Braves roll into Nationals Park on Friday for the first round of what might be a long, interesting division race

The 8-1 Braves are a storyteller’s dream. First of all, they’re still a special franchise to those of us who once got our nightly baseball fix from TBS. Ted Turner’s network got the Braves a national following that exists to this day, especially in the South.

Years from now, they’ll be discussing how this baseball team changed a significant chunk of the world. Georgia has joined California, Texas, etc., in producing talent. If you measure it by the square mile, Georgia might be the most productive area of the country. Thanks to Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox and all the others, the Braves made it cool to play baseball in an area which once had just two real sports: fall football and spring football.

So there’s that. There’s also the franchise itself. For about 20 years, the Braves were the smartest, most efficient operation on the planet. In John Schuerholz and Stan Kasten and Bobby Cox, no franchise had a better management team. They led the Braves to 14 consecutive postseason appearances, and along the way, built a great ballpark. Frank Wren was Schuerholz’s understudy for a decade before taking control of the franchise. Schuerholz is still on the job as a sounding board, consultant and general source of wisdom.

Cox is gone, too, replaced by Fredi Gonzalez, who was also a Cox understudy and has many of the same qualities in terms of demeanor and consistency. As for the players, only Brian McCann is left from the 2005 team that extended the postseason streak to 14 years.

Wren remade the Braves over the winter by acquiring B.J. and Justin Upton, joining them with Jason Heyward to give the Braves baseball’s most dynamic outfield. In the wake of Chipper’s retirement, Wren believed the Braves needed a new identity, and so that outfield is where it begins. Justin Upton leads the majors with six home runs.

But the Braves are built around pitching. They’ve got the best ERA in the majors at 1.89. Their bullpen is No. 1 with a 1.65 ERA. Their starters are 6-1 with a 2.01 ERA, trailing the Dodgers in rotation ERA. Kris Medlen and Mike Minor have allowed three earned runs in 25 innings. Paul Maholm, a Trade Deadline pickup last season, hasn’t allowed a run in two starts. Despite losing setup man Jonny Venters to an elbow injury, the Braves don’t have an apparent weakness.

They also have one of the real sweet stories in baseball. That would be backup catcher Evan Gattis, who at 26 is one of those too-good-to-be-true stories. He was 23 years old when he played his first Minor League game after a twisting journey that included battles with drugs and alcohol. He also worked a series of odd jobs, including a stint at Yellowstone National Park.

Actually, Yellowstone is not an odd job. It’s only odd because while it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, it’s not a place many scouts go looking for talent. Now there’s an idea.

“Hey, you boys want a ride to the game?”

“No thanks, we’re going to wait for Old Faithful to blow.”

Okay, forget it.

McCann’s injury gave him a chance to make the Braves out of Spring Training, and he has delivered one big hit after another. He’s 6-4, 230 pounds, and the ball rockets off his bat. He has played so well that it’ll be interesting to see how Gonzalez divides the playing time when McCann returns.

The Washington Nationals were widely thought to be the only team in baseball without a glaring weakness. The Braves were confident they could hang with the Nationals, and after watching them for nine games, it’s easy to understand why. Which brings us to this weekend at Nationals Park.

It’s a long season, a marathon, etc. The Braves have won six in a row against the Cubs and Marlins. But it’s great fun when contenders play, and the Braves and Nationals will have three games to start the fun. They’ll play 16 more times, including a mid-September series in  Washington, so it would be silly to make too much of these opening rounds.

But in a season when so many teams seem capable of winning a championship, it should make for an entertaining weekend of hardball.


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