Braves idyllic road trip ends, now it gets real

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Braves manager Brian Snitker discusses the importance of the 9-game road wins and how it shapes up the playoff race.

Top down, one hand on the wheel the other arm around the one you love, blue sky, Coltrane playing, nothing but green lights and open road and every state trooper in a forgiving mood.

That, in summary, was the Braves just-completed road trip. It was like something out of a dream, a nine-game swing against the kind of competition you normally could only find in places like Rochester, Jacksonville and Norfolk. Instead, the Braves were able to combine a long winning streak against outclassed opposition along with the Major League luxury of 24-hour room service. Just perfect.

Now, it’s slap-in-the-face time. Vacation’s over, fellas. Your presence back at the front lines of baseball is required. Put away the loose-fitting clothes and the Birkenstocks, time to get back to work.

Next up starting Monday: A two-game curiosity back home against the New York Yankees, who have just remembered who they are and have won nine straight themselves. Only a hurricane could stop them Sunday.

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Man, what fun while it lasted. When the Braves left for the three-city tour of Washington D.C., Miami and Baltimore — who stand a combined 87 games under .500 — they were in third place in the NL East, but just a game out of first. As they brushed by Baltimore Sunday and completed an East Coast sweep that stretched over 1,100 miles and nine games, they were in first and in command, 5 games clear of Philadelphia.

Granted, the blind draw of the schedule had taken the Braves to a block of games that had the mushy texture of a bunch of overripe bananas. Still, they had to show up. Hadn’t Philadelphia, after all, just lost three to Arizona, the D-Backs just a few percentage points behind Baltimore for the ugliest record?

“It’s real easy to go into that kind of situation and get swept before you know what happened,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I credit our guys for how they stay the course and prepare and don’t take anyone for granted and try to win today’s game. That’s not easy to do.”

Those Orioles, bless their 18-losses-in-a-row, pea-pickin’ hearts, turned out to be the toughest stretch of this road. They played tough and lost by an average of just two runs a game. Still, the Braves brought all the requisite superior firepower and lack of compassion to compound Baltimore’s misery. Have to really admire that kind of ruthlessness.

Don’t dismiss what has happened thus far this month just because the Braves have spent it playing the zombies of the post-trading-deadline apocalypse. Regardless of the level of competition, their overall road winning streak (now at 13 games) is worth framing. That has surpassed the single-season work of the 1890 Boston Beaneaters and the 1956 Milwaukee Braves. Proving both the mettle of these 2021 Braves and jet airline travel.

Season so far

Likewise, don’t assume anything is on ice here with the Braves taking a high-speed elevator to the top of the NL East. No heads are crowned in August. But, OK, if you must know, Braves magic number stands at 34.

Thirty-eight games remain, with 17 of those against opponents with winning records. The next eight games for the Braves are as difficult as the last nine were breezy — vs. the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers. This is a significant move up in weight class, against teams winning 62% of their games.

With the same number of games left, the Phillies will play but eight games against teams with a winning record — three of those at the end of September in Atlanta. Those still might mean something, by the way.

The rest of August is filled with real challenge. Against the likes of the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers all those solo home runs given up to Baltimore suddenly sting a lot more against teams more likely to have someone else on base. All those free baserunners thanks to the generous number of walks granted by a shaky staff aren’t there anymore. All the Will Smith drama in the ninth inning gets a lot more real.

As quickly as they took this healthy divisional lead, it can evaporate. The Braves know just how fragile 5 games can be with more than a month remaining. “We’re living proof of how fragile a lead is. All it takes is a hot streak from somebody. That’s why every game is so important now,” Snitker said.

It’s been a nice ride down Creampuff Lane, but it’s time to return to the hard work of winning a division, of playing games that really let the Braves and their fan base know where they stand.