perhaps having overcome his early season slump, the Braves may well be turning a kind of corner offensively.  With an admittedly tough road schedule early this season, they have shown inconsistent, see-saw performances so far this year and are fortunate to still be atop the NL East.  Baseball can be a very mental game though, and with everyone back healthy, despite a few lingering struggles in their lineup, perhaps the Braves really are at that turning point mentally where they have put this season’s past behind them and are looking ahead to start playing the way they did in April.  I would suggest to you it may well be the mental game alone the Braves need to win now, so that their pitching and offense follow along the same lines.  They’ve clearly got the talent, but will they have the mental discipline?

Five things the Braves can focus on mentally, to help them as they finish up the 1st half of the 2013 Season…

1.  A healthy lineup:  The Braves are finally back healthy. Well, mostly.  All teams deal with injury, but there is a HUGE difference between a team that is sitting in 3rd place and having those injuries, and a team that has led the division almost since day 1 and dealing with injuries.  The difference is that when you’re fighting to stay in first place, any little setback tends to have more of a negative effect on you than if you were in 3rd.  I’m not suggesting teams not in first place shouldn’t fight just as hard, but it’s human nature when you’re on top to want to stay on top, and to get a little down in the dumps when things go wrong.  The Braves had to deal with waiting to get Brian McCann back from the DL.  Now that he is back and safely ensconced behind the plate, he’s catching and hitting like the All-Star player Braves fans love.  Jason Heyward also had to go on the DL due to some down time that had nothing to do with his day-to-day play.  Before that DL stint though, Jason was struggling as mightily as BJ Upton or Dan Uggla.   If his play last night in game 1 is any indication of a turnaround, then that’s great news for the Braves.  I know, those are only two players, and yet they are two players that are heart-and-soul for the Braves, and players whose absence can and WILL affect a team mentally.  Finally, while Jonny Venters was just lost to the 2013 season in order to have a 2nd Tommy John surgery, the Braves can and should focus on the possibility of getting Brandon Beachy back after the All-Star Break.  The bullpen will suffer with the loss of Venters, but the starting rotation could be considerably better going into September.

2.  Ton of Home Games Left:   The Braves have had fewer home games than any other team in baseball this year.  In fact, of the 41 games played so far only 15 of those games have been played at Turner Field.   A whopping 26 games have been played away and we’re not even through the month of May!  With most of that drudgery behind them, they can focus on the fact that they have considerably more home games than away games left in the season.  Despite the argument as to whether that matters, home field advantage is just that, an advantage!

3. Signs of life:  Jason Heyward had a tremendous game last night, showing clear signs that his early season struggles may be over.  Braves fans are well aware of what Jason is capable of, and how he is able to help the Braves when he is healthy and in the zone.  He may be only one slumping Brave that is showing such clear signs of life, but the good news is that his performance can be a great motivator in the lineup, particularly as an example to players like Dan Uggla and BJ Upton who cannot currently seem to get out of their season-long slump.

4. Pitching: The Braves have a huge amount of talent on the mound and in the bullpen, and if there have been a few uncharacteristic hiccups so far this year, make no mistake that our current rotation has the stuff to win games going down the stretch.  With the added mental value of possibly getting Brandon Beachy back before the season is over, Braves pitchers will no doubt collect themselves and pitch like Atlanta starters almost always do.  Braves pitchers need to remember the legacy left behind by such great pitchers as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, etc., and pitch like they hope to one day walk in their shoes.

5. Help From Others:  All you heard pre-season from pundits all across the sports spectrum was how the Washington Nationals were poised to do this year what everyone expected them to do last year ~ win a championship.  Make no mistake, they still could, but they are not playing nearly as well as the team we saw take the NL East last year.  The struggles the Nats are having can only help the Braves this year.  As Chipper Jones used to always say, you have to take care of your own business.  That’s certainly true, but some help from other teams always goes a long way, and if you say you never look at the standings, you’re probably lying.

If the Braves can gather themselves and focus mentally, I believe they have the tools to have a bright future in the 2013 season.   That future will be easier realized if at some point Fredi Gonzalez and company take the blinders off and stop ignoring a couple of  glaring problems.  If they can figure out a way to solve some of those problems, or work around them, then the future will be bright indeed.  Where’s my shades?

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