Forget the Yankees. Braves up for challenge of Giants and Dodgers

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Last we saw the Braves, they were losing two games to the Yankees while scoring five total runs and hitting one homer. Skeptics may view that as evidence of the Braves falling off against a good opponent after a great run against losing teams. That’s an in-the-moment reaction, which isn’t the right way to think about baseball outside of the playoffs.

Strange things happened to the Braves against the Yankees. Don’t forget, the Braves were beating good teams not long ago. Before the 9-0 road trip against also-rans, they swept the Cardinals in three games and took two of three from the Reds. Both teams are in the race for the second National League wild card.

The Braves still are in firm control of the NL East with 36 games to go. They still are getting healthier. Starting pitcher Ian Anderson is the latest key player expected to rejoin them soon. Excluding Baseball Prospectus, which remains stubbornly pessimistic on the Braves, the major statistical projections gave them no worse than an 81% chance to win the East before Thursday’s games.

The Braves (68-58) are in good shape, but they are about to trade places with the Phillies. The change won’t come in the East standings, where the Braves held a five-game lead to begin Thursday. It’s happening with their respective schedules.

While the Braves seized control of the East by beating overmatched opponents, the Phillies were tangling with (mostly) tougher foes. That dynamic is about to flip-flop. The Yankees were the first of three consecutive contenders on the schedule for the Braves. The Diamondbacks are the first of three consecutive scuffling opponents for the Phillies.

The Giants, leaders of the NL West, are at Truist Park for a three-game series starting Friday. They had won four consecutive games and seven of nine before facing the Mets on Thursday night. The Braves then go to Los Angeles for three games against the Dodgers, who are favored to repeat as World Series champs.

The Braves’ schedule eases after that, but a losing streak combined with a Phillies surge would quickly put a dent in those 80% playoff odds. I don’t see that happening.

I figured the Braves would go on a run after general manager Alex Anthopoulos fortified the roster at the July 30 trade deadline. My view didn’t change after they lost two of three to the Brewers that weekend. The Braves have won 16 of 20 games since then, including the series victories over St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Similarly, I’m not down on the Braves after they lost two games to the Yankees. Their lineup got deeper at the trade deadline. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, a good hitter, has played in only seven games since then. Braves starting pitchers rank third among NL teams in Wins Above Replacement after the All-Star break. That’s with Huascar Ynoa (2.89 ERA for the season) making only two starts during that time and Anderson (3.56) not pitching at all.

The Phillies haven’t shown much spark lately. Their series victory against the Padres last weekend was their first in their past five series. They still came out of it a game further behind in the East. The Phillies remained five games back when they lost two games to the Rays, who lead the Yankees in the American League East. They were to open their home series against Arizona on Thursday night.

The schedule offers the Phillies a chance to make a run at the Braves. (The Mets were seven games behind the Braves to begin Thursday, but I’m done looking silly by making a case that they have a shot.) After playing Arizona, Philadelphia is at Washington and Miami. The Diamondbacks are on their way to finishing a distant last in the NL West (though they swept the Phillies last week). The Nationals and Marlins are in a tight race to avoid finishing at the bottom of the NL East.

The Braves got a rare two consecutive days off after the Yankees series. It was good timing. They could use the break after suffering two sour losses to the Yankees with away fans invading their ballpark.

Seemingly every close call went against the Braves. Freddie Freeman and Austin Riley are the most productive Braves hitters. Riley was 4-for-7 against the Yankees, but Freeman went 1-for-9 and couldn’t pound a good pitch to win Tuesday’s game. Manager Brian Snitker used up his best relievers against the Orioles over the weekend. Edgar Santana, who hadn’t pitched for a week, was charged with two runs Monday.

Those things happen from game to game. It’s unlikely they’ll keep happening to the Braves through the weekend. Plus, the Giants are having some bad injury luck. Two of their best hitters are ailing: Evan Longoria (hand) is on the injured list, and Buster Posey (knee) is day-to-day. San Francisco’s best starting pitcher, ex-Brave Kevin Gausman, is on the COVID-19 IL, but could start this weekend.

The Giants can really hit. Before Thursday’s game, they ranked second among NL teams in on-base plus slugging. But they don’t hit lefties so well, and Posey and Longoria are two of their best against them. The Braves are set to send out lefties Max Fried on Friday and Drew Smyly on Saturday. They also have three effective lefties in the bullpen.

Braves right-hander Anderson probably will start Sunday’s series finale. His addition finally will give the Braves a complete rotation minus Mike Soroka. The Dodgers are set to face Ynoa, Charlie Morton and Fried. All three starters have produced great results lately.

The Braves have the pitching to beat the Giants and Dodgers. They just need their bats to show up. That happened when they beat the Dodgers in two of three games at Truist Park in June. The Braves won’t have Ronald Acuna for the rematch. They will have a longer lineup than back then.

The Giants and Dodgers are contenders. The Braves are, too, despite what they showed against the Yankees. I say they’ll leave behind those frustrating losses and prove up to the challenge of stiffer competition.