Braves start strong despite setbacks, and they’ll keep it going

Braves lefty Max Fried will help keep the rotation afloat without Mike Soroka. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Braves lefty Max Fried will help keep the rotation afloat without Mike Soroka. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Braves made it through one-fifth of the season as the best team in the National League East. That’s weird to contemplate after less than two weeks. It’s appropriate when the Braves packed a season’s worth of drama into those days, and there are less than eight weeks left. The standings before Thursday’s games said the Marlins were on top of the East, but then some things aren’t as they seem in this funhouse-mirror season.

The Marlins had played only six games because a COVID-19 outbreak has wiped out half their schedule. The Nationals were 2 ½ games behind the Braves, with three lost to the novel coronavirus. The Phillies were in last place, but had managed to get in only six games.

MLB is planning for those teams to make up games with seven-inning doubleheaders Or, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, baseball may accept that some teams won’t play 60 games and base playoff qualification on winning percentage. That would mean some teams playing different schedule lengths, some with a bunch of seven-inning games and others with none, and all of it subject to change with the next COVID-19 outbreak.

It’s a mess. It’s hard to sort it all out. That’s the baseball we get under the circumstances. The inherent volatility means things change in days, not weeks, but my prediction that the Braves would win the East is looking good.

Yes, the Braves lost staff ace Mike Soroka to injury. They might have another ace in Max Fried. Star second baseman Ozzie Albies went on the injured list Wednesday. He’d become a detriment to the lineup, so others are better options until Albies gets right. Braves relievers have been great without high-priced free agent Will Smith, who was activated from the COVID-19 list Thursday.

Give the Braves credit for starting 8-5, the equivalent of 22-14 during a normal campaign. The Braves have managed to do it with only two reliable starting pitchers. Their three best hitters — Albies, Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna — have not produced to their standards.

There aren’t many games for things to even out. It’s still hard for me to get my head around how luck can play such a big role. But the Braves have so many good players that I’m betting they’ll overcome any (more) bad fortune.

“We probably have one of the most talented organizations in all of baseball,” Braves outfielder Nick Markakis said Thursday before the series finale against the Blue Jays. “It shows. You can see our record right now. We are doing pretty damn good, and we still have a lot of people that aren’t clicking.”

ExploreOzuna gives Braves a lift

The Braves have given themselves a cushion until that happens. Plus, look around the rest of the NL East. Things aren’t going great for their rivals. And it’s not just the Marlins, who simply are trying to piece together a team to make it through the season.

The Mets already lost five of seven games to the Braves. Then Yoenis Cespedes decided to opt out of the rest of the season (Cespedes, in true Mets fashion, disappeared from the team while in Atlanta). Jacob deGrom dominated the Braves twice, but they’ll see deGrom once more at most.

One of Washington’s elite starters, Stephen Strasburg, has yet to pitch this season because of a wrist issue. The other, Max Scherzer, left his last start after one inning because of a sore hamstring. Scherzer said he’s not concerned, but the same hamstring bothered him in his previous start, and he had an extra day of rest for the next one.

The Phillies have lost two games with ace Aaron Nola starting. He’ll get, at most, 10 more cracks at it. The Phillies lost two of three games to the Marlins before the schedule interruption. After that break, the Phillies were scheduled to play 57 games in 56 days.

It’s true that, among NL East teams, the Braves suffered the biggest blow with Soroka’s Achilles injury. It’s also the case that Fried has been overlooked since some rocky results last September and October. I still thought he was on the come because his strikeout and walk rates were improving. Sure enough, Fried has struck out 15 and walked five over 17 2/3 innings while posting a 2.04 ERA in his first three starts.

The rest of the rotation is shaky. Touki Toussaint was good in his first start in place of Mike Foltynewicz and got another shot Thursday. Manager Brian Snitker was hopeful that lefty Sean Newcomb figured some things out after his last start. Prospect Kyle Wright’s talent still is way ahead of his results.

After Soroka’s injury, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos sounded pessimistic about trading for a starting pitcher. Cole Hamels, 36, might return from the injured list just in time for a late-season push. Until then, it’s possible that one of the young pitchers at the Braves’ alternate camp in Gwinnett will get a chance soon.

Markakis returned after his stint there raving about hard-throwing prospects Ian Anderson, Kyle Muller and Patrick Weigel. Tucker Davidson is another option.

“They’ve got some great arms down there,” Markakis said.

The strong start gives the Braves some leeway to figure out the pitching. They already are in good position to qualify for the playoffs, which this year will include eight NL teams.

Before Thursday’s games, FanGraphs gave the Braves an 86.4 percent chance of making the postseason. Their odds of winning the East were 49.3%, with the Nationals the second highest at 25.2%. According to the projection, the Braves will post a 26-21 record over their final 47 games.

That forecast assumes that Freeman, Acuna and Albies will get going. It predicts that Fried and new outfielder Marcell Ozuna will keep going. The FanGraphs projection believes that the Braves will get enough effective starts from Wright, Newcomb and Bryse Wilson.

All that sounds reasonable. Already, the Braves have won more than you’d think, considering what they aren’t getting from many of their best players. This short, strange season is somewhat of a crapshoot, but the Braves have enough good things going for them that they’ll make it to the postseason, where things get only weirder.

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