Ronald Acuna Jr. (right) of the Atlanta Braves high fives teammates after defeating the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on August 26, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images
Photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images

Three takeaways as Braves emerge from toughest stretch in first place

Fresh off winning five of seven on the road, the Braves return home for their second-to-last homestand of the season, consisting of nine games.

Sunday’s 4-0 win prevented a potentially embarrassing result in Miami. The Braves split four with the Marlins, but their 14 wins over the hapless team could prove important in a clustered National League.

It also completed a tough three weeks for the team. Here are takeaways from their latest task:

1. The Braves did more than survive their toughest stretch of the year. They embraced it.

Teams don’t often play 22 games across 20 days. Manager Brian Snitker’s team just did, earning a 13-9 mark and avoiding any catastrophic injuries. They entered that stretch trailing the Phillies in the National League East by 1.5 games; they enjoyed Monday’s off-day with a three-game divisional lead.

It was the best realistic scenario. They worked through the temporary loss of A.J. Minter. They saw Max Fried and Anibal Sanchez leave in the second inning in the first few games of the run. They went 3-1 in their four doubleheader games.

Milwaukee dropped two of three in Atlanta, while the Marlins were four-game swept. Colorado steamrolled the Braves, yet they rebounded for a gutsy trio of wins over the Pirates. The bats didn’t impress over the last week. It didn’t matter – the 5-2 result is all that does.

And so another vaunted slate awaits, be it the Rays, Cubs, Pirates and Red Sox on this homestand, or the looming west coast trip to Arizona and San Francisco, where the Braves tend to underwhelm. 

They’ve passed every test thus far. Until they don’t maybe it’s time, with 32 games remaining, this team earns the benefit of the doubt. They’re the ones making schedules difficult for others now.

2. It cannot be stated enough: General manager Alex Anthopoulos’ decision to pass on Chris Archer and opt for the lesser-viewed Kevin Gausman was a stroke a genius

As the league fawned over Archer, the Braves never came close to meeting the asking price. They investigated alternatives, eventually reaching a deal with Baltimore for their former top-five pick, a player Anthopoulos saw in the American League East, and Braves pitching instructors Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti knew.

Gausman’s since produced a 1.69 ERA across five starts. He’s discovered the magic of analytics, already seeing a difference as he pitches from the stretch routinely. He’s allowed only one homer in 32 innings. He’s warranted an 18 percent strikeout rate against a six percent walk rate.

His newfound form was on full display in Pittsburgh, where he drowned an offense gasping for air through eight scoreless innings. He allowed two baserunners in five scoreless innings in Miami, though his afternoon was cut short at 80 pitches when the Braves, starved for offense of their own, pinch-hit for him.

Since the trade, Gausman’s been the Braves’ best pitcher. He’s awed opponents. He’s eaten innings, giving the bullpen needed rest. Small sample notwithstanding, he could be on his way to becoming the next former Orioles arm to find success in a new environment.

3. September is days away, and the Braves could have the MVP, manager of the year and rookie of the year. Freddie Freeman, Snitker and Ronald Acuna are increasingly feasible favorites for the awards.

It may not result in a postseason berth. Perhaps they get in and get dismantled in the NLDS. But as baseball searches for excitement, marketing and interest, this team possesses every bit of each. They’re set up for lasting relevance, the kind for which every fan begs.

Dansby Swanson’s bat has heated up as Ozzie Albies’ has cooled down. Both provide defense and speed regardless. Ender Inciarte is still an upper-tier defender, and his manager considers him head and shoulders above most others. 

Acuna might be the most exciting lead-off man since Rickey Henderson. Freeman, in the midst of a short slump, could hit a few bombs in a week and be back in the spotlight. Johan Camargo appears stronger with every passing month. Nick Markakis is adored by those who played the game, and his simple style is an aesthetically pleasing complement to the other fireworks.

Gausman and Mike Foltynewicz have some of the filthiest stuff in the NL. Sean Newcomb is a big lefty who’s rounding into shape. Even Sanchez, the wily veteran, is exceeding expectations and flashing a “butterfly pitch.”

Touki Toussaint will return. As will other younger arms aspiring to belong. Slugging third baseman prospect Austin Riley will likely taste the majors in the final month as well.

The point: Don’t overreact to the losses, even the slips such as Colorado. The offense won’t always click. Even the best starters have bad days. Every bullpen blows it. That’s the sport.

Enjoy the ride. The Braves are becoming the model franchise that others wish to emulate. Imagine that being the case last October, when the organization was in disarray. Or several years ago, when they were pillaging prospects with no guarantees.

Perspective is sometimes needed. The Braves remade their schedule. They’re contenders. They’ll be winter buyers. They’ll be favorites of some sort in 2019. As for the last 32 games of this season, they can determine how the first chapter of their new story ends.

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