It wasn’t so long ago that we wondered if the Braves had any player besides Freddie Freeman who would start on a good team. As Wednesday’s game began, another thought occurred: Apart from Jacob deGrom, would you take any Mets’ starter over any player in Brian Snitker’s opening nine?
Probably Brandon Nimmo over Charlie Culberson in left field, though the latter has proved useful in Ronald Acuna’s absence, and maybe Todd Frazier over Johan Camargo at third base. Those, however, would be the only points of contention. (And yes, I know Yoenis Cespedes is again injured.) Three years of tanking have left the Braves with a great-looking – and mostly young – everyday eight. Then the game commenced, and something else happened.
The man who has been the National League’s best pitcher this season was outpitched by a 20-year-old. Mike Soroka wasn’t touched for a hit until the seventh, and even that was a dinky one – Michael Conforto hit a grounder into the hole that Dansby Swanson backhanded. Swanson’s throw wasn’t bad, just late. Soroka had to console himself with becoming the youngest pitcher in Braves annals to yield only one hit in a start of any length. Think about that.
It wasn’t as if the Braves battered deGrom, who saw his ERA dip from 1.57 to 1.55. But they scored a run in the fifth, and that run, as Freeman said, “was like six.” Freeman drove it home, poking a two-strike slider – he previously waved at a 96-mph fastball – into left field. Swanson barreled around third and might have been out at the plate had Nimmo fielded without fuss. But there’s a reason these Mets have gone 17-35 after somehow starting the season 11-1, and Nimmo, on cue, bobbled the ball.
Freeman’s homer in the eighth would have served as insurance against most other teams, but there was no way these ascendant Braves were losing to this free-falling opponent. Those four years of losing are yesterday’s news. Today’s headline: These guys are good.
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Reporters gathered outside the clubhouse afterward were greeted by Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz making their joint entrance. And darned if this season doesn’t recall the wonders wrought by the teams those men – both since enshrined in Cooperstown – built back in the day. For Terry Pendleton, the 1991 batting champ and MVP, there’s Freeman, who leads NL position players in batting average and OPS. For Glavine/Avery/Smoltz, there’s Foltynewicz/Newcomb/Soroka.
Said Freeman of these pitchers: “We’ve seen them coming the past few years, but now they’re here and they’re taking the next step. It’s great when you know you have a chance to win every game.”
The reason the Braves finished first over 14 consecutive completed seasons wasn’t that they outslugged people, though they could do that, too. They kept winning (and winning, and winning) because their starting pitcher was almost always better than the opponent’s. Mike Foltynewicz’s ERA of 2.16 ranks third – trailing deGrom and Max Scherzer – among NL pitchers; Newcomb ranks ninth at 2.92. In his first start since exiting the disabled list, Soroka lowered his ERA to 2.57.
Remember that business about rebuilding around young pitching? Ask the Mets about it. They were here for two days and managed five hits and two runs. The names of John Coppolella and John Hart are seldom heard around SunTrust Park, but their labors have borne fruit. After 67 games, this team is in first place. The possibility of October baseball in Cobb County is no longer a flight of fancy, and when it happens it won’t be a one-time thing.
Someone asked Cox, who 27 years ago had a close-up view of worst-to-first, if he saw this breakthrough coming. “Not this year so much,” he said. “We all kind of thought next year. But (general manager Alex Anthopoulos) made some little moves – (Preston) Tucker, (Ryan) Flaherty and (Shane) Carle. And Swanny is playing great again.”
Swanny? Meaning Swanson? (Every awful Cox nickname involves the attachment of a “y,” but nobody I know calls this player Swanny.) “Yeah,” Cox said, smiling. “He doesn’t like it.”
Boilerplate disclaimer: There’s a long way to go. That said, something of baseline has been established. The Braves haven’t been more than a half-game out of first since April 30. They’ve haven’t lost more than three in a row. Even when they went 2-4 on the West Coast last week, they didn’t lose two games running. The Mets stand as living proof that a hot start can be ephemeral, but we can’t say the Braves are living off two hot weeks. And they’re 9-7 without Acuna.
The Freeman-for-MVP candidacy has begun to gather steam in national circles. Asked if he pays attention to such talk, he said: “No, it’s June. All I care about is playing beyond the 162nd game.”
That first part is undeniably true. The second part? It really could happen.