We knew this run of games would be testing. The Braves were 21-10. Against teams then under .500, they were 19-3. Their next five series would come against Baltimore, Boston, Toronto, Texas and Seattle – American League teams of worth – and they’d finish with three games against the Dodgers.
That stretch of 17 games will end tonight. The Braves are 7-9. They won three of the six series and split a fourth. They were swept in Toronto. They’ve lost the first two to L.A. If they win tonight, they’ll be 8-9 over these three weeks – not terrible, considering the quality of opposition and the absence of two starting pitchers.
The Braves’ lead in the National League East was six games on the morning of May 5. It’s 4 1/2 games today. FanGraphs still gives them an 82.1 percent chance of winning the division, a 97.9 percent chance of making the playoffs and a best-in-baseball 19.4 percent chance of winning the World Series. Should they beat the Dodgers tonight, they’ll again have the NL’s best record.
Of the 29 games after tonight’s, 23 will come against sub-.500 teams. (The Phillies, up next, have lost seven of nine.) June should be a good month. That said, the Braves’ ceiling without Max Fried and Kyle Wright is a bit lower. You don’t lose 40 percent of your rotation without feeling it.
This isn’t to say Jared Shuster can’t throw a decent game; he did Sunday against Seattle. This isn’t to say the Braves can’t win a few bullpen games. This isn’t to say we mightn’t see Michael Soroka, who yielded one run over six innings for Gwinnett on Tuesday, start his first big-league game since Aug. 3, 2020. The Braves are good at workarounds.
The Braves have hope Fried will return this season. He’s on the 15-day injured list; Wright is on the 60-day, signaling the club is less optimistic about him. Fried is a difference-maker. He made a difference in the 2021 postseason. In the Braves’ first and last wins en route to winning the World Series, he worked six shutout innings both times – the first in Game 2 in Milwaukee, the second in Game 6 in Houston.
If Fried is more apt than not to pitch again in 2023, the Braves can afford to make do with in-house solutions. If he isn’t, Alex Anthopoulos might have to go shopping. Not to find another Fried – there aren’t many, and none are available – but to add an innings-eater to get this team to October. Spencer Strider, Charlie Morton and Bryce Elder can give three professional outings in five; having someone capable of providing a fourth would be immense.
If that someone is Soroka, it would be doubly rewarding. But the Braves, having waited so long, would be silly to rush him back to the bigs because they’ve had a rough-by-their-standards two weeks. They’re not desperate. (They were desperate in 2021, when they lost their outfield.) Their fast start has bought them time – theirs remans the biggest lead in any division – to mull options.
Patience should likewise apply re: AJ Smith-Shawver, who began this season in High-A. He’s 20. Two years ago, he was pitching for Heritage High of Coleyville, Texas. He has worked 26 innings at three professional levels this year, yielding two earned runs. He has already been fast-tracked. Still, there’s fast, and there’s too fast.
In a sport where teams prove themselves every day for six months just to get to October, the Braves sit atop a mountain of confidence. They have lots of gifted players, not all of whom are in the majors. They can patch holes. They can solve problems. Losing a series to the Dodgers on this side of Memorial Day isn’t the end of the world.
Over 162 games, even the best teams have downturns. The Braves have lost eight of 12. They’ve yielded 16 runs over two nights against L.A. That said, they’re on pace to win 98 games. This is a very good team missing two starting pitchers, which means it’s not quite as good as it was. Still 114 games to go, though.
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