Streaky Braves look to build on strong finish to April

A strange and streaky first month for the Braves did nothing to darken the sunny optimism they developed during spring training.

“I don’t think so,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Monday before the team opened a week-long home stand. “Not yet. You feel that way in the spring but you’ve always got to play the game.”

After a month and 23 games played by the 2017 Braves, there’s mixed evidence about their true ability.

Their 10-13 record included losing streaks of five and six games. Yet the Braves also swept four games from the Padres, who won six of their next 13 games with a series victory over the Giants included. The Braves last week took both games at the Mets and won three of four at the Brewers last weekend, with a one-run loss in Sunday’s finale.

For Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte, the 4-1 finish to the trip was more representative of his team’s potential than the six-game losing streak that preceded it. He said the Braves are aiming for the postseason.

“If we didn’t think that way you are not going to see us play as hard as we are,” Inciarte said Monday. “Everybody here (in the clubhouse) thinks that we belong in the playoffs. That’s why we are playing this year. I don’t see this as a rebuild team. And the front office has an idea or whatever but we believe that we can win and we believe we can be in the playoffs.”

That’s the optimistic view the Braves in April, and there is support for it.

The Braves added three veteran pitchers in the rotation behind Julio Teheran with the idea that it would make them more competitive after starting pitching hurt them in 2016. The early results are positive: a 3.87 ERA that’s fifth-best in the majors even with Bartolo Colon’s recent struggles.

The shaky defense that plagued the Braves early in the season has stabilized for the most part. The Braves ranked 23rd in the composite advanced defensive stats at FanGraphs. There are occasional slip-ups—shortstop Dansby Swanson’s error gave the Brewers an opening on Sunday-but the fielding has been better.

“Our defense, we have shored that up,” Snitker said.

The Braves were sputtering offensively until erupting for 39 runs over the past five games. Their 4.52 runs per game in April ranked 13th in the majors and their batting average (.263) ranked sixth.

The Braves compensated for a so-so on-base percentage (.323) with pretty good power: their .417 slugging percentage was 11th-best in the majors in April. The Braves slugged a league-worst .289 in April 2016.

There are some mitigating factors for the Braves, including key injuries.

Right fielder Matt Kemp (1.077 on-base plus slugging) played just 13 games in April because of a hamstring injury. Catcher Tyler Flowers (career-best .391 average in April) would have played more than 18 games if not for his hamstring injury.

The Braves also cited their schedule as a drawback. They played 16 April road games, including a handful in cool weather, and said they couldn’t find a rhythm with three off days among the first 10.

Before the recent road trip the Braves were swept in three games by the Nationals, who lead the NL East. The Phillies were staggering until they swept a weekend series with the Braves (in spite of not playing particularly well). The Braves lost three straight games to the Pirates while allowing seven unearned runs.

It remains to be seen if those setbacks were anomalies or signs that the Braves aren’t good enough to avoid such ruts.

“What matters the most is how consistent we can be until the end because of course the goal is to make it to the playoffs,” Inciarte said. “If we keep playing the way we’ve been playing the last five games I know we are going to be there at the end.”

After a strong finish to April, the Braves were among the many middling National League teams still trying to sort themselves out in the standings.

“I don’t think we’ve hit on all cylinders yet,” Snitker said. “I think there have been a lot of really good things that have happened here. We are going to get better as a club. I don’t think we’ve put together the whole game yet. We played pretty good at the end of this road trip and you start seeing what we are capable of.”