They’ve played almost 4-1/2 months. If they were going to fade, they would have by now. Yes, they’ve hit rough patches, and yes, they’re again strapped for starting pitchers, but still: The 2018 Braves, who weren’t supposed to be this good, are indeed this good.
Who (besides yours truly) thinks so? Their manager. Here’s what Brian Snitker said, speaking Friday night at SunTrust Park:
“There have been a couple of stretches where we’re like, ‘If we can stay relevant after this.’ More than any one significant thing, because it seems like there were so many of them over the course of the year: The late-inning comebacks, the walk-offs, things like that. What stands out to me is there were a couple of stretches where we’re going into a tough road trip, and we’re thinking, ‘Can you survive this?’ and we’ll know what we’re made of. And we did.”
Then: “Right before the deadline, we go on the road, and it’s like, ‘Stay relevant in this thing, and we’ll see what can happen,’ and we did.”
Then: “We’ve passed a lot of tests over the course of the summer – with schedule, and with need-to-win (games). We’ve done that.”
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Of all the stories this happy season – Ozzie Albies as big bopper, Ronald Acuna as real deal, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb as legit starters, Nick Markakis as reborn, Charlie Culberson as Ben Zobrist if not Babe Ruth – the bigger story of moments seized and fears allayed and relevance achieved. It began with 20 games against teams expected to be better than this one (the Mets then qualified), and the Braves went 12-8, losing only one of those seven series.
They’ve since gone mostly from strength to strength. Even their darkest moment ended with a bolt of lightning. They’s lost 13 of 18 last month to fall from 3-1/2 games in front to 2-1/2 back in the National League East, and what happened July 29? Newcomb came within a strike of no-hitting the Dodgers. The Braves would win their next four. Crisis averted.
On Monday, they lost Game 1 of a doubleheader in D.C. against the desperate Nationals. Newcomb faced Max Scherzer in the nightcap. The Braves won 3-1. Going by Baseball-Reference WAR, baseball’s top three pitchers this season have been Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola, the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and Scherzer. (All from the NL East, mind you.) The Braves have faced that exalted trio 12 times. They’ve won nine of those games.
The point being: This team is no hothouse flower. It has stood in against the very best, and it has wobbled only slightly. It hasn’t spent a day below .500. Its greatest deficit in the division has been 3-1/2 games. As of Friday, it was fourth in the league in runs and OPS, third in starting pitchers’ ERA. (The latter despite having required 11 different starters, with another apt to come Monday.) It can pitch and hit. It’s not a playoff lock, but nobody in the National League is.
If the Braves weren’t sure what upper management thought of them, they were sent a powerful message at the deadline. In four deft deals, general manager Alex Anthopoulos hooked a power bat, a starting pitcher, a lefty reliever and a righty reliever. These were exactly the sort of mid-course corrections players expect from their GM, and it served to buoy team spirit even more. Everybody here is pulling in the same direction. Everybody here is thinking about October.
Even – and maybe especially – the manager. Snitker is 62, a baseball lifer. He’s not given to flights of fancy, and he’s not expecting his team, from here on, to do anything less than it has been doing.
“We’re staying relevant in this thing, and (we’re) in games,” he said. “I’m looking at us like it’s real. It hasn’t been a fluke for a long time in my eyes. We’re sitting here in the middle of August, and we’re right there in the hunt. It’s there for us to take.”
It is. And, given Anthopoulos’ refusal to sell anything of potential use, it should be again next season, and the next and the next. But that’s not to suggest that these Braves have done all they need to do. If these 4-1/2 months have taught us anything, it’s that these guys can deliver more and better. And they’ve positioned themselves, as the sainted Ernie Johnson Sr. would say, to give us a finish.