Not playing at their best, yet Braves have baseball’s best record

Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, right, celebrates his home run with third base coach Matt Tuiasosopo (89) as he round the bases during the second inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, right, celebrates his home run with third base coach Matt Tuiasosopo (89) as he round the bases during the second inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

The defending National League MVP finally hit his first home run of the season in his 78th plate appearance of the season. The staff ace and Cy Young Award candidate is out for the season after only two starts. The No. 2 co-ace has a 7.71 ERA after four starts.

Behold, the buttresses for the team with the best record (12-5) in baseball.

But, wait – there’s even less reason for the Braves to be at the top of the standings. All-Star catcher Sean Murphy has contributed three at-bats because of an oblique muscle injury sustained in the opener. Entering Thursday’s games, the starting pitching ranked 26th in MLB in ERA (4.93). Statistically, the bullpen is middle of the road.

And yet, the Braves will begin their three-game home series against defending World Series champion Texas on Friday on a four-game win streak, with two consecutive series wins billowing their sails.

It’s like a movie with Tom Cruise and Margot Robbie but Cruise’s accent changes scene to scene, Robbie’s character keeps saying the same lame catchphrase (”Here goes nothing, amigos!”) and the movie still ends up No. 1 at the box office. (Though, honestly, I would probably want to watch that movie precisely for those reasons.)

What is there to make of this team thus far?

They’re getting outsized production from a few places that probably can’t last too much longer. The Braves have played eight games in which they’ve trailed by three runs or fewer going into the top of the seventh or later. They are 5-3 in those games.

When they’re down late and people make the joke, “They’ve got ’em where they want ’em,” (speaking of lame catchphrases) it’s actually true so far.

From the season opener, when the Braves were down 2-0 after six innings to the Phillies and then smoked them for nine runs in the next two innings, to Wednesday’s rally over the Astros (down 4-2 with six outs left, the Braves tied the score in the eighth and won the game in the 10th), the repeated shows of resolve and proficiency have been highly entertaining and convincing.

But it’s hard to believe this is a power that can be summoned so consistently. Entering Thursday’s games, the Braves led the majors in runs scored in the eighth and ninth innings, at 2.18 per game, according to Team Rankings. Last season’s leader averaged 1.14. The Braves eventually will come back to the pack. (They ranked sixth in 2023 at .97 runs per game in the eighth and ninth innings.)

The productivity and the experience throughout the lineup would seem to ensure that the Braves will win many more games this way. But continuing to win in that situation (down three runs or less going into the seventh inning or later) at a 63% clip seems a little unlikely.

And maybe it’s cynical to rule out Marcell Ozuna continuing his pace to finish with 76 home runs, 219 RBIs and a 161-game hitting streak, but it’s fair to point out that he’s probably going to sit out some games eventually.

Is new acquisition Reynaldo López going to keep giving up one earned run every three starts? Seems an iffy proposition.

So perhaps it’s not the most representative sample of what the Braves will reveal about themselves over the next 5-1/2 months.

But here’s the thing, as noted above. While Ozuna has been scorching, the Braves have reached 12-5 with a number of core pieces not at their best, some far from it, starting with Ronald Acuña Jr.

Beyond not homering in his first 16 games, Acuña’s contact percentage has been down significantly from his standards, he has not hit the ball hard as frequently and his swings at balls outside of the strike zone are up. (And yet, he’s hitting .294 with a .400 on-base percentage and eight stolen bases. Some kind of slump.)

Matt Olson and Michael Harris II also have played below their norms. Charlie Morton has labored in three starts.

And yet, here the Braves are at 12-5. It demonstrates, once again, how well the Braves are built to win consistently and that they do so with few peers. As gaudy as the mark is, if the Braves had one fewer win and one more loss, their 11-6 mark essentially would put them on pace for 105 wins, only one more than they had last season. There are a lot of games left to be played, and there will be actual downturns. But this, it would seem, is what the Braves do. It’s remarkable to watch.

Ozuna inevitably will cool off, but Acuña, Harris, Olson or Austin Riley will take the baton at some point. And surely Max Fried will overcome the tribulations of his first four starts and relocate the effectiveness that has been his long-term pattern.

And perhaps at some point, Lopez, who hasn’t exceeded 66 innings in any of the past four seasons, as he largely has been a reliever, will be moved to the bullpen, leaving manager Brian Snitker with a new riddle to solve.

The overriding matter, of course, is whether this will help the Braves win in the postseason.

The easy answer is that whatever happens in April doesn’t have much bearing on October. But a team that can overcome so-so starting pitching with solid relief and a lineup that has the skill and savvy to rally late in games would seem to be well-equipped for the postseason.

In those eight games referenced above, the Braves, in the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th innings, outscored the opposition 29-10. Snitker needs to use the newly acquired Aaron Bummer more effectively, but otherwise, the reconstituted bullpen appears loaded with answers.

And, when October arrives, the advantage of being able to call on Lopez in relief (if that’s how the Braves decide to use him) would seem considerable.

But for now, there’s a three-game series with the World Series champions coming up, and all that’s left to be said is this:

Here goes nothing, amigos!