The Atlanta Braves have answered the question posed in this space 2-1/2 weeks ago: Are they still a good team? They’ve since won four of five series. They just completed a run of 13 games against Los Angeles, Arizona, St. Louis and Milwaukee — all of those above .500 — by going 7-6, and that was with getting swept in L.A. They’ve drawn within 2-1/2 games of first-place Philadelphia and have put space between themselves and the Mets and Nationals.
Yeah, this is a good team.
“We’ve played really good baseball for a while now,” manager Brian Snitker said Sunday after a 3-2 loss to the Brewers in 10 innings. “This was what I envisioned three weeks ago.”
Said Freddie Freeman, who hit a home run for the fourth consecutive game, it being his 200th to boot: “When other teams see us on the schedule, they have to think, ‘It’s a tough stretch for us.’ ”
We saw Sunday a reason to believe this ascendant club could get better still: Mike Foltynewicz, an All-Star last season, worked his best game of 2019. He yielded a first-inning home run on a 94-mph four-seamer to Christian Yelich, who kills everybody, and a fifth-inning homer to the rookie Keston Hiura on what Foltynewicz called a “get-over” slider. And that was it. Six innings, two earned runs, three hits — the Braves will take that and run with it.
Afterward, there was much discussion over what Foltynewicz had done differently. “He had a long week,” Snitker said. “They did a lot of work on his mechanics … He was taller on the rubber.”
Freeman: “He was getting into his legs a little more.”
Foltynewicz: “My hands were in a better position. All my pitches were coming out a lot better.”
Height, legs, hands. Bottom line: Something had changed. Said Snitker: “This is as positive as I’ve been about him this year.”
Alas, Foltynewicz was gone after 67 pitches. He’d started to feel light-headed, and his swinging strikeout in the bottom of the sixth only exacerbated his dizziness. His exit left three innings — four, as it turned out — for the beleaguered bullpen to cover, and Luke Jackson — the best of this lot — was unavailable having worked the two previous nights.
Jerry Blevins, who’d gone from being designated for assignment on Tuesday to back on the roster by Saturday, was tasked with the seventh. He got two outs and yielded two hits, prompting a call for Touki Toussaint, who escaped that inning and worked a clean eighth.
Jacob Webb started the ninth and was touched for two singles, putting the go-ahead run at third base with one out. Hiura’s fly to center wasn’t deep enough to score Yasmani Grandal, a catcher for whom the Brewers hadn’t pinch-run. Then Webb threw a pitch to backstop that rebounded so serendipitously that Tyler Flowers was able to retrieve it and throw out Grandal, who’d broken for home and turned back.
There’s where the Braves’ luck ended. The Brewers summoned the heat-bringing Josh Hader, who’d been beaten by Freeman in the 10th the night before, and 17 hours later Hader was back to being untouchable. He retired the Braves, Freeman included, in the ninth. Ben Gamel, who’d been at the plate when Grandal was caught at third, hit the first pitch he saw from Wes Parsons over the center-field fence. Hader returned for another 10th. This time he sailed through.
“It was a good week at SunTrust Park,” Freeman said afterward, and even with this loss it absolutely was. The Braves took four of six from playoff-caliber opponents. Mike Soroka and Max Fried kept winning. Foltynewicz looked formidable again. Austin Riley made the biggest splash of any Brave wearing No. 27 since Fred McGriff arrived and the press box caught fire. A week ahead of Memorial Day, there aren’t many reasons to doubt that this team will be playing serious games in September.
Indeed, there’s only one reason, and yes, you’ve guessed it. On a day when the opponent deployed one reliever, that being the All-Star Hader, the Braves used four. Three were touched for two hits apiece. This came at the end of a week that saw three pitchers — Blevins on Tuesday, Jesse Biddle on Wednesday, Venters on Saturday — either DFA’ed or released outright.
In his newsletter, the baseball writer Joe Sheehan lamented the state of relief pitching among the teams that were expected to contend in the NL East. (He and a few friends sought to compile one competent group from the four bullpens. They came up with a list of seven relievers. Not a single Brave made it.
The Braves’ bullpen wasn’t a lockdown thing last year, but it was better than this. (Last year’s relief ERA was 4.15; this year it’s 4.59.) We’ve just seen a team rouse itself after a halting start — Snitker on why he moved Ronald Acuna to leadoff 10 days ago: “I felt like we were stagnant; it was like doing the same thing and expecting different results” — and we’ve just gotten a refresher course in how gifted this team is. But this is 2019, and every game comes down to the bullpen.
Clearly the Braves don’t love what they have as relief options; otherwise they wouldn’t keep changing the mix. It’s also clear they regard Craig Kimbrel as a last resort, and we’ve debated those pros/cons so often that everyone’s eyes have glazed over. But the lesson of this team’s best week the calendar year is the same as it has been, the same as it will be until someone moves to correct it.
The Braves are good enough to get back to October, assuming the bullpen allows it, which could be more than an reasonable assumption. It could be hoping against hope.
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