July could make or break Braves’ season

June 18 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (1) celebrates with Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) after hitting one run home run in the second inning at Truist Park on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



June 18 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (1) celebrates with Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) after hitting one run home run in the second inning at Truist Park on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

DENVER – If you’re amazed by the Braves (44-45) entering the All-Star break only four games back of first place, you’re not alone.

In a season when Murphy’s Law has taken full effect, the ailing, shorthanded Braves find themselves one good week from first place. It’s a bizarre reality not only given how the season has transpired, but also because the Braves would be almost buried – or completely squashed – in every other division.

The National League East, topped by the 47-40 Mets, remains winnable. But it’s going to take the unexpected – that’s a positive wave of unexpected, not what the Braves have experienced since April – for the reigning three-time champs to pull it off.

“It’s incredible (that we’re only four games out),” first baseman Freddie Freeman said at All-Star game media availability Monday in Denver. “If you really take a step back, we were supposed to have (Mike) Soroka come back in April. That didn’t happen. We lost (Huascar) Ynoa, (Travis) d’Arnaud, (Marcell) Ozuna. We’ve had everything that could possibly go wrong, and we’re only four games out, which is absolutely incredible.”

No loss was bigger than what occurred over the weekend, when superstar Ronald Acuna tore his ACL while trying to make a play in right field. In losing Acuna, the Braves lost their leadoff man, leading power hitter and leading speed threat who is an outstanding defender. Acuna alone provides an energy jolt few in MLB can replicate.

Losing Acuna will be challenging to overcome. Just ask the reigning league MVP.

“We have a new animal now - losing Acuna, that’s a whole different ballgame,” Freeman said. “If you go to any other team and you take their 1-hole hitter - and d’Arnaud and Ozuna, they’d be hitting four and five - you take the one, four and five hitters out and say you’re only going to be four games back at the All-Star break, I think you might take that at a point.

“For us to only be four games back, and we lose three of our main middle-of-the-order guys, and to be in position still to go get them. The two weeks after this All-Star break is huge for us. We’re either going to be way out or right in it. I think we would take where we are right now considering what we’ve been through.”

The division’s mediocrity might help the Braves stay close, but their current play won’t land them anywhere but the middle of next year’s draft order. The Braves, just a few innings from a World Series appearance last year, aren’t playing for a winning record. Anything less than the postseason is a failure, regardless of the myriad excuses.

Some good news: With 73 games remaining, including eight head-to-head meetings with the first-place Mets, four back certainly isn’t insurmountable, no matter how bleak it may seem.

“It’s not (too far) back,” second baseman Ozzie Albies told the AJC. “Everything can turn around for us. We just have to go out there, play hard and expect to win games. That’s it. We just have to keep the job going. (Austin) Riley, (Dansby) Swanson, me and Freddie. We just have to keep swinging and coming up clutch for the team.”

Albies nailed it: The Braves need Freeman’s production to continue trending upward, as it has since late May. They need Riley to catch fire again. He might’ve legitimately been the league’s best hitter for a stretch. They need Albies to take it up another notch without Acuna. They need Swanson to build on a strong finish to the first half and put his struggles behind him.

The aforementioned d’Arnaud returning in August could help. The outfield remains a question mark. Left fielder Orlando Arcia has impressed thus far. Guillermo Heredia will man center until further notice. Youngsters Cristian Pache and Drew Waters aren’t ready yet, though the team could still turn to one at some point. The Braves will explore outfield upgrades before the trade deadline.

And don’t forget the pitching. Ian Anderson is having his shoulder checked, obviously a red flag, so the Braves cross their fingers. Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly need to continue their recent performance. Max Fried is still seeking consistency. Kyle Muller will rejoin the rotation after the break and he’s helped.

The bullpen goes back to players meeting expectations. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, and it’s difficult to maintain any semblance of success when such an important unit fluctuates in performance. The bullpen is another area the Braves will try to bolster this month.

A lot will need to go right for the Braves to earn a postseason berth for the fourth consecutive year. It’s undoubtedly an uphill climb. In the end, the decimated Braves might be too damaged to pull it off. That doesn’t mean they can’t make a valiant effort.

“For Snit to be that leader, we have the right man for the job,” Freeman told the AJC, lauding manager Brian Snitker, the 2018 NL manager of the year who’s led the team to three consecutive NL East titles. “When you have someone that is steady every single day, no matter what is thrown at him, he just takes it in. There’s no panic. So I think that helps ease some of the panic and tension that’s going on when you have so many injuries.”

The Braves know how important the next two weeks are with the July 30 trade deadline looming. While Snitker deals with the on-field happenings, general manager Alex Anthopoulos will have to make some tough decisions. He started Thursday, acquiring outfielder Joc Pederson from the Cubs while saying the Braves currently plan to add, not subtract, talent.

“I think that’s pretty amazing for us to be in a position to still be able to create our own destiny,” Freeman told the AJC on Tuesday. “These next two weeks, starting Friday, are going to be huge. We’re either going to be right in the mix or we’re going to be out of it. We have the Rays, Padres, Phillies, Mets and Brewers (all .500 or better teams). So we can either put ourselves in the situation where Alex goes out and helps us or we might be out of it by then. But we don’t know. At least we’re in a spot where we can create our own destiny.”

Freeman continued, explaining he understands Anthopoulos will do what’s best for the franchise, but he hopes the team can force him to go out and supplement the current club rather than hold serve or even wave the white flag by trading veterans.

“All we can ask as players is to make (Alex’s decisions) harder,” Freeman said. “I know we’re missing lots of key pieces, but maybe if you help – hopefully we don’t make it easy where we don’t have to go get someone. We want to make it tough on him. And I tell him that. ‘My goal is to make it hard on you.’ That’s what I want. It’s really hard to cover losing multiple guys like that, big bats in the middle of the lineup. We can do it for a couple weeks but it’s really hard to do it for a couple months. Now, we’re going to have to try to do it, three guys, for months.

“It’s hard, but I hope we’re in a spot in two weeks where it helps them to go get guys. But you never know. I don’t know what’s going to happen. A lot of guys are going to have to step up big time and carry a load. Hopefully we do and we make Alex go get some help.”