If you’re betting against these Braves, you haven’t been watching.
They’ve taken punch after punch only to reiterate with a bang. Remember the Colorado four-game sweep? They swept Pittsburgh on the road in response. Their latest demonstration of resiliency: Losing three to the Red Sox, including the finale in excruciating fashion, only to go take three of four in Arizona.
That’s just in recent weeks. The Braves, under the leadership of manager Brian Snitker, have a curious factor about them. They’re never out of any games. They don’t permit extended losing streaks. When one player slumps, two more rise to the occasion.
It’s a common quality in World Series contenders. That isn’t to say the Braves should be the National League favorites, per se, but their intangibles are a nod to the culture that’s already been established under general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
“The Braves can’t contend with this bullpen,” one might say, among myriad other excuses to dispel what’s likely been the most compelling baseball season in Atlanta since the 1990s. But there isn’t a clear-cut favorite in the N.L.
Chicago, Los Angeles and Colorado are certainly formidable, and the Cubs will probably hold home-field advantage through the N.L. bracket. The Cardinals have risen from the dead to become relevant again. The Brewers are extremely well-rounded. The Phillies, of course, are quite familiar with the Braves.
But none stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. That gives the Braves a chance – however small it may be – and that’s astronomical progress in 10 months. Last October, the team was considering a managerial change, then found itself embroiled in a humiliating scandal that stained its once-esteemed reputation.
So, it’s not as though the tests of strength began in late March. They’ve been overcoming the odds for almost a calendar year.
The same team that fostered three consecutive 90-loss seasons owns a 4.5-game division lead with 19 contests remaining. It’s bubbling with high-end prospects who aren’t even close to their prime years. Its key contributors are under contractual control for several more seasons, while the prospect nucleus and funds are available to properly supplement that group with the right complementary parts.
Ronald Acuna alone is worth sticking with baseball through the early portion of football season. He became the seventh player to hit 25 homers before his 21st birthday on Sunday. His eight lead-off homers are the franchise record.
Ender Inciarte called him the best leadoff hitter he’s seen. That’s rich praise – especially with guys like Mookie Betts opening games these days – but it speaks not only to Acuna’s talent, but in how supportive and tight-knit the clubhouse is.
During the last road trip in Miami, players watch the Phillies game in the clubhouse, well-aware each game carries heavy implications. In the next homestand, several cheers broke out during an Anthony Rizzo double, which helped the Cubs defeat the Phillies that afternoon.
If the players are feeling the pressure, it’s not evident in most instances. They’re along for the ride. Working in the youngsters’ favor is their naivetes. They’re not “supposed” to be in this position, but they don’t know that. They don’t care.
After the Braves finish three in San Francisco, they return home for their final homestand of the season, which includes four games against Philadelphia. The magic number keeps dwindling, and the Braves have a chance to build a cushion, if not clinch a playoff spot, before they see the Mets and Phillies on their regular season-ending road trip.
Strap in, the Braves are weeks away from their potential return to October. And however these weeks play out, they’re a lot better than you expected.