Now 11 1/2 games back of a wild-card spot following another late-innings collapse Wednesday, Braves players still won’t relinquish hope.
A few individual performances may give reason why. First baseman Freddie Freeman, despite not fully recovered from a wrist injury, is hitting .412 since Aug. 12. Had it not been for an Aaron Loup fastball to the hand, Freeman would be in the MVP discussion.
The resurgent Dansby Swanson is hitting .429 over his past 35 at-bats. The shortstop made 15 errors before his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett, but has looked much more comfortable in the 14 games since being recalled.
Center fielder Ender Inciarte had four singles Wednesday. He has a career-high 160 hits. On a team lacking consistency, he’s been that and more while earning his first All-Star nod.
Yet the team is 56-69. After reaching 45-45 on July 16, it was dismantled at home by the defending champion Cubs, and the season’s tanked ever since.
While the front office may have switched its attention to the youth movement – see the recent trials for Lucas Sims, Ozzie Albies, Max Fried and A.J. Minter – one veteran sees a chance to simulate a playoff push.
“We have one mindset and that’s to win every game,” Freeman said. “I know we’re not one game, two games back in the wild card, but you need to view it as that. That’s how you get prepared for those situations obviously the last three years we haven’t been in position to prepare for winning stuff, and we’ve been better this year.
“So they need to somehow block out 13 games under, 12 games back and just go out there and think they’re in a playoff spot so we can be ready for that situation when it comes, if it comes this year at the end of the year or next year.”
Tyler Flowers, a nine-year catcher who has experienced two winning seasons and no playoff appearances in his career, echoed Freeman’s mindset, but won’t rule out another run in the season’s final six weeks.
After all, these Braves had a stretch from June 2-July 16 when the team lost only three of 12 series. Their record is 11-24, and their run differential (574-644) validates their overall record.
“All the clichés, day by day,” Flowers said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Even as unlikely as it seems, it’s still a possibility. You stay optimistic. You prepare. You do everything you did day one of the season. Just keep going. That’s one of the fun things about baseball: Tomorrow’s a new day. Just like the butt-kicking we got the other day in Colorado (17-2 loss), it’s easy to put that behind you and go to the next day.”
Focusing on wins and losses on a non-contender might be more difficult for an impending free agent such as Brandon Phillips. Phillips, formerly the second baseman, was partially a victim to the incoming youth, shifting to third base upon Albies’ promotion.
Phillips, 36, has been admirable at third, giving new life to his market value. He’s declined to talk about his positional change, but his tone about his teammates hasn’t changed.
“The thing about our team, we don’t ever give up,” he said. “That’s the thing about us, man. Regardless of what goes on during the game, the game is never over till it’s over. … We go out there and try to win every game and that’s it.”
But winning has eluded the Braves lately. A hit-or-miss rotation and leaky bullpen has negated any individual offensive success. Some believe they could make a run at the National League East title next season, though the last month has reminded everyone this is still a work in progress.
Of seven series this month, the Braves have won one. Even as Arizona and Colorado, the two incumbent wild-card teams, slipped, the Braves failed to take advantage. In turn, prospects such as Minter, Luiz Gohara and maybe even Ronald Acuna will receive baptism by fire through September.
“I mean, we haven’t really been playing that well,” said outfielder Matt Kemp, who returned from a 19-game stretch on the disabled list Saturday. “For us, I think this half, this month and the rest of the next month we should hopefully pick it up and play better baseball. We just have to play better.”
Playing better probably won’t get them any games this October, but as the season before, it could build momentum toward a 2018 resurrection.
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