Ronald Acuna, the first Braves hitter Wednesday, hit a home run to set a franchise record with eighth leadoff dingers. Ender Inciarte followed with a triple, and Nick Markakis scored him with a single. Great start for the home team.
And yet the celebration seemed subdued at SunTrust Park. Can’t blame them. No lead ever seems safe against the Red Sox, even when they send out their “B” lineup. Plus, Braves slugger Freddie Freeman was getting the day off.
Or at least he was until Boston erupted for six runs in the eighth inning. Manager Brian Snitker called on Freeman, and he promptly belted a go-ahead home run in the bottom of the eighth. But that wasn’t enough because Stone Mountain’s finest, Brandon Phillips, smashed a two-run homer in the ninth for a 9-8 victory and series sweep.
“It’s definitely the toughest loss of the year,” Snitker said.
It was a gut punch for the Braves, who have lost six of their past eight games. But I felt inevitably in the air even after the Braves took a 7-2 lead after five. The Red Sox (97-44) are just that relentless.
The Braves (76-63) didn’t play their best against Boston — they kicked it around defensively in two of the three games — but let’s be real. This was the best team in the majors against a pretty good team from the mediocre NL East, and the gap is as large as it appeared.
The Red Sox beat the Braves in the finale with three boppers out of the lineup: J.D. Martinez (39 homers), Xander Bogaerts (a splendid hitter) and Mookie Betts (even better).
“They are too deep,” Snitker said. “They are too patient. They don’t chase (bad pitches). They are professional hitters just all the way through. They play a ‘bench game’ and those guys, the majority of them, could probably start on a lot of major-league teams.”
That’s what a majors-high $228 million payroll can buy. The Braves ($130 million) are a mid-pack payroll team. They are teetering, but context is required because it’s tough for them to compete with high-payroll contenders such as Boston.
The Braves went 1-4 against the Red Sox and 2-5 against the Dodgers ($196 million). They split six games with the Cubs ($193 million). They dropped two of three against the Yankees ($180 million). At least the Braves are leaving the Nationals ($181 million) behind.
At some point the Braves will have to pay, and maybe overpay, to fill their needs. Will they spend? GM Alex Anthopoulos has consistently said they will when it’s time, but I understand if there’s skepticism about Liberty Media among Braves backers.
In the meantime, they can take some satisfaction in watching the Braves punch above their payroll. The loss to the Red Sox still left the Braves with a lead of 2-1/2 games over the Phillies in the East with 23 games to go. I still like their chances of finishing on top.
“We’ve played a lot of good games (for) the majority of the season,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. “That wasn’t an example of one of those. Part of it was, and then another part of it wasn’t. Those kind of things happen from time to time.”
Before Wednesday’s games you could get 6-to-1 odds on the Braves winning NL pennant. Those were the third-shortest odds behind the Cubs (11-to-4) and Dodgers (3-to-1). If the Braves make the playoffs as a division winner, maybe they can make a run.
They’ll have to get Freeman going and shore up their suddenly-suspect defense, but both things are probable. The starting pitching has been OK; the bullpen is hit-or-miss. The lineup is solid and deep -- not Red Sox deep, but who is?
I think it’s possible the Braves could win a postseason series. Contrast that with the Red Sox, who are expected to make a run with all that money.
The Red Sox weren’t built solely with big spending. Betts and Bogaerts are homegrown players. So is center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and second baseman Dustin Pedroia (currently on the disabled list).
But the Red Sox have the luxury of splurging on pricey veterans. Martinez, Pedroia, closer Craig Kimbrel and starting pitchers David Price and Rick Porcello will make about $104 million combined this season. That’s more than the payrolls for seven MLB teams.
The Braves never will spend like that. Their improvement will come when (if) more prospects show up and produce above their salaries. Anthopoulos will have to plug any other roster holes with free agents. That’s the blueprint the Braves have chosen.
The Braves are a pretty good team. They can’t match the Red Sox, but that’s nothing bad considering their respective payrolls. The Braves are good enough to win the East and, if they do, maybe they’ll open their wallets wider this winter so they can have a better chance against the big spenders.