The Atlanta Braves are kings of the National League East. The division's once unstoppable force clinched the top spot for the first time since since 2005 as the Washington Nationals lost 4-2 to the Miami Marlins.
MLB (@MLB) September 22, 2013
The result was expected for quite some time now as the Braves built a double-digit lead over the Washington Nationals. The injury bug finally caught up with Atlanta, however, causing the race to last a little longer before they finally shut the door.
The Braves were in the middle of a game with the Chicago Cubs when they clinched the East, but it didn't stop some players from recognizing their achievement (via Mark Bowman of MLB.com).
Some of the Braves pumped their fists and slapped hands between innings. They are well aware they have clinched the division.— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) September 22, 2013
Although the injury list has been filled with different key players throughout the season, the absence that's been the biggest setback is that of Jason Heyward. The talented outfielder was sidelined in late August with a jaw injury after getting hit by a pitch.
He got hurt shortly after moving into the leadoff spot, a move that sparked the Braves offense and put the team in firm control of the division. Without him, the lineup struggled to manufacture runs and the NL East remained in the balance for a little longer than expected.
But the Braves made sure they weren't going to suffer a monumental collapse by piecing together enough wins to capture the division.
Now, the focus shifts to securing the top record in the NL and then to the playoffs. For the Braves, there are obvious questions about their chances of making a serious run toward the World Series after fading down the stretch.
The biggest one surrounds the offense. Coming into the season, it was clear Atlanta was going to strike out a lot, relying on plenty of power to make up for the lost opportunities. It's led to a streaky lineup that looks terrific at times and hopeless at others.
It really seemed to find a comfort zone when Heyward was hitting first, though. With him playing the table-setter role, giving the hitters in the middle of the order more chances to drive in runs, Atlanta was much better offensively.
While he was on the mend, the offense went into another tailspin. He's fighting hard to get back in top form after being activated off the DL, which would provide a big boost alongside Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Brian McCann and Co.
The other question mark is the team's young starting rotation. The Braves bullpen is one of the best in baseball, with Craig Kimbrel as a dominant force to close out games. So if the starters can give the team six solid innings during postseason battles, they will be in good shape.
It's far from a guarantee, though. Mike Minor, who pitched like a budding ace in the early months, has struggled over the past two. Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran have both had very impressive stretches of their own, but they lack big-game experience.
Those questions will be answered in the coming weeks, but for now, the Braves are officially NL East champions.
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