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WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – The Atlanta Braves have been known as America’s Team for nearly two decades, but this season they are more like Latin America’s Team.
The Braves enter the season’s final weekend controlling their postseason destiny after squandering a chance to win the National League East Division earlier this week.
The Braves were atop the division for most of the year but were overtaken by the two-time defending National League champion Philadelphia Phillies (95-64), who closed the regular seasons with three games against Atlanta.
But the Braves can make the playoffs, too. Atlanta is 90-69 and has a two-game lead over the San Diego Padres (88-71) for the wild card, awarded to the second-place team with the best record. The Padres conclude the season with three games in San Francisco, Calif., against the Giants (91-68).
The Braves haven’t made the playoffs in four seasons after qualifying for the postseason each year from 1991 to 2005, when they won 14 straight division titles and went to the World Series five times, including winning their lone title in 1995.
But the team has a chance to win its first championship in 15 years thanks to a little Latin American spice.
Omar Infante, a 28-year-old from Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, has been essential to the team as a utility player. The All-Star has played 63 games at second base, 28 at third, 19 at short, 15 at left field, six in right and has appeared 13 times as a pinch hitter. This season, he is batting .323 with eight home runs, 45 runs batted-in and 65 runs scored.
Martín Prado, the team’s All-Star second baseman from Maracay, Venezuela, not only is among the best defensive players at his position in the game, but is hitting a team-leading .307 with 15 home runs and 66 runs batted-in. He also leads the team in runs scored (100) and hits (184).
Prado’s dream season, however, ended when the 26-year-old tore an oblique muscle while making a diving catch last week. Prado is expected to be back by the start of next season.
Braves need someone to replace Martín Prado
Several Latinos have the talent to replace Prado’s production.
A third Venezuelan, Alex González, a native of Cagua, has been a huge midseason acquisition. González, 33, is hitting .253 with 23 home runs and 88 runs batted-in, as he’s started 154 games at shortstop this year, including 67 with Atlanta after arriving in a trade with Toronto.
Outfielder Melky Cabrera also has provided versatility. The 26-year-old from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, has played 82 games in left field, 53 in center field, 25 in right and has appeared 15 times as a pinch hitter. He’s hitting .258 with four home runs, 42 runs batted-in and 50 runs scored.
Cabrera also was a member of the World Series-winning New York Yankees last season. His playoff experience will be vital to the Braves, as their postseason fate likely will be decided by the slimmest of margins.
The Braves have relied on some of the top talent in Major League Baseball to come out of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to make a run at their first postseason in five years.
If the team wants to extend its season into October – and possibly the World Series in November – it will need huge performances from its Latin American players.
And it certainly will need them to keep the Braves’ lineup muy caliente.