The Braves went 90-72 last season, winning the National League East by eight games. Picked to finish third in their division this year, they’re on pace to go 95-67. Their lead is six games over Washington, eight over Philadelphia, 8-1/2 over the Mets.
We mention this because, for the second time in 10 days, we’ve watched the Braves take a road series that might have gone wrong and made it go right. Last week in D.C., they lost Game 1 and saw their lead shaved to 4-1/2 games. They scored 16 runs in winning games 2 and 3. In Minneapolis on Monday, the Braves lost on a walk-off home run. They scored 23 runs in winning games 2 and 3.
When we track a team on a daily basis, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s going wrong — or, if not fully wrong, then not quite right. Are these Braves perfect? No. They have the 12th-best ERA in baseball. That’s the worst of the six division leaders. But they’re fifth in the majors in runs, second to the Dodgers among NL clubs. They don’t often get a chance to deploy a DH, but we just saw what can happen when they do. Over the final two games against the Twins, the Braves had 32 hits and six home runs. They led 11-0 on Tuesday, 7-0 on Wednesday.
This season has often seemed a daily referendum on the Braves’ pitching, or the absence thereof, and nobody who knows a thing about the sport would suggest that pitching doesn’t matter. (For the 1,000th time: Pitching matters more than anything else.) But the Braves have done what they can to correct that part — signing Dallas Keuchel, importing five relievers since opening day — and if they can get anything good from Mike Foltynewicz, they’ll surely be better than they’ve been.
But, just for today, let’s not dwell on a negative. Let’s note instead that the Braves’ pitching instability might have sunk a lesser team. These guys, however, seem unsinkable. The Twins are among the best-hitting teams in baseball, and the Braves just outhit them. The everyday eight was very good last year. It’s even better now, and we note that three of those eight — Dansby Swanson, Nick Markakis and now Austin Riley — are on the injured list.
Four of the everyday eight — Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson and Ozzie Albies — have mustered a 3.0 WAR or better. No other MLB club has four such position players. (The Dodgers, Yankees, Twins, Astros, Red Sox and Diamondbacks each have three.) Of the top 33 non-pitchers in the major, the Braves have 12.1 percent of them.
The Braves’ OPS last season was .742; this year it’s .800. They hit 175 homers last year; they’re at 183 already, and they’re on pace for 256. (I know home runs are coming cheaper than ever, but still.) They scored 759 runs last season; they’re on pace to score 874. We’ve gotten so caught up in what the Braves don’t do overly well – i.e., pitch – that we’ve given short shrift to their obvious strength. They can really hit.
I know, I know. No team hits in the playoffs the way it does in the regular season because a team almost never sees a bad pitcher in October. But that’s October, and there’s a chance the Braves’ pitching will look better come autumn than it does today. There’s no chance — none, nil, nada — that these Braves won’t play beyond September. Their strength is such that it has overridden their weakness.
I’m not big on “intangibles,” simply because almost everything in baseball can be rendered tangible. That said, there’s an equanimity about these Braves that comes from looking around the clubhouse and seeing how many gifted players are housed therein. They figured out how to win last year, and now they expect no less.
They’ve suffered reversals — the Monday loss in the bottom of the ninth followed a 10-inning loss Sunday — but they’ve lost more than two in a row once since May. They’ve lost two series in two months. Their division lead hasn’t dropped below four games since June 21. They’re good and they know it.
Twice in 10 days, they lost Game 1 of a road series against an opponent of quality and you thought, “The next two games could be rough.” Both times they won the series. For as much as we’ve doubted these Braves, there’s no denying the greater truth: This is a formidable bunch.
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