Braves at the one-third mark: ‘We’re a good club’

The Braves are feeling good about themselves at the one-third mark of the season.

The first 54 of their 162 regular-season games ended with the Braves six games over .500, 1-1/2 games out of first place in the National League East and confident their trajectory is upward. At 30-24, they’re on pace to match last year’s 90-72 record.

“I’m happy with where we are,” manager Brian Snitker said. “I think we’ve progressed. … I like how we’re coming together. I kind of feel like we’re getting an inner confidence.

“I feel good about our club. I think we’re a good club.”

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The first one-third of the season had its lowlights, including being swept by the division rival Phillies in the opening series and being swept by the defending NL champion Dodgers in early May, but it ended with 12 wins in the past 16 games and five consecutive series victories.

“Guys are starting to find their roles, and everyone is starting to come together,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “We’ve been playing really good baseball for a couple of weeks now.”

“I feel that we’ve been playing a lot better,” pitcher Julio Teheran said. “It’s still a long season. We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to take every game and play it like we’re doing it right now, and we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end.”

The Braves open the second third of their season with a five-game homestand at SunTrust Park, starting Tuesday night in the first of a two-game series against the Washington Nationals.

The biggest reason the Braves feel good about where they stand at this point is the recent performance of the starting pitching rotation.

Decimated by injuries in spring training and the opening weeks of the season, the rotation has stabilized, posting a collective 1.61 ERA over the past 12 games and 2.80 for the month of May. Rookie Mike Soroka is 5-1 with a 1.07 ERA since being recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett. Max Fried, Tuesday night’s starter, is 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA. Teheran has allowed just three earned runs in 27-2/3 innings over his past five starts. Mike Foltynewicz, an All-Star last season, has had back-to-back stellar starts after four shaky ones.

“That’s why we’re winning: Pitching wins games, 100 percent,” Freeman said. “You can score as many runs as you want, but if your pitching doesn’t back it up, it doesn’t matter. What they have done the last couple weeks is why we’ve gone on a nice little stretch.”

The offense also improved after the return of Ronald Acuna to the leadoff spot on May 10, and it was further bolstered by the addition of Austin Riley’s bat two weeks ago.

“I think you’re kind of starting to see the makeup of our team and what we believed that we would be,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Home, road, it doesn’t matter, we’re trying to play our brand of baseball. Good pitching, good defense, timely hitting — it has been fun for the last couple of weeks for sure.”

Questions still loom. Notwithstanding games like Sunday's, when four relievers (including two rookies) combined for five scoreless innings of one-hit ball, the bullpen remains a work in progress with an ERA (4.39) that ranks 11th among the 15 NL 'pens.  And with three errors in the 10 games he has played in left field, Riley's defense will need to improve as he becomes accustomed to an unfamiliar position.

But through the twists and turns and ups and downs of the season’s first 54 games, the Braves found no reason to doubt they’ll contend for the NL East championship over  the next 108 games.

“I think it’s there for anybody to get,” Snitker said of the division title. “I think it’s still going to go right down to the wire. … It’ll be interesting.”