If the Braves are going to get going, now’s the time

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna (13) and New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) chat during a pause in action in the second game of a doubleheader, Monday, June 21, 2021, in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna (13) and New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) chat during a pause in action in the second game of a doubleheader, Monday, June 21, 2021, in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Credit: Kathy Willens

Credit: Kathy Willens

Captain Obvious, reporting for duty. If the Braves are to take the National League East for a fourth year running, this would seem a propitious moment to start winning. Not that they haven’t been winning a little: Since losing the season’s first four games, they’re 37-36. But when the Fourth of July is near and you’re still saying, “We need to get going” … well, you really do need to get going.

The Braves will open a three-game series against the first-place Mets at Truist Park on Tuesday. As of June 16, the Mets’ lead over the Braves was seven games. As we speak, the margin has shrunk to 4-1/2. It’s not as if the Braves have gotten hot: They last won three in a row — two against the Dodgers here, the third against Philadelphia there — from June 5-8. They’ve played 77 games, which is almost half a regular season, and they haven’t once nosed above .500.

Season so far

They have, however, gotten a bit better. Put another way, their numbers — and what, your captain asks, is baseball if not numbers? — have gotten better. They’re still not hitting for average. (The team has hit .234; the MLB average is .239.) They’re above league averages in home runs, OPS and runs. Their rotation has the 14th-best ERA among the 30 clubs. The bullpen lags — it’s 24th in ERA — but you can’t have everything. If you did, as the deadpan wit Steven Wright once asked, where would you put it?

We all thought the Braves would be better than this. The Braves thought so, too. They’ve spent three months underperforming, but they haven’t underperformed so egregiously as to be labeled a no-hoper. Were they in the NL West — they used to be — they’d be 8-1/2 games behind third-place San Diego. Ergo, the Braves’ chances of winning a wild card have, per FanGraphs, been reduced to 2.9 percent. They’re given a 12.3 percent chance of winning the East.

Apart from Ronald Acuna, the best thing the 2021 Braves have had going for them is the Mets, who can pitch but who can’t hit. Not long ago, the Braves played four games in Citi Field and scored nine runs. That was enough to halve the series. The Mets, like most every other team, have had a slew of injuries. Even without Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco, their pitching has held up. Stat of the year: Jacob deGrom has yielded six runs, the same number as he has driven in. (He’s scheduled to start Thursday against the Braves. His ERA is 0.69.)

Shortstop Francisco Lindor, who signed a 10-year contract for $341 million, has seen his batting average rise above .220 only twice since April 17. His OPS is .666. (By way of contrast, Dansby Swanson’s is .732.) Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto have returned to health, which should help, but the Mets remain last in the majors in runs. They’re 26th in OPS; among teams ranked 20th or worse, Milwaukee is the only other club with a winning record.

We keep expecting Alex Anthopoulos to buy pitching for his Braves. (The trade deadline is July 30.) The Mets are looking for bats, though they can’t get through a week without a pitching scare – deGrom has at least one a fortnight; Marcus Stroman left after one inning against the Braves on June 22. The Mets are 40-34, having lost nine of their past 14 games. They wouldn’t be leading any another division, but the rest of the NL East has been so slow to ignite that Washington, which was 26-35 on June 12, has risen into second place.

Potential Braves trade targets for outfield, rotation and bullpen.

If the Braves can take two of three in this series, they might well be in first place by the All-Star break. After the Mets, the Braves face Miami, Pittsburgh and Miami again. The Mets go from here to a series at Yankee Stadium; then they face Milwaukee.

It’s tempting to suggest that these three games in Cobb County could change the Braves’ season from three months of slow-walking into an honest-to-goodness pennant chase. But this is your captain speaking, and honesty compels him to confess that he has made similar guesses since opening day, and nothing much has happened. The Braves have been just good enough to hang around. That’s not necessarily a compliment.

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