It took a while, but these Braves are showing their class

072021 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker and first baseman Freddie Freeman confer in the dugout during the 7th innng during a 2-1 victory against the San Diego Padres in a MLB baseball game on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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072021 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker and first baseman Freddie Freeman confer in the dugout during the 7th innng during a 2-1 victory against the San Diego Padres in a MLB baseball game on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Brian Snitker is 65. He has been a Braves employee since 1977. He knows, in the way that baseball people come to know, that much of what happens in this sport is beyond anyone’s control. He knows that, with a team of proven worth, nothing works like patience. He also knew that his team he manages spent four months and 108 games not breaking .500.

Snitker knew, as sure as anything in this oft-inexplicable sport can be known, there was no way Freddie Freeman, among the finest hitters of the age, should be batting .224 as of June 9. But there the reigning National League MVP was, one of many Braves falling short of established standards. More than a few others had gotten hurt.

The Braves believed this would be the best team since the Great Rebuild. The 2020 season ended with them one game from the World Series, where this club hasn’t been this century. These Braves believed they had inoculated themselves from any regression by signing Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly and re-upping Marcell Ozuna, last year’s DH, to play left field. They were good to go.

Four months later, they had gone nowhere good. We all kept saying, “When this team gets going …”, but after four months we’d changed the “when” to an “if.” The Braves’ run differential – an old-school stat that even new-schoolers track – was better than their record, which suggested underachievement. We wondered how long it would take for Snitker, among the world’s more patient souls, to throw a public snit.

He never did, which isn’t to say he didn’t have moments of abject frustration. After an especially vexing late-inning loss, he ended almost every postgame response with, “I really don’t know.” At that point, nobody knew. Still, the one thing baseball people know for sure is that a talented team – even without talents on the exalted level of Ronald Acuna and Mike Soroka – can’t be discounted. At the close of business July 30, the day of the trade deadline, the Braves were 51-53, four games behind the division-leading Mets, a half-game back of the second-place Phillies. The best we could say of the 2021 Braves was that they weren’t it out of it.

That team since has won 14 of 17. As of noon Friday, the Braves led the second-place Phillies by four games. General manager Alex Anthopoulos did his deadline duty, importing six useful players over July’s final two weeks. Had Snitker lost his team in June, the reinforcements wouldn’t have mattered. Had this team slipped 10 games under .500 in July, Anthopoulos might have been moved to sell. Sometimes just hanging around constitutes a victory.

Said Snitker, speaking via Zoom before Friday’s game in Baltimore: “I told Alex, ‘I’ve experienced more of these years than the other over my time.’ It’s just sometimes they don’t go as planned. It’s tough. It’s been a grind. It’s been hard to get through this. I don’t think anybody has ever written us off. I don’t remember anyone ever doing the ‘Woe is me’ and the ‘Oh my god, it happened to us again.’ Everybody just continues to work and show up and prepare.”

Then: “I respect each and every one of those players in there for having that attitude. They kept going. They looked at it as an opportunity for somebody else to do something really good. They’ve hung in there really well. I’ve said for five months now that I just feel like we’re capable of getting on a run. It took a long time for that to happen, but we stayed relevant and kept our head above water.”

As of Aug. 1, the best we could say of the 2021 Braves was they weren’t out of it. Three weeks later, we can say they’ve a built a working lead in a division that was there for the Mets’ or Phillies’ taking but figures to wind up belonging, for the fourth year running, to the Braves. Credit the players for being professional – you never hear a gripe from anyone who plays for Snitker – and for sticking with a season where not much went right for the longest time. But here they are.

Here’s Max Fried, whose ERA on June 5 was 5.12, but 3.78 before Friday’s turn. Here’s Freddie Freeman, who raised his batting average from .224 to .301 in nine weeks. Here’s Adam Duvall, who has hit as many home runs this year as a Brave (five) than against the Braves (also five, including two off Fried). Here’s a manager who didn’t throw any furniture or rip anybody for public consumption. Here’s a team that, at long last, has it going.

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