Braves at .500! Next stop: world domination!

Credit: Joe Puetz

Credit: Joe Puetz

The Braves have won consecutive games for the first time since Eddie Haas was deemed a managerial upgrade over Joe Torre. (Slight exaggeration, yes.) In four games since their deadline hires began to arrive, they’re 3-1. (Small sample size, yes.) They remain 2-1/2 games out of first place – also one game out of second – but let’s be honest: They look a bit different.

Disclaimer: This is baseball, where looks often deceive, where momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher, where the worst team can take three in a row from the best team. (Fun stat of the year: The mighty Dodgers are 1-10 in extra innings.) But it has been so long since the Braves have done much that the end of this goofy win/loss/win/loss/win/loss run of 18 games is worth noting, if not quite saluting.

With the absences of Ronald Acuna, Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna, what should have been a potent lineup was reduced to half-strength. There wasn’t so much a hole in the batting order as an abyss. The four infielders – Freeman, Albies, Swanson and Riley – were capable big-league hitters. That left five slots to be filled by players of replacement-level worth and the day’s pitcher. Whenever Max Fried started, he became the Braves’ fifth-best hitter.

(That’s not an exaggeration. Fried has an offensive WAR rating of 0.5. Abraham Almonte is at 0.1. Cristian Pache was at minus-0.7. Kevan Smith is at minus-0.6.)

There are reasons Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson and Stephen Vogt were available for not very much in return. They’re not superstars, though Soler hit 48 homers – while striking out 178 times – in 2019. But they’re a cut above the journeymen the Braves had been forced to use as regulars. Soler and Duvall hit homers in St. Louis on Wednesday night. Vogt drove in the go-ahead run with an eighth-inning sacrifice fly. The Braves won a game they trailed 3-0 after four batters.

Season so far

Two wins against the middling Cardinals do not a trend make, but let’s be honest: Braves-watchers are starving for any signs of life. It’s hard for a good team, which we all expected this to be, to play 108 games without breaking .500, but here — as we know too well — this team sits. Could tonight finally deliver the moment when it finally happens? It might, but we’ve thought that six times already and been wrong every time.

More honesty: Before Alex Anthopoulos made four deals on deadline day, I was close to giving up on this season. (And, having been around a while, I’m reluctant to say anything’s over until it is. I’m an Atlantan. I witnessed 28-3.) It wasn’t so much that the Braves’ general manager hooked one difference-maker as that he imported four guys — Eddie Rosario is on the injured list — who together might make a difference.

Example: Richard Rodriguez had been closing in Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, Brian Snitker summoned him to work the fifth inning in a game the Braves trailed 3-2. You might think that’s a low-leverage moment for a high-leverage guy, but how many times have we see the middle relief render a winnable game unwinnable?

Rodriguez faced Dylan Carlson, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals’ 2, 3 and 4 hitters. Against Drew Smyly in the first inning, they’d gone single, single, homer. Against Rodriguez, they went groundout, groundout, groundout. The Braves took the lead in the top of the sixth. Rodriguez as a Brave: three innings, 28 pitches, two hits, no walks, no earned runs.

The GM of a contender is supposed to make his team better at the deadline. Anthopoulos did. There’s no guarantee that better will be good enough to catch and pass the Mets and Phillies over the final 54 games, but Philly doesn’t scare anybody, and the Mets are without Jacob deGrom. Also: Of the Braves’ next 16 games, 13 will come against opponents below .500. This could, and maybe should, still happen.