Atlanta Braves batter Justin Upton, right, celebrates with Brian McCann after scoring a run late in their win over Washington on Wednesday in Washington. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)
ATLANTA — The Braves already had the biggest division lead in the majors at the all-star break, but the team’s ultimate promise still seemed unfulfilled.
“I think the best is still ahead of us,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said then.
“We really haven’t put everything together yet,” added general manager Frank Wren at the time.
Now, though, the Braves have everything clicking and it has been quite a ride.
A six-game lead in the National League East has grown to a stunning 15 ½ games and the Braves take a 13-game winning streak into a nine-game homestand beginning today night against Miami.
Justin and B.J. Upton — the team’s big offseason additions — are clicking together for the first time, Jason Heyward has finally given the team a productive leadoff hitter and Chris Johnson is the surprise leader in the NL batting race.
Best yet, those are just some of the offensive highlights.
The starting pitching hasn’t missed a beat despite the loss of Tim Hudson and the lights-out bullpen, anchored by closer Craig Kimbrel, has been able to make up for the absence of Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty thanks to he work of Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden and surprising David Carpenter.
“It’s been fun,” Justin Upton said. “Anytime you can win as many ballgames as we have, team morale is good and things are going well for us. So it’s definitely fun to be a part of.”
The Braves left fielder had three more hits, including his 21st home run as the Braves completed a sweep of the Nationals in Washington on Wednesday night and is batting .440 with five homers during the winning streak.
It is older brother B.J. that is really showing encouraging signs, though, after a dreadful first half of the season.
With four hits in the series finale against the Nationals, the center fielder is 10-for-21 in five games since coming off the disabled list and is looking more like the player the Braves envisioned when they signed him to a five-year, $75.25 million contract.
“I’m starting to get there. I’m definitely starting to feel pretty good out there,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working and maintain to keep it to where it is. This is probably the best I’ve felt.”
The Braves’ winning streak is their longest since they won an Atlanta record 15 in a row in 2000 and they are now back at Turner Field, where they are 38-15. They play three against the Marlins, then three against the Phillies and Nationals before heading back on the road.
The magic number for the Braves (70-45) to win their first division title since 2005 is 33 with 47 games to play, but that isn’t their only goal.
The best record in the National League would give the Braves home field throughout the playoffs. With their dominance in Atlanta, that’s important.