That we’ve begun looking ahead to October tells us that the season’s first five months have gone rather well. In March, the Braves’ over/under was 84.5 wins. They exceeded it on Labor Day, beating Toronto 6-3. They’re 85-54.
Twenty-three games remain. The Braves could blow their division lead – now 6-1/2 games over Washington – and still make the playoffs with room to spare. They won’t blow anything. They’ve come too far to stop now. They’ll be the No. 2 seed in the National League Division Series, and they might not have to face the Cubs. They’re in a remarkably good place, and here we cease looking ahead.
Instead we look back – at the team that came north from Lake Buena Vista being ripped for the players it hadn’t signed and the money it refused to spend. That team that began the season with three presumptive starting pitchers unavailable because of injury. Game 2 of 2019 was started by Bryse Wilson, who has spent most of the season in Triple-A. Game 3 was started by Kyle Wright, who wasn’t even a September call-up. Game 6 was started by Max Fried, who has held the job and will surely make the playoff rotation.
(Wait. Didn’t I just say I was looking backward, not forward? Sometimes I contradict myself.)
These Braves opened in Philadelphia. They were outscored 23-11. For a few days, the doomsayers were in full cry. As of April Fool’s Day, the Phillies led the Braves by three games. The Braves have since turned around 15.5 games.
They were 21-21 on May 14. They’re 64-33 since. That’s a winning percentage of .660. Over a full season, that’d be 107 wins. The team with the most wins in modern franchise annals – the 1998 Atlanta crew – won 106.
The National League East was supposed to be a four-team scramble. The Braves have led by at least four games every day since June 19. They’ve made this look easy, and that’s the point. This shouldn’t have been easy. Lots went wrong.
Closer Arodys Vizcaino was lost to shoulder surgery in April. Mike Foltynewicz, their No. 1 starter last season, was demoted to Gwinnett in June. Kevin Gausman, their No. 3 starter entering 2019, was waived last month. Ender Inciarte has been placed on the injury list twice. He’s there now, along with Nick Markakis. Dansby Swanson just returned after a month’s absence. The Braves’ starting nine against Toronto on Labor Day included Rafael Ortega and Francisco Cervelli, neither of whom were on this big-league roster a month ago.
The Braves have acquired five relievers since opening day – Jerry Blevins, Anthony Swarzak, Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – and there have been days when they wished they could have found five more. But this much-reconfigured bullpen had, as of Monday morning, posted the NL’s lowest ERA since Aug. 17. (Small sample size, yes, but at this late date the Braves will take any morsel.)
Their rotation hasn’t been as good as last season’s. (The 2019 Braves are seventh in the league in starters’ ERA; last they were second.) Divisions aren’t usually won by teams with iffy pitching, but this one is about to be. The 2019 Braves have mostly bashed their way to the top. They’re second among NL clubs in runs and homers, third in OPS. Four everyday players – Ronald Acuna, Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies – rank among the league’s top 19 in WAR. The rest of the East has four such players combined. Three Braves have 30-plus homers; no other NL club can match that, either.
The 2018 Braves were a better blend of pitching and hitting, but the 2019 edition is on pace to win nine more games in a tougher division. Only one other NL East team finished above .500 last year, and then only just; the Nationals were 82-80. Every division club save moribund Miami is above .500 this time. It hasn’t mattered.
The preseason narrative – the Braves are cheapskates – unraveled in the light of the $13 million spent for Dallas Keuchel and the deadline importation of three relievers. Without the $23 million spent on Donaldson, they’d be in second place. Without the post-deadline swoops for Cervelli, Adeiny Hechavarria and Billy Hamilton, the Braves wouldn’t have won 16 of 20 and the division might still be in play.
Other than Mike Soroka being shut down after five starts, the 2018 Braves had a relative glide. This team figured to have it tougher, but its offense has been so mighty as to override injuries and the palpitations of both rotation and bullpen. This team has outperformed its Pythagorean win-loss total, which is measure of runs scored and allowed, by six full games; no other MLB team has bettered that.
“This year has been hard,” manager Brian Snitker said Monday. “It seems like we play the same game day – tight and hard-fought. Last year it was more smooth sailing … Alex (Anthopoulos, the general manager) has done a phenomenal job of thinking outside the box and getting guys in, and every guy has contributed.”
He laughed. “Now we’ve got to think about winning tomorrow,” he said, and that’s how it works. So long as you win, it doesn’t matter how you do it. On paper, this team shouldn’t be this good. Yet it celebrated Labor Day by paring its magic number to clinch the East to 19 with a month to go. That’s strong stuff.
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