Braves taste first place, will keep rolling against struggling foes

0Braves catcher Stephen Vogt loses control of his bat while taking strike three for the out against the Cincinnati Reds during the second inning of a MLB baseball game on Thursday, August 12, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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0Braves catcher Stephen Vogt loses control of his bat while taking strike three for the out against the Cincinnati Reds during the second inning of a MLB baseball game on Thursday, August 12, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Now is not the time to call for caution because there are seven-plus weeks left in the MLB season. Save the snark about the weak state of the National League East. The bottom line is the Braves began Thursday tied for first place in the division and they’ve got a good chance to be on top after Game 162 on Oct. 3.

ExplorePhotos: Braves routed by the Reds

The Braves stayed afloat without their MVP candidate for the last month and while missing their cleanup hitter since May 25. They’ve hung in the East race with their pitching rotation in flux nearly every day since spring training opened. The Braves moved haltingly ahead even as their bullpen couldn’t hold leads and when they seemingly lost every game in extra innings with the flip-a-coin rules.

Things will only get better for the Braves from here on out. Before getting into the reasons why, it’s good to pause and appreciate how unlikely this all seemed not long ago.

“You wake up (in first), the grind we’ve been through and what we’ve overcome, it’s good,” manager Brian Snitker said Thursday before the Braves tried to complete a three-game sweep of the Reds at Truist Park.

The Braves have kicked their annoying habit of alternating wins and losses. They couldn’t get their record above break-even until a week ago. This time, instead of immediately going on a skid, the they started to roll. The Braves finally are playing consistent, winning baseball. The 12-3 loss to the Reds on Thursday does nothing to change my view that they’ll continue making a strong bid for their fourth East title in a row.

The batting lineup is longer after general manager Alex Anthopoulos added outfielders before the trade deadline. The starting rotation has been very good and will get deeper when Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa return from the injured list. The bullpen, once the only really bad area of the club, ranks second in Wins Above Replacement among NL teams since the All-Star break (all statistics before Thursday’s games).

For the first time all season, the Braves clearly are on the come with no caveats. They lost two of three games against Milwaukee, the NL Central leader. No shame in that — the Brewers can really pitch — and the Braves since have won three series in a row.

The Reds and Cardinals are desperately trying to gain ground in NL wild-card race. The Braves damaged those chances by sweeping the Cardinals and besting the Reds. Now the Braves are set to start a nine-game trip against opponents who are playing out the string.

The Braves are in Washington for three games this weekend. The Nationals have lost 15 of their last 20 games, including two against Braves. Washington is selling off parts after getting one World Series out of years of big spending. The Nats traded away right-hander Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner at the deadline.

The Braves head to Miami on Monday. The Marlins stand last in the East and lost their past two series against the Braves. After Miami, the Braves go to Baltimore. The Orioles are the worst team in the AL, which is their usual position for the past five years.

The Braves should keep rolling, but they aren’t so good that you can count on it. Heck, they just recently proved they are good enough to stay above .500. Also, weird things happen all the time in baseball. But the counterpoint to the expected bouts of bad luck and performance variance is that the Braves still have another level they can reach.

All-Star infielders Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies lately have performed below their high standards. It hasn’t mattered much because others have picked up the slack. It’s not possible for newcomers Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall to keep up their hot pace since joining the Braves. It’s also not necessary.

Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley are two big reasons why the Braves remained an average offense with Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna out. Both continue to provide pop. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud just returned from the IL to boost the one position group that’s been a major drag on the offense. Once Freeman and Albies inevitably get going again, the Braves will be better suited to avoid the run droughts that plagued them before the trades.

The Braves have the pitching to give them a chance on days when the offense doesn’t fire. Their starters have posted a 3.41 ERA since the All-Star break, the third-best mark in the NL behind Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Braves starters aren’t just getting lucky on balls hit hard to the right places. Their performance also looks good as measured by Fielding Independent Pitching, which essentially includes only the so-called Three True Outcomes: home run, walk or strikeout.

Braves starters have a 3.81 FIP since the break, fourth-best in the NL. They are striking out a lot of batters. They’ve walked a few too many, but that’s been more than offset by stranding a high percentage of runners on base (a benefit of the strikeouts) and not allowing much hard contact.

The Braves have produced good starting pitching even with Anderson and Ynoa on the IL. Anderson has a 3.56 ERA and 3.60 FIP over 18 starts. Ynoa has a 3.02 ERA and 3.78 FIP in nine games (eight starts). Both pitchers are at Triple-A Gwinnett on rehabilitation assignments. Once they return the Braves will have at least four consistent, quality starters.

Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Kyle Muller have formed a very good 1-2-3. Morton has gone at least six innings with no more than three earned runs allowed in eight of his past 10 starts. Fried met that threshold in seven of his past 11 outings. Muller made his MLB debut June 16 and is learning fast on the job: 2.88 ERA and 3.12 FIP in eight games (seven starts) before getting roughed up by the Reds on Thursday.

There was a time when it seemed the Braves would always be short on starters. Now they are set to have have a surplus of options when Anderson and Ynoa return. Muller and Touki Toussaint might end up in the ‘pen, though Snitker said he could use a sixth starter when the schedule calls for it.

“We will just wait and see,” Snitker said. “Take it as an outing-by-outing type thing.”

That’s been the right way to view the Braves all season. It was hard to believe they ever would go on an extended run. You couldn’t trust the wins when you knew they’d be followed by loss. Injuries wrecked their rotation and the offense went from one extreme to the other.

Now it’s OK to look ahead and believe the Braves will keep winning. They climbed above .500 and tasted a piece of first place. They have the team to be on top of the East on Oct. 3.