Braves show some life, but I need to see more to believe it

The Braves won five consecutive games through Sunday to finally push their record above break-even. They pitched, hit and defended well at the same time. They’re getting healthier. The three major statistical projections agree the Braves are no worse than a 50-50 shot to make the playoffs.

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But it’s still too early for me to say the Braves have turned things around. I need to see more. And I say that as someone who remained optimistic about their chances even as they lost more than they won. One good weekend in Denver is a good start for the Braves only if they follow through, which they’ve had trouble doing all season.

The Braves won two extra-inning games at the Rockies over the weekend, and there’s luck involved in those. The Braves still have only three effective starting pitchers. They aren’t getting much production from three of their lineup spots. There don’t appear to be any simple solutions to those problems. The Braves just need more of their guys to play better.

The names on the roster suggest the Braves are better than they’ve played. The standings show the Braves (28-27) trail the Mets (38-19) by nine games in the National League East (all records and stats before Tuesday’s games). Time for Braves backers to accept the reality that the Mets will end their team’s NL East title reign at four consecutive years. I’m a numbers guy, so for me, the season-long sample of a division title means a lot. But I know plenty of people care about the postseason above all else.

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The Braves are two games behind the Giants (29-24) for the third NL wild-card spot. Run differential is a good gauge of true team quality. The Braves are plus-4 on the season. That’s well behind the NL competition: Dodgers (plus-113), Padres (plus-26), Brewers (plus-26), Cardinals (plus-54) and the Giants (plus-30). Even the Phillies (plus-18) have a much better differential despite trailing the Braves by 2 ½ games.

All of this is to say that the Braves still have much to prove. The bullpen remains the only aspect of the team that has no major questions (and that’s with Tyler Matzek, one of their best relievers, on the shelf). The outfield still is a mess. Adam Duvall and Marcell Ozuna are scuffling, and rookie Michael Harris still is breaking into MLB.

It doesn’t seem possible that Duvall can be this bad for an entire season, yet he’s had 204 plate appearances, and it’s not getting any better. Ozuna’s occasional flashes of power don’t make up for all the other times he fails to get on base. Eddie Rosario (eye surgery) isn’t expected back until late July, just before the trade deadline. Ideally, general manager Alex Anthopoulos won’t have to dip into the depleted farm system to acquire outfield help.

Now is a good time for Ronald Acuña to go on a tear. He was in and out of the lineup over the past three weeks, but the Braves never put him on the injured list. Acuña has played fewer than half of the games (120 plate appearances). Yet he’s tied with catcher Travis d’Arnaud for third-most FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement on the team. On-base percentage is a major weakness for the Braves’ offense. Acuña leads the team with a .408 OBP, which would be fifth best in the majors if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

Acuña is so good that he can keep up that pace. He has a .400 OBP in 154 games since the start of the 2020 season, with 41 home runs and 37 doubles. Acuña needs only better injury luck. He finally played three consecutive games in the outfield in Denver and went 6-for-15 with a homer and four runs scored.

The Braves can be confident of what they’ll get from Acuña when he’s healthy. It’s less certain what right-hander Mike Soroka can provide if he makes it back this season. Soroka hasn’t pitched since August 2020 and has made more than five starts in a season once. It was a great year – Soroka was sixth in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2019 – and his ailments have been related to an Achilles, not his arm.

Soroka will boost the Braves if he returns and performs just a bit below average. That’s more than they’ve gotten from Charlie Morton through 11 starts. He’s supposed to be the steady veteran for a relatively young rotation. Instead, Morton’s 5.63 ERA ranks fifth worst among MLB starters with 50 or more innings pitched. The Braves might be able to get by with a shaky fifth starter. It’s hard to win consistently if two of the five starters produce bad results more times than not.

The coming schedule is set up for the Braves to continue their roll. Oakland (20-36) opens a two-game set here Tuesday night. The Pirates (24-28) come to Truist Park next. They’ve won a few games despite the front office not really trying, but the minus-75 run differential signals that they aren’t that good. The Braves then play four games at the Nationals (21-35) and Cubs (23-32).

After that trip, the Braves return home for a weeklong homestand. There are four games against the Giants and three against the Dodgers. That’s a chance for the Braves to gain some ground against two teams that figure to be in the wild-card race to the end. The Braves found new life at the end of their recent trip. Now let’s see them sustain it until the Giants and Dodgers come to town.