More injuries strike Braves starting rotation, but I still like their chances

The Braves left Washington on Thursday afternoon with two victories in four games, which is pretty good considering they lost two starting pitchers over the same stretch. 

Max Fried departed after two innings of the opener because he strained a groin muscle while trying to dodge a liner. A batted ball to the left calf sent Anibal Sanchez to the clubhouse for good after two innings of the finale. The Braves lost both games.

That’s two tough breaks for the Braves, who need both pitchers in their shaky rotation (manager Brian Snitker said Sanchez could make his next scheduled start). The Braves (62-50) have won eight of their past 11 games, but Thursday’s loss left them a game behind the Phillies in the National League East and a half-game ahead of the Dodgers for the second wild card. 

The Brewers, who can hit as much as the Braves, are in town for three games this weekend. After a four-game set against the last-place Marlins the Braves get a visit from the Rockies, who have more pitching. 

The Braves will have to find a way to stay in the playoff hunt despite inconsistent starting pitching. That’s hard to do, but I think they are up to it. They can rely on big boppers Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis, great defense and bullpen depth that’s good enough as long as their starters don’t get ambushed by batted balls. 

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The Nationals took advantage when the Braves had to reach deep in their bullpen. The Braves managed to save their best relievers for this weekend. That includes trade-deadline additions Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, who have combined for nine scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and two walks. 

And the Braves can score enough to overcome precarious pitching. That power dip from before the All-Star game is over: The Braves bashed three homers to beat the Nationals on Wednesday and clubbed two more in the series finale. That makes 24 Braves home runs in 18 games since the break. 

The Freeman-Markakis duo might be the best in the NL. Freeman’s FanGraphs offensive WAR ranked third in the NL before Thursday’s game. He’s doing what he’s always done since his first All-Star season in 2013, and his history suggests he’s capable of even more. 

Markakis, however, hasn’t been this productive at the plate since 2008, his third season in the majors. That was an outlier season for his career until now. But Markakis hardly ever strikes out, and it doesn’t seem as if he’s been unusually lucky on balls put in play: his Statcast expected batting average and slugging percentages, based on quality of contact, are in line with his actual numbers. 

Ronald Acuna, thriving in the leadoff spot, continues to overcome a high strikeout rate and low walk rate with power (he hit his 13th homer in 61 games Thursday). Ozzie Albies hasn’t drawn a walk since July 2, a span of 109 plate appearances, but still managed a .732 on-base slugging for those 27 games. 

There’s depth beyond those four hitters. 

Charlie Culberson continued his mastery of the Nationals with homers in each of the first three games of this series, but he’s in a utility role because Johan Camargo has been good, too. If you are looking for hope that Ender Inciarte can turn things around, remember that he’s always produced much better late in the season. 

I think the Braves will keep hitting. I’m less certain they can squeeze out enough quality outings from their starting pitchers. 

The way it’s shaping up, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb are going to have to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to count on Teheran, whose control and velocity have declined along with his results. 

Kevin Gausman wasn’t effective in his one start since arriving via trade from the Orioles, and he was just OK in 21 starts before that. Maybe he can be better. During Thursday’s live Facebook telecast he said Braves coaches want him to change his delivery so he can pitch more effectively to the top of the strike zone. 

If the Braves don’t make the playoffs, it could turn out the culprit is the health of their starting pitchers. Yet all other signs are positive for the Braves. That might include the stuff the numbers can’t measure. 

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulous is sabermetrics savvy, like all young baseball executives. But after making deals at the deadline, he said he also considers clubhouse chemistry when building a roster. 

“I think it’s important,” he said. “That’s not the end-all, be-all, but if you are trying to separate some things, it definitely can break ties.” 

On that note, Gausman said: “The biggest thing I’ve noticed (since arriving) is the belief on this team.” 

The Braves should believe. I still like their chances, too, assuming no more starters are cut down by comebackers.

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