Hard not to get carried away by these resilient Braves

Freddie Freeman (5) of the Braves celebrates with Dansby Swanson from a distance after hitting a two-run home run in the sixth inning of Game 2 of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Atlanta. The Braves won 2-1. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Freddie Freeman (5) of the Braves celebrates with Dansby Swanson from a distance after hitting a two-run home run in the sixth inning of Game 2 of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Atlanta. The Braves won 2-1. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Baseball can be a strange game. The oddness is compounded by this small sample size of a season. That’s why I try not to get too carried away by the Braves.

But then I watch them keep winning despite rarely having their full squad available. I look at a second-half schedule that includes one opponent with a winning record. I noticed their FanGraphs odds to win the World Series (5.8%) have crept up to the point that, entering Thursday, only the Dodgers (17.9%) had higher odds in the National League.

Now I’m wondering how far these Braves can go. I know that’s premature. The Braves are a virtual lock to make the playoffs, but we know how that’s gone lately. Yet if the Braves have been this good with so much going wrong, how good will they be now that more things are going right?

The Braves (18-12) led the NL East after sweeping a doubleheader against the Yankees on Wednesday. That was four more victories than second-place Miami, which already lost a series to the Braves. After Wednesday’s games, the MLB season was 35 days old. The Braves led the NL East for 23 of those days.

Somehow, the Braves just kept winning.

“It wasn’t easy, believe me,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It was a very productive first half, but it wasn’t by any stretch easy to get there with everything we’ve been through. These guys keep grinding.

“We’ve lost chunks of our lineup. We’ve lost big chunks of our starting rotation. They just keep playing.”

That’s been a theme for Snitker’s Braves. They’ve made habit of winning when the probabilities suggest they won’t.

The Braves beat the Yankees in Wednesday’s second game on Freddie Freeman’s two-run homer in the sixth inning of the seven-inning game. That’s eight Braves victories this season on the final at-bat, most in the NL. The Braves have done it 84 times since Snitker became manager in May 2016. I want to say it’s unsustainable, but the Braves have done it for a long time.

That resiliency is why, after 20 games, I concluded the Braves are built to last. It didn’t take long for me to start questioning that stance. Right-hander Kyle Wright got knocked around again the next day. Ronald Acuna’s timeline to return to the lineup got extended again. It looked as if the Braves might wobble.

Instead, they won two of three games in Miami while scoring a total of eight runs. They won their opener at Washington by scoring four runs in the ninth, including Dansby Swanson’s game-winning homer. A rare bullpen blowup cost the Braves the second game of that series. They brushed it off and took two of three from the Phillies with another walk-off homer, this time by Adam Duvall, in the second game.

And then the Braves swept the Yankees at Truist Park on Wednesday. The Yankees have their own injury issues. No one wants to hear that from the team with the biggest payroll. The Yankees still have ace Gerritt Cole, who hardly ever loses.

Cole lost to the Braves, who had right-hander Ian Anderson making his MLB debut. The Yankees lost to the Braves a second time when lefty Max Fried held them down and Freeman smacked his homer.

“It’s actually really, really big, especially in a 60-game season,” Freeman said. “When you have two games in one day, it can easily go the other way.”

The past 10 games were like the previous 20 for the Braves. They overcame bad luck and beat-up starting pitching with big bats and backbone.

The Braves kept winning despite four-fifths of their projected starting rotation being injured or ineffective. They kept hitting with Ozzie Albies doing little before going on the injured list, Acuna missing 10 games and Freeman scuffling by his standards. The Braves kept scoring even though they weren’t getting on-base much.

With Albies on track to return soon, starting pitching is the only thing on that list that’s still a concern for the Braves. There are signs that’s improving.

After 20 games only three MLB teams got fewer innings per start than Braves pitchers, whose 5.72 ERA ranked 25th of 30 teams. After 30 games six teams were getting fewer starts per inning than Braves starters, whose 5.01 ERA ranked 20th.

That’s not good. But it’s remarkable considering Fried is the only starter left from the beginning of the season. He’s become the staff ace since Mike Soroka was lost to injury after three starts. Entering Thursday, Fried’s 2.4 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference) were the most in MLB.

The rotation still is shaky behind Fried. A strong debut from Anderson, the organization’s top pitching prospect, was a boost. Veterans Josh Tomlin and Robbie Erlin have been bullpen guys later in their careers. The Braves just need them provide as many effective innings as they can before handing off to a deep bullpen.

If the pitching remains inconsistent, it will be mitigated by a lineup that’s fully operational. It’s been good most of the season because of the load carried by Marcell Ozuna, Swanson and catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers. The lineup is much better now that Acuna is back.

And Freeman is on one of his runs: 31-for-102 (.304) over his past 10 games with five homers, 10 doubles and 21 walks. Freeman had severe COVID-19 symptoms during camp. Now Freeman said he’s feeling good again.

“Things are starting to click,” Freeman said.

That’s one more reason to believe the Braves will keep winning. The starting pitching looms as a problem, but the Braves overcame all their issues in the season’s first half. That’s why it’s hard not to get carried away and start thinking about what the Braves can do in October.

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