On this loaded Braves infield, Austin Riley blossoms

Fellow infielders Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson enjoy the Braves 6-5 win over the Washington Nationals Sunday. (Nick Wass/AP)
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Fellow infielders Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson enjoy the Braves 6-5 win over the Washington Nationals Sunday. (Nick Wass/AP)

Credit: Nick Wass

Credit: Nick Wass

Some science — when it’s not life and death — needs denying. Like when a questioner mentioned to Brian Snitker Sunday that defensive metrics don’t always treat his third-baseman kindly.

Proud to say I know nothing of such numbers — and think even less of them. That they exist at all, I’ll just have to take the word of those who care to turn the art of catching a baseball into an equation.

The Braves manager — bless him — agrees. Snitker’s old-school was showing Sunday when he said in response to certain coefficients that libel Austin Riley’s defense: “I don’t pay any attention to defensive metrics. I judge defense by my eyes, not by numbers.”

Snitker’s eyes had just seen Riley dive full out to his right to backhand a line drive, spring to his feet and complete the put-out at first to save the Braves 6-5 victory over Washington. Will Smith was in to close, so runners on base and high drama were inevitable. Riley saved the day with his glove.

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Braves third baseman Austin Riley throws to first to put out Washington Nationals' Adrian Sanchez during the sixth inning Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)

Credit: Nick Wass

Braves third baseman Austin Riley throws to first to put out Washington Nationals' Adrian Sanchez during the sixth inning Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
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Braves third baseman Austin Riley throws to first to put out Washington Nationals' Adrian Sanchez during the sixth inning Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)

Credit: Nick Wass

Credit: Nick Wass

As the Braves snack on the tapas and small plates that the schedule is now serving them, we should not let the quality of the competition diminish what they are accomplishing.

Their surge to the top of the NL East — Philadelphia lost to the Reds Sunday, so, yes, the Braves spent Sunday night all alone in the king-size bed of first place by themselves — has been largely due to infield play that has bordered on the remarkable.

What we’re witnessing now with this team’s infield as a whole is a beautiful thing. In the absence of those bats belonging to Ronald Acuna and Marcel Ozuna, the Braves infielders have filled in with more than their share of production and power. Sunday, that meant home runs by first-baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Dansby Swanson and Riley.

Everyone else — that includes you, Dodgers — put this between your cheek and gum and chaw on it: “That’s as good an infield defensively and offensively as you’ll see on any one team in the Major Leauges, in my opinion,” Snitker said of his own.

Around the infield they all are bombing away and chipping in with such quantity it’s difficult to focus on just one of them. Swanson just homered for a third straight game. Freeman and Riley went back-to-back for their 26th homers of the season. Second baseman Ozzie Albies had his four-game home run streak broken but hit .384 with a pair of homers in the three-game series against a Nats team stripped for parts.

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Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (left) and shortstop Dansby Swanson celebrate 6-5 win over the Washington Nationals, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)

Credit: AP

Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (left) and shortstop Dansby Swanson celebrate 6-5 win over the Washington Nationals, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
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Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies (left) and shortstop Dansby Swanson celebrate 6-5 win over the Washington Nationals, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

For today, let Riley’s three hits and game-ending defensive play command the stage. Let him throw out the celebratory words for a ninth win in the last 11 games. “This is what we’ve been searching for all season,” he said Sunday.

Watching the 24-year-old refine his approach at the plate, the flailing replaced by a reasoned eye, might be the greatest single pleasure in this show. Like the manager says, some things you just see and you know. And to see the light come on for Riley is to know that he no longer intends to be a pitcher’s plaything.

“I’m happy for him, knowing (what he does) every day, watching this kid work and how consistent he is,” Snitker said. “He comes to play every day. He’s hung with himself as much as anything. That’s the big key. These guys have to hang with themselves and believe in themselves — and he has.”

Leading the Braves in batting average (.293), home runs (tied with Freeman) and OPS (.894), and second in RBI (72), Riley has been a vital engine to the team’s resurgence. It’s not quite time to fully insert him in the regal line of Braves third-basemen — from Eddie Matthews to Bob Horner to Terry Pendleton to Chipper Jones — but Riley’s put in a strong early bid.

“It’s been a long process. Still a lot to learn. Still a lot to improve. But it’s nice to help a ballclub,” he said. Did we forget to mention he never comes off like a foghorn when talking about himself?

It seems that each day contains another Riley revelation. Sunday ended with one more bit of evidence that a guy who began his Braves life shuttling between other positions while Josh Donaldson manned that corner really belongs at third.

While it’s difficult to strictly identify the 2021 MVP of the Braves because of all the infielders lining up for the title, Riley is right there. And if he is in the running for most valuable on a team chasing its fourth straight division title, then surely he must be a candidate for that honorific league-wide. Not that he can win it — he doesn’t have the “brand” just yet. But Riley belongs in the conversation. No supporting data is necessary. Just watch him, you’ll see it.

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