A look at where the Braves stand after 81 games

Atlanta Braves' Eddie Rosario hits a single during the third inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, July 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta Braves' Eddie Rosario hits a single during the third inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, July 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

Last season, the Braves scratched and clawed their way through their schedule before gaining momentum in the second half of the season.

They started much earlier this time around.

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At this year’s halfway point, they looked poised to defend their title if all goes well over the next few months – which, yes, is still a long way away from now.

“I think kind of turning it on earlier this year just takes a little bit of pressure off, kind of relaxes you a little bit,” said Kyle Wright, who admitted he might not know what it truly would feel like because he spent most of last year at Triple-A Gwinnett. “I feel like we’ll be able to tell that more later in the season, when things start to get real tight and down to the wire. I think it just kind of frees you up a little bit. You know you’re right there and don’t feel like you have to be perfect every game.”

With Monday’s win over the Cardinals, the Braves moved to 47-34 through 81 games (or 50% of their 162-game schedule). That record is the majors’ fifth-best winning percentage. They entered Tuesday 3-1/2 games behind the first-place Mets in the National League East. This season, they used a 14-game win streak in June to propel themselves forward.

On June 1, the Braves were 10-1/2 games back.

Instead of freaking out – it was only June, after all – they kept their composure.

“I just don’t think we were ever worried about it too much,” Wright said. “Obviously any time you see you’re 10 games back, it’s like, Ooh. But at the same time, we feel like we knew we weren’t playing very good baseball, so we felt like whenever we could flip the switch, we were going to be back in contention more. I don’t think we ever really panicked. Just kind of cleaned some things, kind of knocked some rust off and just started playing a little better baseball.”

And the second half will be fun. The Braves and Mets still play each other 15 times, beginning with next week’s series at Truist Park. The Braves play 12 more games against the Phillies, 13 versus the Nationals and 10 against the Marlins.

Through 81 games, the Braves led MLB in OPS. They ranked second in home runs and fifth in runs. They’d struck out the second most times in the sport, but they’d punished the ball enough to make up for that.

Entering Tuesday, their bullpen owned the majors’ fifth-best ERA at 3.28. Since May 30, when Spencer Strider made his first start as the fifth starter, the rotation ranks eighth with a 3.57 ERA.

Sure, the win streak was impressive. But the Braves appear to be a sustainable machine. They don’t seem to simply be on the fortunate end of fluky occurrences.

“For any win streak, you’re doing something really well – especially to win 14,” Wright said. “I think if you go on a win streak of five, you’re probably doing something really well. But for us, we were doing everything really well that streak. We’ve cooled down a little bit, but I still think that we’ve been playing really good baseball.

“I feel like we’ve still been hitting a good bit of homers, but I feel like even more so, it’s timely hitting. I feel like when we need a hit, we’re getting the two-out hits and all that. I feel like the starting pitching has still been great, we’re going deep into ballgames.”

The club could improve, too. Eddie Rosario and Tyler Matzek returned Monday. Mike Soroka and Kirby Yates are expected to join this club in the second half, and Ozzie Albies should also return at some point.

The schedule also could be a positive: The Braves have finished their season series with the Dodgers, Padres and Brewers, who are three potential contenders in the NL.

The Braves getting hot earlier this season could take the pressure off a bit, Wright said, but manager Brian Snitker doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t know that this thing’s ever easy mentally or easier mentally,” he said. “This is a grind all the way through until we’re done, until the last out’s made of the last game. There’s no letting up, there’s no relaxing. It’s what we do. I don’t know that it ever gets easier.”

Still, the Braves didn’t wait until August to get hot and make a run. This time, they arrived much earlier. Through the first half of their schedule, they look like the talented, powerful and deep club we expected them to be when they opened spring training.

“We have very high expectations for ourselves,” Wright said. “Every time we take the field, I feel like we expect to win. It’s obviously not going to happen because there’s a lot of other good teams in this league, too. But we believe that any time we play – it doesn’t matter who we’re facing – we believe we have a chance to win. And I feel like you have to have that mentality to win at this level.”

Jansen throws again

Kenley Jansen on Tuesday took the Truist Park mound versus a stand-in batter who was not swinging. Jansen threw pitches off the mound.

Think of this as a bullpen session, but off the stadium mound. Snitker said Jansen did this Monday, too.

It seems Jansen is progressing well. The Braves believe this will be a short injured-list stint after he reported an irregular heartbeat.

“As soon as he’s cleared and ready to go,” Snitker said, “he should be ready to go.”

Albies doing what he can

Albies has not been cleared to do anything related to baseball, but he is receiving treatment and doing exercises that don’t involve him putting weight on his injured foot.

There haven’t been any complications, Snitker said. The surgical incision is healing well.

Pitching updates

Soroka and Yates are throwing live batting-practice sessions in Florida.

Snitker said he recently watched one of Soroka’s live BP sessions. He said the right-hander’s velocity has been good and all signs have been positive.

Yates is feeling well, Snitker said.

“It’s very encouraging, too, to think that down the road, we could get him back in that bullpen also at some point,” Snitker said of Yates.

Soroka and Yates will continue to throw and ramp up until they can head out on rehab assignments.