Braves begin biggest road trip of season

072021 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker and first baseman Freddie Freeman confer in the dugout during the 7th innng during a 2-1 victory against the San Diego Padres in a MLB baseball game on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
072021 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker and first baseman Freddie Freeman confer in the dugout during the 7th innng during a 2-1 victory against the San Diego Padres in a MLB baseball game on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Often, sports fans and writers are guilty of exaggerating the importance of a game or stretch. But in the case of the Braves’ current trip, it’s difficult to overstate its importance.

The Braves will play nine games in eight days, all on the road against the two teams in front of them in the National League East. They’ll face the Phillies four times beginning Thursday. They’ll face the Mets a whopping five times, including a doubleheader, next week.

Upping the stakes even more, the July 30 trade deadline is the Braves’ first day back home. In a sport that lacks urgency over a 162-game season, this is as close to a pre-September defining stretch that one will find.

The Braves went 2-3 in their first homestand of the second half, losing a half game to the first-place Mets in the process. They entered Thursday 4-1/2 games behind the Mets and one game behind the second-place Phillies. The Braves haven’t held a winning record at any point since opening day, yet they remain in the mix.

While the three teams are bunched together – with Washington also six games out of first – they’re differently motivated. The Mets have surged back into relevance under new ownership. They’re receiving an all-time great season from Jacob deGrom, the Cy Young front-runner who’s currently on the injured list. Also on the IL is shortstop Francisco Lindor, whom the Mets acquired over the winter and paid well over $300 million in an extension.

New York is operating like a big-market contender again. The Mets are expected to aggressively pursue upgrades at the trade deadline. And because of injuries, helping both the rotation and offense makes sense. They’re connected with nearly every high-profile player who could be available.

The Phillies, at 47-47, don’t feel like a contender, but they’ve played better of late. They’re boasting the longest postseason drought in the NL despite spending oodles of money in recent years. President Dave Dombrowski is an established go-getter who won’t hesitate swapping the future for the present. Manager Joe Girardi is used to winning. Ownership reportedly is willing to exceed the luxury tax.

Given the Mets’ issues, the Phillies understandably see an opening. Unless they wilt in the next week, it’s hard to see a scenario where they aren’t going hard after upgrades (Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, a former Brave, has been linked to Philadelphia, which needs bullpen help). Put the Phillies’ decision makers and these circumstances together, and you get a team going for it.

That leads to the Braves, the three-time reigning division champs. They’ve already made two deals recently, adding slugger Joc Pederson and catcher Stephen Vogt. General manager Alex Anthopoulos made it clear last week that the Braves are operating as buyers until something changes. Since his comment, not much has.

But the Braves won’t have the same urgency – or rather, desperation – of the two teams in front of them, if the standings aren’t drastically altered by July 30. The Braves already lost their best player Ronald Acuna to a torn ACL. They’ve had numerous other misfortunes that have disrupted their season.

Half their lineup wasn’t supposed to be there when the team left spring training in late March. There’s been regression galore in the bullpen, which was perhaps the Braves’ greatest strength during the shortened 2020 campaign. The offense has remained inconsistent, capable of scoring 13 one night and four total runs over the next two.

In their heart of hearts, the Braves probably realize they don’t have a World Series-caliber team. Anthopoulos could go wild, making several additions, but it seems unrealistic he’d add enough to change this season’s fate. Nonetheless, it would take a difficult road trip, it seems, to make the Braves wave the white flag.

They want to earn their fourth consecutive division title, and as we see time and time again in sports, just getting into a tournament gives you a chance. The Braves’ rotation has been good, and they have enough offense that perhaps they could catch lightning in a bottle. They’ll likely have further reinforcements in August, when catcher Travis d’Arnaud and pitcher Huascar Ynoa could return. That’s the argument for them to continue buying, anyway.

Still, the teams in front of them are more inclined to make major additions, such as Cubs slugger Kris Bryant or Kimbrel. The Braves likely won’t be shopping in that aisle, instead opting for Pederson-level acquisitions. The Mets and Phillies see this season as a golden opportunity. The Braves view it as a disappointment.

Some of this could change if the Braves have a stellar road trip. They could find themselves in second place at the deadline, within just a couple of games. They could even find themselves in first should they take Philadelphia and New York by storm.

Few believe that will happen, but the reality that it’s even a possibility is what’s giving the Braves hope. There’s a solid chance that hope will either grow or be vanquished by July 30. The Braves could justify further buying, standing pat (price-value discrepancy in trade talks) or deciding to concede, perhaps even cutting salary and adding to their prospect pool.

Or, in a totally conceivable scenario, the Braves have an average trip and arrive home nearly the same place they started. Deadline day would be all-the-more fascinating. Keeping with the theme of the season, doesn’t that sound about right?