The Braves in October: Might they get it right this time?

The Braves almost certainly will start the playoffs at Truist Park on Sept. 30. If it seems only yesterday that the same Braves played their 2020 opener … well, that’s because it almost was. They began July 24 in New York. They’re schedule to finish this irregular season Sept. 27. Two months and three days, soup to nuts. Let the crap-shoot commence.

The Braves would have to err mightily over this next week not to win the National League East. Of the other four division members, only the Marlins – yes, the Marlins – were above .500 as of Friday noon. Finishing first over 60 games doesn’t bear the weight of finishing first over 162, but it’s not nothing. It’s more than the Yankees and Astros are apt to do.

We can’t say the Braves have made it easy on themselves. Over 50 games, the Braves used 12 starting pitchers. Over the full 162 last year, they used 11. Until Cole Hamels – at last! – made his debut Wednesday, their rotation was without all six of the men who, when summer camp commenced, figured to claim those five spots. The upshot: Their starters' ERA was 6.01, third-worst in the majors. Only one other team with a starters' ERA above 5.00 was above .500, that being the Giants at 25-24.

The Braves' last day below .500 was July 28; they were 2-3. Still, we can’t say they’ve cruised to a truncated division title. Almost everything that could go wrong has. Freddie Freeman tested positive. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies spent time on the injured list. Mike Soroka tore his Achilles. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb were again demoted. And yet: This team led the NL East by three games with 10 remaining. That’s more than not nothing.

The Braves are where they are for two reasons. Their bullpen, which was the object of much of Alex Anthopoulos' offseason work, has been great. As of Friday, its ERA was the third-lowest among the 30 MLB clubs.

Also: They’ve hit like crazy – third in the majors in runs, second in slugging percentage, first in RBIs. Freeman ranked No. 1 in baseball in offensive WAR, per Baseball Reference, and No. 1 in on-base percentage. He and Marcell Ozuna stood 1-2 in the NL in RBIs. Adam Duvall, back from oblivion, was tied for the NL lead in home runs. Seven Braves have hit at least seven homers. Dansby Swanson, who needed to have a big year, ranked 10th in the majors among position players in overall WAR. They’ve more than made do without Josh Donaldson.

Let’s face it, though. Nobody’s going to recall this 60-game season as anything more than a tune-up for the 16-team tournament. The Braves haven’t so much tuned up as plugged holes, but this much is self-evident: The rotation looks better than it has in a month. Max Fried was activated Friday after 10 days on the IL with back spasms. Hamels made it through 3-1/3 innings without his arm falling off. Of Ian Anderson’s first four starts, three were excellent.

In some postseasons, you could get by with three starters, maybe even two. The dynamics of this postseason changed with MLB’s announcement of its intentions to bubble up. The Braves are on track to play Round 1, which is best-of-three, in Cobb County. Should they advance, every other game will be staged in Texas – either in Houston (possible Round 2) or Arlington (possible Round 2, plus NLCS and World Series). Because no travel days will be needed, there’ll be no off-days. Round 2 is best-of-five; everything beyond is best-of-seven.

This means that a team will need a fourth starter, and maybe a fifth. It’s hard to imagine Fried getting more than two starts even in a best-of-seven. (Starting Games 1 and 5 would put him on three days' rest, down from the customary four.) The bad news: The Braves aren’t loaded in the No. 4/5 starter department. Better news: Nobody else is, either. Here’s where relievers redeployed as placeholding “starters” loom large.

This smushed-together postseason – were the Braves to play every possible game, they’d work 22 times in 28 days – ladles another layer of unpredictability atop that which already defied prediction. Josh Tomlin, who can start and relieve, could be a big man this October. With 28-man rosters, nobody should run out of pitchers. At issue will be who runs out of good pitchers.

A postseason threesome of Fried, Anderson and Hamels is better than the Braves could have hoped in the dark days of August. (Back then, it was Max and pray for monsoons.) If the starters, even if they’re relievers by trade, can keep games close, this bullpen can win them. Over time, this franchise has suffered many playoff indignities because it got out-relieved. In this strangest of years, it might be fitting if the club that invariably flops in October is the last team standing BECAUSE of its bullpen.

No, that’s not a prediction. It’s also possible the Braves could be done after two games. Cram 16 teams into one postseason and four bubbles, and nobody can know anything. This much I do know: I like the Braves' chances much more than I did on Labor Day.

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