The Braves traveled to Phoenix with a 3.5-game lead in the National League East, a fortunate outcome after they were devastatingly swept at home by the Red Sox.
Their flight back East was much more exultant.
The Braves went 6-1 over the week-long escapade, swiping three of four from Arizona and sweeping the reeling Giants in California. They hadn’t won a series in Arizona since 2012, and hadn’t bested the Giants on the road since 2011.
“That’s a pretty good trip right there,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “Arizona team that’s playing pretty good. That’s a tough team over there. The Giants as well. Just because we didn’t know everybody’s names and stats in that lineup, there are a lot of tough outs. … There weren’t any easy spots to deal with this series.”
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As for the 3.5-game lead? It sits at 7.5 on Thursday’s off-day. The Braves’ magic number is 10. The highly anticipated final two weeks of the season, which include seven head-to-head meetings with the Phillies, may mean little.
Wednesday’s win was No. 82, ensuring the Braves the winning season they’ve worked towards over the past several years of rebuilding. They hold the third-best record in the NL.
“We’ve been working hard for that,” manager Brian Snitker said. “There’s a lot of us, well, since I’ve been here, we’ve been grinding and working very hard to get to that position. Now we’ve got through that hurdle and we’re looking bigger now.”
A pair of the Braves’ wins in Phoenix were of the extra-inning variety, including Saturday when Dansby Swanson made one of the best plays of the year, snagging a ball beyond the infield and firing home to end the game.
The third win was ignited by a six-run explosion in the ninth, completing an enthralling series between two postseason contenders; perhaps the most intense set since the Braves and Phillies’ three to open the season.
The Braves then traveled to San Francisco knowing a misstep wouldn’t derail what already felt like a successful trip. But that wasn’t the mindset. The Giants had lost eight in a row. They were disintegrating by the day, and the Braves noticed.
So the better team went into beautiful AT&T Park and smashed their once-prideful hosts. The Braves allowed three total runs in the series, defeating the Giants 4-1, 4-1 and 2-1.
“We had a few one-run ballgames that we won, and that’s the difference this year,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “That’s the difference this year.”
Playoff teams win one-run games, a category in which the Braves are 21-12. They hold the N.L.’s best road record at 45-30. They’re 42-21 in their division. They’re 41-18 when scoring four of more runs, a hat tip to their pitching staff.
In mid-September, the Braves boast the qualities and numbers of a postseason threat. They have the stars, the glue guys, the starters and the depth. The bullpen is a question mark, but it made up for an underwhelming Diamondbacks series with a lock-down showing in San Francisco.
Think of four years ago, when the Braves went 0-8 in Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. That letdown of a season made it an easier decision to launch the full-scale rebuild that’s begun yielding fruit in 2018.
Even after the Boston series, which showed cracks in the armor, the Braves did what they always do. Their longest losing streak is four. Even their longest winning streak is five. They’ve become the posterchild of consistency, which has them likely ticketed for the postseason.
The division race isn’t over. The Braves host the suddenly hot Nationals, Cardinals and Phillies on their upcoming 10-game homestand. Oddly, SunTrust Park has been their kryptonite, where they’re only 37-34. Maybe Philadelphia can close the gap in time for the four-game series looming.
But in reality, Philadelphia probably won’t be close enough for it to matter. The days are waning. To make up a 7.5-game deficit with 17 games left is a menacing task, especially for a team that’s 0-11-1 in its past 12 series.
So all the Braves need to do is stay their consistent selves. Whether it’s East, Central or West, it doesn’t seem that’ll be a problem.
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