Braves treading water, but I still believe they’ll ‘get going’ soon

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna steps up to plate during game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna steps up to plate during game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

It became the unofficial Braves motto soon after they lost to the Dodgers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. They were 12 Outs Away from going to the World Series. They’d get another shot in 2021 because nearly every important player was back. That refrain grew louder when the Braves re-signed slugger Marcell Ozuna in February.

Explore5 takeways from the Braves' loss to the Phillies

During spring training, I declared the Braves were the good kind of boring because they had no major holes to fill. Since then they’ve been the bad kind of exciting. Hardly anything goes by design in baseball.

The Braves had a record of .500 or worse after five of their first six games in 2020, then they were above .500 for the rest of the 60-game season. They led the NL East from their 24th game until the end of the season.

After 60 games this year the Braves haven’t had a record better than .500 for a single day. The Braves are 0-5 when playing with an even record. They’ve never led the division.

The Braves were Twelve Outs Away less than eight months ago. Their on-field inconsistencies, and off-field calamities, make it seem much longer. The Braves are treading water, and it’s still tough to tell if they’ll ultimately sink or swim over the final 102 games.

“It hasn’t been an uphill at the start of a roller coaster,” slugger Freddie Freeman said Thursday after the Braves lost 4-3 in 10 innings at the Phillies to drop the series. “We have never gone uphill. It’s always been going around (the tracks) all 60 games we’ve played. I feel like once we get over that .500 hump, we’ll get going here.”

I still believe that, too. Every time I think the Braves are going downhill for good, they come back around the bend.

The Braves won two of three games against the mighty Dodgers last weekend at Truist Park. Then they won the opener at Philadelphia on Tuesday. That evened their record for the first time since May 25. Surely the Braves were ready to finally take off.

Instead, Phillies rookie Luke Williams, called up the day before, hit a two-run, walk-off homer in the ninth against closer Will Smith on Wednesday. The Phillies won Thursday afternoon on Jean Segura’s walk-off, two-run hit against Chris Martin, who’d been great since returning from the injured list.

The Braves (29-31) started another skid after clawing their way to .500. They can get back there by winning the three-game series in Miami this weekend. A sweep finally would give them more wins than losses.

“You thought we would get rolling after the last couple games against L.A. and then the first game here,” Freeman said. “But, you know, this is a hard game. Every time you feel like you are getting some momentum this year, we kind of get pushed back a couple steps.”

Some good came out of the Phillies series for the Braves.

Right-hander Ian Anderson pitched seven scoreless innings Thursday. Phillies counterpart Zach Wheeler was just better: eight scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and no walks. The Phillies went up 1-0 in the eighth when Odubel Herrera and Jean Segura hit back-to-back doubles off lefty A.J. Minter.

Freeman tied the score in the ninth with a solo home run off right-hander Hector Neris, before the Braves scored twice in the 10th (on a wild pitch and passed ball). Freeman’s homer just cleared the wall in straightaway center. Herrera had a shot to catch it but appeared to mistime his jump. Maybe that’s the good fortune Freeman needed to turn his season around.

Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman plays during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman plays during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Even with Freeman slumping, the Braves entered Thursday ranked third in the NL in runs scored per game. Some of the batting averages look bad for Braves regulars, but the on-base plus slugging numbers mostly are good. For everything that’s gone wrong with the lineup, something else has gone unexpectedly right.

Ozuna led the majors in homers last year but scuffled this season before going to the injured list last month. Ozuna may not be back after Sandy Springs police arrested him on allegations that he hit and choked his wife. (Ozuna hasn’t entered a plea.) Austin Riley has filled the power void with 11 homers and 10 doubles while hitting .300.

Another 2020 offensive standout for the Braves, catcher Travis d’Arnaud, went on the 60-day injured list after 23 games. Rookie William Contreras has filled in capably. His defense needs work, but he’s added punch to the lineup.

The Braves have stabilized their starting pitching. Anderson’s strong results Thursday came after two subpar outings. Lefty Max Fried has one bad start in his past six. Veteran Charlie Morton has been solid in his past four outings. Rookie Tucker Davidson has posted a 1.53 ERA in three starts.

The bullpen is the only area that’s been unequivocally bad for the Braves. The good thing is that’s typically the easiest thing to fix with an in-season move. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has done that before. He signed Shane Greene on May 9. Can Anthopoulos do more?

Atlanta Braves' A.J. Minter plays during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Atlanta Braves' A.J. Minter plays during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Another reliable reliever would help the Braves end their maddening inconsistency. It’s been that way since they opened the season with four consecutive losses, won four consecutive games, and then lost four in a row. The Braves were 4-4 on April 10. They wouldn’t even their record again until 18 days later.

The Braves were 12-12 and tied for first in the East after winning three consecutive against the Cubs near the end of April. That naturally meant it was time for another four-game losing streak. The Cubs won the final game of the series, and the Blue Jays swept three games. Pitching was a problem again.

The Braves swept the Nationals on May 4-6 with good pitching. Then they lost four of the next six games largely because they couldn’t score much. Ronald Acuna, one of the few good things for the Braves at the time, injured his ankle in the finale against the Jays. Luckily, he was back in the lineup three days later.

Back then I opined that, at some point, a team that fixes one problem only for another to emerge just isn’t a good team. May was too early to declare that about the Braves. They were a talented ballclub still hovering around .500. More than a month later and there’s still not much clarity on whether the Braves, a confounding team, are good.

Said Freeman: “It’s a challenge the first couple months. We can let it go one way, but I think we are too good of a team to let it go that way.”

There’s still time for the 2021 Braves to look like the team that was 12 Outs Away.

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