Adeiny Hechavarria of the Atlanta Braves celebrates hitting a 2-run home run in the second inning against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park on August 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Photo: Logan Riely/Getty Images
Photo: Logan Riely/Getty Images

Braves beat up but unbowed during another NL East title run

You keep waiting for the Braves to show signs of fraying as the injury list keeps expanding. Instead, they keep winning. It seems nothing will stop the Braves from repeating as National League East champions.

The Braves won back-to-back series against the Phillies and Nationals soon after right fielder Nick Markakis and shortstop Dansby Swanson went to the injured list. Left fielder Austin Riley went down, and then the Braves took two of three games from the Twins, leaders of the American League Central. The outfield depth took another hit when Ender Inciarte went back to the IL, but third-stringers Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega delivered decisive homers as the Braves took two of three from the Dodgers. 

Catcher Brian McCann is the latest Braves regular to end up on the inured list. The Braves still won a series against the Marlins to redeem their only recent stumble, a four-game split at Miami. At this point would anyone be surprised if catcher Alex Jackson, who was 0-for-10 during his last call-up, gets a big hit this weekend to help the Braves beat the Mets in New York? 

The Mets are another team recently vanquished by the beat-up Braves. They were the hottest team in the NL when they came to town. They lost two of three games to the Braves. The Mets got hot again after they left town and have ace Jacob deGrom scheduled face the Braves on Friday. 

Yet I think the Braves will find a way to win the series in New York. The schedule softens after that with a make-up game in Colorado, two at terrible Toronto, a home series against the woeful White Sox and then two more against the Blue Jays in Cobb. The Nationals visit after that, and they just got ace Max Scherzer back from the injured list. 

Riley and Swanson should be back by then. McCann might be ready, too. Markakis and Inciarte are aiming to return before October. With those players, the Braves come close to matching the Dodgers’ lineup depth. 

I know. The Braves wouldn’t face the Dodgers until the NLCS. But it’s hard to stop thinking about them because they are the biggest obstacle to the Braves making it to the World Series. None of NL wild-card contenders is a real threat to the Dodgers 

A healthy Braves team would have a decent chance against the Dodgers in October. The players they’ve been missing aren’t minor contributors. Swanson, Markakis, Riley and Inciarte were a big part of the impressive depth the Braves showed before they were sidelined, and the Braves showed they have even more. 

I’m not getting carried away here. I don’t think the Braves can take the Dodgers in a seven-game series even with all regulars available. If you disagree, head to a sportsbook and get the Braves at 9-to-2 odds to win the NL pennant. The Dodgers are 5-to-8, odds that seem short but not by much. 

L.A. has too much pitching. The Braves bested Dodgers right-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu last weekend. They didn’t see Walker Buehler or Clayton Kershaw. That’s probably the best trio of starters in the NL. The Nationals and Mets might match them, but those pitchers aren’t backed by the NL’s best offense. 

The Dodgers’ bullpen has been about average among NL teams. FanGraphs writer Craig Edwards notes that much of the success by Dodgers relievers has come in low-leverage situations. They’ve been below-average in tighter spots. 

But that’s been mitigated by consistently long outings by Dodgers starters. The relievers don’t face many high-leverage innings. Their relief pitching will matter less in the postseason, when manager Dave Roberts can strategically deploy starters to the bullpen. 

OK, that’s enough about the Dodgers. The counterpoint to the Braves not facing the best arms the Dodgers can offer last weekend is that the same was true for the Dodgers. Mike Soroka pitched (effectively) in that series, but Dallas Kueuchel didn’t.  (Braves slugger Freddie Freeman also didn’t get on base in 12 plate appearances, which won’t happen again.)

I want to see a rematch in the NLCS. The Dodgers will have little trouble in the Division Series. Assuming the Braves win the East, which they will, then they’ll face the NL Central winner in the NLDS. That probably will be the Cubs, though the Cardinals have a realistic chance. I’d take the Braves over either.

The Cubs would be the tougher test. They have more effective starting pitchers than the Cardinals. But their top three are roughly equal to the Braves’ best. The Cubs can hit, and closer Craig Kimbrel has started to pitch like himself. The Cubs have been a bad team away from Wrigley Field, though, and they’d have to win at least one at SunTrust Park to win the NLDS over the East champion Braves.

Sportsbooks have the Cubs at 10-to-1 odds to win the pennant and the Cardinals at 12-1. Some of that is because it’s not yet clear which team will win the Central. But it also reflects a betting market that sees the Braves as superior to whichever team does. That hasn’t changed even as Braves regulars keep getting hurt. 

The Braves are flawed but resilient. They are good and plucky. The same intangible factors that boosted them during an out-of-nowhere run to the 2018 East title is pulling them along to a repeat despite the injuries. 

And then the Braves will advance to the NLCS to meet the Dodgers, who will get their best shot.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.