Braves don’t downplay significance of being in 1st place again

Freddie Freeman had three hits in Braves’ 7-0 win over Mets to move into first place, and said he’s not surprised they’re winning. (Video by David O’Brien)

NEW YORK – Not since 2014 had the Braves been in first place beyond the second week of a season, but when they climbed atop the standings Wednesday night with a 7-0 rout of the previously leading Mets, they didn’t act nearly as surprised as so many outside the clubhouse.

In fact, they didn’t really act surprised at all.

“I won’t say we expected it, but we expected to play well, and we’ve played well pretty much the whole season,” said Braves veteran slugger Freddie Freeman, who had three hits Wednesday in the team’s fourth consecutive win and sixth in the past seven. “We’re just going to continue to go out there and play the game the right way. We’ve been grinding away professional at-bats all the way through, and winning games is not a surprise to us, to anybody in this clubhouse.”

The Braves improved to 18-11 and moved into first place, a half-game ahead of the Mets. It’s the first time the Braves have held first place since they were 6-3 on April 15, 2015, and the first time they’ve held it later than that since July 20, 2014, when they were 54-44.

They lead the National League in most major offensive categories including runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, and their starting rotation has rebounded from a terrible first week to go 11-2 with a 2.53 ERA in the past 24 games including Sean Newcomb’s career-best seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball Wednesday against the Mets.

He said the starters are feeding off each other’s success and trying to outdo one another.

“Every time someone goes out you want to kind of top them, you want to be better,” said Newcomb, who’s 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in his past five starts with 36 strikeouts with 11 walks in 30 1/3 innings, including eight strikeouts with one walk Wednesday. “It’s been fun, everyone’s been contributing really well. It’s a good start.”

It’s a start that no pundits predicted from the Braves, whom even the most optimistic projections had flirting with .500 or slightly over. No pundits picked them to compete for the division title and hardly anyone even mentioned them as a darkhorse candidate for a wild-card berth.

But here they are moving into first place on May 2, pounding Noah Syndergaard for 10 hits in six innings of Tuesday’s series-opening win and torching the Mets bullpen for seven runs after Jacob deGrom’s left with a hyperextended elbow after four innings Wednesday.

Atlanta got home runs Wednesday from Ender Inciarte, who is 6-for-12 with four extra-base hits since being dropped to the ninth spot in the order Sunday, and from Johan Camargo and Ryan Flaherty.

The Braves are 13-6 against teams with above-.500 records, the second-most wins in the majors against winning teams, behind only the Cubs (14-8).

“Our confidence is pretty high in here right now,” Freeman said. “We’ve been playing great baseball since Day 1. To go out there and win games that Syndergaard and deGrom started – hopefully deGrom’s doing OK over there; you never want to see a top-three pitcher in the game go down like that, so hopefully it’s nothing serious – but to win games like that on the road, when you’re down a game and a half, to take over first place, it’s big for us.”

It’s only the first week in May, but Braves manager Brian Snitker didn’t try to downplay the importance of being in first place. For the Braves, who’ve endured three consecutive 90-loss seasons during a painful rebuild, turning the corner to being not just respectable but in first place at this point of a season has meaning.

“Absolutely,” Snitker said. “Especially the schedule that we’ve faced here the first month. Man, it seems like every night we’re facing a Syndergaard or deGrom or (Max) Scherzer or (Stephen) Strasburg. I mean, it just keeps coming at you, and really good teams. I’m proud of the way the guys have hung in there and we’ve been competitive, we’ve been in every game and we’ve given ourselves a chance to win.”