The Braves just reminded us how good they can be

Atlanta Braves' Guillermo Heredia (38) scores ahead of the throw to Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith, right, on a sacrifice fly by Ender Inciarte in the eighth inning Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Atlanta Braves' Guillermo Heredia (38) scores ahead of the throw to Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith, right, on a sacrifice fly by Ender Inciarte in the eighth inning Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The Braves know how good they can be. They’ve won the National League East three years running. They won two playoff series last year, when they fell one game short of the World Series. All they have to do is look around the locker room, where they can see Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Charlie Morton and Dansby Swanson. They aren’t five more talented teams in the majors. There mightn’t be more than one.

As of Friday night, the Braves were 26-29. They hadn’t spent a day above .500 this season. They haven’t fallen off the pace – they’ve never been more than 4-1/2 games behind the division leader – but the story of their 2021 had been, borrowing from the case files of Sherlock Holmes, the dog that didn’t bark. And when you spend two months waiting for a team to get going, the thought does occur: What if this is the best they can do?

As of sundown Sunday, we knew better. On consecutive days, they beat Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer. They took a series from the Dodgers, who remain the gold standard of teams despite an underwhelming start of their own. True, these were only two games in June, as opposed to October, and the good vibes flowing from the Braves’ weekend will be washed away if they lose two of three in Philadelphia. Still, this was a mighty fine series in a season where the Braves haven’t had many memorable moments.

Said manager Brian Snitker: “Maybe you look back on in two or three weeks and point to this, I hope. Other than the one inning (in Friday’s 9-5 loss), we played a really good series against the world champions. We did a lot of really good things. The bullpen was unbelievable. It should show those guys (meaning his players) we’re as good as anybody out there when we play the way we can play.”

Said Ender Inciarte, who hasn’t done much in a while but who drove in two runs Sunday: “I think we should play against everybody the way we played this series.”

Well, yeah. Which leads us to ask: Why haven’t they? Some of it has to do with the sport itself. Why is Freeman’s expected batting average – as noted by AJC colleague Gabriel Burns – nearly 70 percentage points higher than his actual batting average? (Here’s where we shake our heads and say, “That’s baseball.”) How can the Braves rank first among MLB clubs in home runs but 25th in hits? How can this team try 14 different relievers and still have the fifth-worst bullpen ERA?

When the season began, it was possible to regard this as a team without a howling weakness. Reality has forced us to reevaluate. Mike Soroka hasn’t pitched. Huascar Ynoa was the Braves’ best starting pitcher until he punched the bench and broke his hand. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud broke his thumb. Marcell Ozuna broke two fingers and was set to miss two months. He has since been arrested on domestic violence charges. In such cases, MLB conducts it own investigation. The Braves have no way of knowing what’s apt to happen with Ozuna.

It’s not as if other clubs have stayed healthy. The Braves list seven players on the injured list. The Mets have 13, the Dodgers nine. Barely a day has passed that the Braves haven’t made a roster move, which tells us general manager Alex Anthopoulos is dancing as fast as he can. His team has used 22 pitchers over 57 games. Ehire Adrianza, Guillermo Heredia and Abraham Almonte – as a threesome, they’ve played for 14 MLB clubs – have started 45 times for the Braves. Remember Jeff Mathis, emergency catcher? He worked three games.

Without Soroka, d’Arnaud, Ynoa and Ozuna, the Braves’ ceiling isn’t quite so high. That is, however, subject to change. They expect d’Arnaud and Ynoa to be back by August. They hold out hope on Soroka. The return of Shane Greene gives the Braves another right-handed reliever, which they needed. The organization still believes this is a playoff team, even though it hasn’t often looked the part..

The Braves have spent two months doing what mediocre teams do – never knowing if their starting pitcher would give them a chance to win, never being certain their bullpen could hold a lead, seldom sustaining a rally that didn’t include a home run. With Ozuna’s case pending and Cristian Pache back in Triple-A, Anthopoulos could import an outfielder before the trade deadline. Until then, the bulk of the Braves’ improvement must come from within.

The Braves know how good they can be, but two months of slogging can make any team wonder. As of today, their minds are more at ease. They took two of three from L.A. They reminded us who they are. They also reminded themselves.

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