The Braves’ quest, redefined: Just get above .500

Drew Smyly gets the win for the Braves in Pittsburgh Wednesday. (AP)
Caption
Drew Smyly gets the win for the Braves in Pittsburgh Wednesday. (AP)

Credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Rock bottom stared the Braves in the face for a while there Wednesday afternoon. Spotted in the stands in Pittsburgh was a Pirates fan waving a broom in anticipation of a series sweep. As insults go, a Pirates sweep would be like the doormat wiping itself on you.

Ah, but on the brink of abject humiliation, the Braves rallied, transforming a 3-1 first-inning deficit into a 14-3, universe-correcting victory. Break out the neck braces. Once more, after scoring but two runs in a pair of losses to the Buccos, the Braves had made a violent lurch in the opposite direction. Thus did 2021 continue as the longest bumper-car ride in carnival history.

The wild inconsistencies of this season have led to a race within a race. Beyond trying to run down the Mets in the National League East there is the Braves’ personal battle with break-even.

Since losing their first four games, the Braves have spent the rest of this time trying to get to .500, and then above. And have yet to post a winning record. This team has been chasing the other side of .500 like it was the Holy Grail, a desperate search to turn a profit in the standings, to spend just a single day in the black.

Season so far

Signs of a breakthrough have been plentiful, but hollow.

So, fans keep waiting and waiting for their team to go on some sort of sustained run and return to where it belongs.

Still waiting.

Now there is this, one last tease before baseball takes a break to punish Georgia and hold an All-Star game in Colorado. Three games in Miami remain before the stoppage, beginning Friday. The Braves are 42-44. Do the ever-hopeful math. They sweep the last-place Marlins and, voila, they get to spend at least parts of five days above .500 before the schedule starts up again. (Cautionary note: The Braves are just 4-6 vs. the Marlins this season, so plan no parades just yet).

“I don’t allow myself to look at things like that,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday. And be thankful for that because if he did during a formless stretch like this, he’d be tin-foil-hat crazy by now.

On five occasions since stumbling out of the gate, the Braves have worked their way back to .500. So close to inching above the Adam Sandler Line (a name I’ve given to mediocrity, feel free to supply your own). Only to slip back into the depths each time, a little more precious optimism dying each time.

Along the way there have been several occasions when a person might dare declare, “OK, this is it, this is where this team turns it around.”

As when the Braves pushed it back to .500 twice in April, only to lose the next four afterward each time.

Or when they won back-to-back against the defending champion Dodgers in games started by Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer, then took one over Philly to go 29-29 in mid-June. Only to lose the next four games excruciatingly, by a combined five runs.

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna (right) reacts after sliding safely into third against Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (10) in the seventh inning Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Caption
Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna (right) reacts after sliding safely into third against Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (10) in the seventh inning Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

You think, maybe, the turnaround began the first of this month when they got a walk-off win over the Mets in a game started by the great Jacob deGrom. Or scoring four in the ninth and one more in the 10th to beat Miami just three days later. But nothing lasting has come from any of it.

Snitker has his highlighter at the ready, prepared to mark one good win as the pivot point for his team. “I hope it’s that game we look back three weeks thinking, man, that’s where it started,” he said. “We’ve yet to do that, but I’m still optimistic that it will happen.

“I know it can happen,” he added, “it absolutely can happen. For whatever reason it hasn’t. There’s been something here or there or whatever we haven’t been able to keep a toehold in anything.”

That is the most maddening aspect of these Braves. Here at the halfway point, you can neither completely dismiss them nor trust them. You just inhabit a limbo of general dissatisfaction, either because of deficiencies in a lineup that is without Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna, or because Pablo Sandoval has gone from pinch-hitting sensation to mascot or because of a bullpen that causes more heartburn than a truck-stop burrito.

You stay under .500 long enough, and soon enough that is what you are. Then soon enough those PECOTA analytics people who haven’t picked the Braves to finish above third in the East these past four seasons are going to get it right. That is the ledge upon which the Braves teeter.

The winning pitcher from Wednesday put a Smyly face on it all.

“With the way this first half has gone I think you can see it as a positive that we’re only a game or two back from that .500 mark, and we haven’t played anywhere close to our best baseball,” Drew Smyly said.

“If we can get on a little bit of a roll,” he said, “start getting some timely wins and everybody contributing at the same time — we’ve just had bits and pieces here and there — we can really get this thing rolling.”

Still waiting.

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