Braves’ Austin Riley unsure of when he’ll return from ailing left side

Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) swings against the Boston Red Sox at Truist Park on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Atlanta.

(Miguel Martinez/ AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) swings against the Boston Red Sox at Truist Park on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez/ AJC)

Austin Riley is feeling better, but he still is not in the lineup. He has not yet swung a bat since exiting a game in New York last Sunday.

Riley is not on the injured list, which at first appeared to be an encouraging sign. But he might be more than a few days away from a return.

This all depends on how you want to read into his answer to a question asked on Saturday about whether he would be back by the Cubs series, which begins Tuesday in Chicago.

“It’s tough to say,” Riley said. “It’s one of those things, not gonna put anything on it because (I) don’t really know. I feel like just listening to (the medical staff) talk, the oblique, it’s weird. It’s like, some guys come in the next day and they don’t feel it at all, and sometimes it kind of lingers. It’s one of those ones where you gotta come in every day and get the treatment. The best thing is just that day-to-day stuff.”

Riley’s MRI, completed on Monday, revealed inflammation to the “intercostal” muscle – which is situated between the ribs. Riley said he felt the pain down his side, near his bottom rib. “Just irritated right now,” he said of the area. Of what he currently feels, Riley said “it’s not a pain anymore” and that “it’s more like a firm stretch.”

It might be reasonable to assume that this ailment is a bit more difficult to shake than originally hoped. On the day of the injury, Riley didn’t report the tightness during batting practice because he wasn’t overly concerned at the time.

“For me personally, it’s kind of been a weird one,” Riley said Saturday. “It didn’t feel really all that serious. I’ve never had anything with my oblique or side, so I don’t really know where to gauge or how to feel about it. Just trying to lean on (the medical staff) as much as possible and do everything they say to try to get back on the field.”

On Saturday, Riley did fielding drills on the field, but only the ones from his knees. He hasn’t swung a bat. “Trying to make sure I’m fully ready to do that before we dive into it,” he said. But neither Riley nor the Braves know when that will be.

“Where it is and how it happened, I guess that’s going to be the tell-all, is swinging,” Riley said. “Just trying to make sure that I’m fully there and ready before we get to that. Because you definitely don’t want to rush it and then re-injure it and, next thing you know, you’re out two months. Just trying to make sure we get this thing right and not have to revisit it again, and we can put it behind us.”

None of this is the fault of Riley or the Braves. Injuries and ailments to a hitter’s side are really tricky. The Braves have been taking a daily approach and hoping Riley improves. You feel for the star third baseman, who is dealing with this type of injury for the first time in his career.

The Braves haven’t yet placed Riley on the injured list. If they were to do so, they would only be able to backdate it a maximum of three days.

“We kind of hoped he’d turn a corner here sooner,” manager Brian Snitker said. “If he doesn’t, then we’re gonna have to make a decision.”

If the Braves do need to place Riley on the injured list, they’ll get to bring up someone else. This would give them flexibility because they’d be able to recall whoever they want. And of course, they’d like to use this bullet in the correct way.

For the time being, the Braves can probably afford to play a man short. They already have Zack Short and Luke Williams. Short has started in place of Riley, and Williams, another utility infielder, gives them extra coverage. And remember: Forrest Wall made the opening day roster over Williams and gave the Braves five outfielders, which wouldn’t have happened if they felt they needed an extra infielder.

Short has made the most of the opportunity. Entering Saturday, he was 4-for-13 (.308) with two doubles, two RBIs and five walks since the Braves acquired him.

Among his biggest supporters: Riley.

“I always tell guys: In ‘19, when I started struggling and I was coming off the bench, that was the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” Riley said. “I praise those guys that are able to come in off the bench and come in and fill a spot. And when they do a good job, it’s not easy whatsoever.”

This has been a strange beginning of the season for the Braves. They lost Sean Murphy (oblieque strain) on opening day. Spencer Strider had season-ending elbow surgery. Ozzie Albies fractured his toe, but returned the next week. Riley is hurt. Travis d’Arnaud on Friday suffered a head contusion after taking a foul ball off his mask.

“It’s been a weird year with just some of the injuries and the timing of everything,” Riley said. “I feel like we haven’t clicked on all cylinders offensively. Hopefully I can get back and get this thing rolling, and can contribute.”