The Braves drop two of three to AL East doormat Baltimore over the weekend and plenty of leery fans start to wonder if a “correction” is at hand and if the Braves will revert to what was expected of them by pundits and virtually everyone else before the season began.
But there’s something that’s important to consider. Something different about this Braves team and those of recent vintage that got off to encouraging starts only to collapse midway through the season or, going back a few more years, teams that fell apart in September. And that something is belief.
In the clubhouse, this team believes.
These guys don’t think there’s anything flukey about what they’ve done this season, entering the final week of June with the NL’s second-best record (44-32) and holding down first place in the NL East, 2½ games ahead of Philadelphia and three games ahead of the recent division standard-bearers, Washington.
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“We walk into through these doors every single day with a chance to win every single night,” said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who leads all National League players in All-Star votes, with teammate Nick Markakis pulling in the second-most votes in the latest NL balloting update. “Couldn’t say that the last few years, and that’s the big difference. When you have 25 guys with confidence going into every single night, this is what happens.
“No matter what the score is, we still know we can come back and win games. And when you know your pitchers are going to give you a chance every night, it takes the pressure off the offense.”
They believe they belong where they are in the standings and that they have what they need to stay there as long as they keep playing aggressive, defensively sound baseball and getting the level of starting pitching they’ve had so far. Never mind that this Braves team lost at least 90 games each of the past three seasons in a painful rebuilding process that most outsiders – and plenty of folks in Braves offices – figured would require at least one more transitional year before ATL might be a real contender again.
At some point last month the Braves were on the road and general manager Alex Anthopoulos was talking to manager Brian Snitker and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and said something that made it clear that whatever expectations were entering the season, whatever thoughts they might have had about the team looking at the big picture in all decisions and aiming for the future, it was time for everyone to re-think and realize that the future might just be now. That everyone needed to keep approaching it that way, as the players and coaches had been all along.
And they have continued that. They know now that the top brass view it the same way, hence the call-up of 20-year-old Mike Soroka to start a game in New York in May when most thought Soroka might not be up till late in the season. The Braves decided that he gave them the best chance to win in that fill-in start, and so they started his “clock” by adding him to the 40-man roster and sending him to New York to face the Mets, where he thrived in his debut.
“I said look, I think we may have a chance to make the playoffs, so let’s keep our eye on the prize and still try to win games,” Anthopoulos said, recalling that conversation with Snitker and Hernandez. “That being said, things happen over the course of the season. You can lose 10 in a row, you can get a bunch of guys hurt and you don’t have enough depth. Things can happen.
“It’s such a cliche to worry about today, but I’ve never seen a group focus (as much) on today; we don’t look ahead at all. We really worry about today’s game. That’s from Snit to the players and the coaching staff. It’s kind of an easy way to live and an easy way to go about it. A lot of people say it, but I think we live it more than any team I’ve been around.”
Freeman, who’s 28 and in the prime of his career, signed an eight-year, $135 million extension in February 2014, supplanting the six-year, $90 million extension that Chipper Jones received in 2000 as the largest and longest in Braves history. At the time, Freeman had no idea the Braves would be embarking on a difficult and severe rebuild by year’s end, with former top team officials John Hart and John Coppolella replacing fired GM Frank Wren and trading off most of the team’s other high-salaried players in deals to acquire prospects, draft picks and international bonus-pool money
Here’s a quick rundown of what the Braves have done since Freeman signed that extension:
The 2014 team was above .500 as late as Aug. 22 at 64-63, then went 13-22 the rest of the way. Wren and his top assistant were fired near the end of the season and the rebuild got underway.
The 2015 team started out 42-42 and went 25-53 the rest of the way, lacking the pitching or the lineup balance or depth to keep up its early pace.
The 2016 team started out 9-29, which got manager Fredi Gonzalez fired in mid-May.
The 2017 team flirted with .500 only until late May, starting out 20-23 before losing seven of its next nine on the way to going 52-67 after May 23.
Then the scandal unfolded, with MBL focused mainly on international free-agency infractions and levying stiff penalties including a lifetime ban from baseball for Coppolella, who had already been forced to resign.
Now it’s a few weeks until the All-Star break and the Braves have climbed to the upper echelon of the various power ranking, rated as high as fourth this week behind the trio of AL super powers: Houston, Boston and the New York Yankees.
The Braves have ascended quickly from three rather bleak and almost pitiful years – it was difficult for many to view the former gold-standard NL team going through a rebuild for the first time in a quarter-century, not to mention the black eye of the scandal – to again being a team that opponents don’t want to face.
It’s happened so quickly that plenty of Braves fans, particularly those only old enough to remember back to the early part of this century – the Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, believe it or not – and who now expect to be disappointed much as Braves fans in the 1990s expected those teams to roll to the division title every year, which they did.
But the skepticism stops at the doors of the home clubhouse at SunTrust Park. These guys believe. And so do plenty of others, as evident by the new optimism shown by many over these Braves, including those who’ve figured out how to figuratively stuff the All-Star voting boxes and have put three Braves (Freeman, Markakis, Ozzie Albies) in first place at their position and three others (Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo, Kurt Suzuki) in the top three at their positions and Ender Inciarte and phenom Ronald Acuna also among the top six outfielders.
Those six, plus several other position players and a starting staff led by emerging power arms Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz, has given the Braves a balance of depth of talent sorely lacking in recent seasons. Even if their best player, Freeman, or April sensation Albies are going through a rough patch at any time, as Freeman has been for the past week, the Braves have continued to score runs.
“That’s the key,” Freeman said. “As much as Nick and I want to be good 162 games, it’s just not going to happen. We’re all going to go through out stretches of just not doing what we want to do. But when you’ve got guys like Charlie Culberson, Ozzie’s coming back (hitting again), Ender’s starting to hit, Kurt’s been fantastic all year, Johan big hits – that’s how you win ballgames and how you get to the playoffs. You can’t count on the same guys every day.
“And that’s what good teams do, find ways to win. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”
And it’s why those expecting a correction or even a collapse to be just around the bend just might be pleasantly surprised this summer.