Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Teams on a charge

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Teams on a charge

by Matt Smith

Now we’re firmly into August, there are a number of teams putting together some runs of form that are setting them up for a postseason berth.

The Atlanta Braves are the most prominent example. They came shooting out of the traps with a 17-9 record in April, new recruit Justin Upton leading the way by smashing the cover off the ball on a nightly basis. Upton then cooled off and the team kept up a steady if unspectacular pace, adding wins to their total without necessarily wowing anyone with their dominance.

Tim Hudson then suffered a gruesome fractured ankle on 24 July in a win against the New York Mets, putting the pitcher out for the rest of the season. Hudson had been struggling so losing him from the rotation wasn’t quite the blow you might initially expect, but he is a leader on the team and it could have had a wider negative effect. The Braves lost the next day against the Mets and everyone looked on wondering if a wobble was on the cards.

Not a bit of it; Atlanta reeled off a 14-game winning streak only ended on Saturday in a 1-0 loss to the Miami Marlins. Prior to Sunday’s games, they had a 14.5 game lead over the Washington Nationals in the NL East and the playoff odds on the ESPN.com standings had their chances of making it to the postseason at 99.9 per cent.

Three of those 14 wins came in a series sweep against the Nationals last week and Washington’s most notable contribution came via a bench-clearing incident when tensions boiled over after Bryce Harper was hit by a pitch.

The Braves’ good form has only served to heighten the sense of disappointment around the Nationals. After winning 98 games last year, they appeared to have a well-rounded roster set up to have a battle royal with the Braves all season long. Instead, they have fallen a long way short of expectations for a variety of reasons, in particular with off-season acquisitions Denard Span and Dan Haren playing poorly and the re-signed Adam LaRoche failing to repeat his success of 2012.

They’ve got enough talent and resources to get back into the race next season, but their handling of Stephen Strasburg’s innings last year looks worse by the day. If 2012 was their year, the Nationals failed to take advantage.

You could make the same argument about the Detroit Tigers, who played so well to get to the World Series only to end the season with a whimper by being swept in four-games by the San Francisco Giants (who themselves are having a very disappointing season, but that’s much easier to take when you have won two World Series recently).

The Tigers put together a 12-game wining streak recently, ended by the New York Yankees on Friday night, in a run that included a four-game sweep over the Indians in Cleveland. Whilst Terry Francona’s team are falling away, the Tigers are putting their foot down and their playoff odds (98.7%) were only marginally less impressive than the Braves before Sunday’s games.

Losing Jhonny Peralta to a 50-game suspension will have an impact because he had been arguably their second-best hitter so far this season behind the incredible Miguel Cabrera. However, General Manager Dave Dombrowski planned ahead by adding shortstop Jose Igelsias before the trade deadline and although he doesn’t figure to offer too much with the bat, his glovework will certainly improve what was a pretty dicey infield defence.

With Victor Martinez looking like he’s now knocked off the rust from missing all of 2012 with a knee injury, and a very impressive pitching staff even with Justin Verlander not performing quite at his best, Detroit look well set to make amends for their Fall Classic flop.

The recent form of the Tigers and Braves has helped cement their division leads, but the most impressive turnaround over the last month or so has come from a team that was dead-last in their division on 30 June. The Los Angeles Dodgers were 9.5 games out in the NL West on 22 June and although they had cut that to 4 by the team they had played their 81st game of the season on 30 June, they were still nowhere near where they should have been considering their sky-high payroll and array of talent.

Less than two months on, and a period of 28 wins from 35 games, the Dodgers sat atop the division with a 6.5 game lead before their series finale against the Rays on Sunday. What’s more, their 7-6 walk-off win against the Rays on Friday was one of those games that makes you think that destiny is on a team’s side.

L.A. were 6-0 down at the seventh-inning stretch and although they had cut the deficit in half by the time the bottom of the ninth came around, they still looked out of it with Fernando Rodney coming into the game and the 8, 9 and 1 hitter coming up to bat. Somehow the Dodgers rallied and when Rodney inadvertently chucked the ball into the outfield on an attempted force-out at second base, Adrian Gonzalez gleefully crossed home plate to seal one of the stranger walk-off wins you’ll see this season.

Manager Don Mattingly was able to ride out a rough spell earlier in the season when, considering the ‘win-now’ mentality that must exist in L.A. following their spending spree, it looked like he would be cast aside. He’s now leading a team that has every chance of making it to the playoffs.

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