As a senior member of the team might do instinctively, Brandon Phillips took on a mentorship role during Dansby Swanson’s early season struggles.
Swanson hit .186 in the Braves’ first two months. Fans called for the shortstop’s demotion as the team floundered.
But entering the Giants series this week, Swanson’s was hitting .317 (19-for-60) in June and his success is reflected in the team’s performance. The Braves have won or tied four of their five series this month.
“Swanson’s started to relax a little bit more,” Phillips said. “I keep on giving him hell. … I’m always going to keep on playing around with him, loosen him up so he can play a little bit focused. Everybody’s coming together and it’s a lot of fun.
“At the beginning, you can say he was trying to do a little too much. He was uptight a little bit. So I just told him, ‘You know, relax and play the game. Be like you were in high school. Just be that ‘ATL-ien’ that you are and just have fun.’ He’s started to swing the bat a little bit better and he’s playing better.”
Defensively, Phillips said he and Swanson are close to where they need to be.
“We’re having a good time learning each other,” he said. “He knows where I like to have the ball thrown at me. I know where he likes it and it’s just one of those relationships where we grew together. … We really take pride in our defense. You have two guys who take pride in their defense and they want to excel and be great. We just have a lot of fun out there turning double plays, talking. And me being the leader, I can be a great role model for him.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker has noticed the pair’s dynamics as well.
“You play that much together, it kind of has a way of working itself out, you know, when they’re relying on each other and they’re kind of clicking a little bit,” Snitker said. “You do establish a rapport with that guy that’s beside you. The level of trust and everything grows with the amount of time and the number of games they play together.
“And their only interaction isn’t just out there on the field, either. It’s inside as they talk about the game and playing the game. So it’s good for (Swanson) to have somebody with that experience beside him.”
The clubhouse is meshing, especially during its recent success, according to Phillips. He and the other vets have embraced guiding the youth movement.
“Ownership did a great job getting the right guys over here,” he said. “We didn’t have the superstars, all those guys, but the right group of guys. We all have personality. We all get along with each other. R.A. Dickey, (Bartolo) Colon, myself, Kemp; we just all get along with each other and the young guys listen to us, follow our lead. They see our work ethic …Those guys come to the field hungry, earlier than I do, in fact.”
The Phillips-Swanson duo has started to gain traction since Phillips was acquired from Cincinnati to plug the second base spot before spring training. Not only has Swanson regained form, but Phillips has hit .339 since May 16. He produced back-to-back walk-off singles Saturday and Sunday to give the Braves another series win over the Marlins.
“We’re just having fun,” Phillips said. “We’re still getting to know each other. We’re starting to put everything together. The pitching staff is doing a great job. The bullpen’s looking good. We’re starting to get quality hits, having great at-bats and like I said, we get to .500, there’s no turning back.”
Entering the week, Atlanta was 25-25 over its last 50 games. Phillips admitted he thought the road-heavy April and May hurt the team.
“The only thing I can say is this: The beginning of our season has been crazy,” he said. “I don’t like making excuses, but playing on the road, I’ve never, ever had a season — I’ve been playing baseball for a long time — I’ve never seen a schedule like this before, or ever at the beginning. So whoever’s listening to me and whoever made the schedule, y’all need to change that. No team should go through what we just (went) through.”
Despite their budding friendship, Phillips said he’s tired of losing rock-paper-scissors to his protege. Phillips started a celebration where the two play the finger game on the field immediately following every win.
“I’m not going to lie to you, he’s kicking my butt so far,” Phillips said. “So I got to step my rock-paper-scissors game up.”