ST. LOUIS — Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, fresh off a session of pregame fielding drills with third base coach Ron Washington, hopped up on the padded railing in front of the visitor’s dugout at Busch Stadium and smiled as he thought about his club’s odd season.
“This game, right?” he said. “I mean, you can hit a line drive and get out, and you can break your bat and roll one over and get a hit. It’s funny how the game works.”
By most accounts, this season has been a disaster for Atlanta. And yet, well, we’ll come back to that in a minute.
Heading into the season, the Braves — fresh off a run to within one game of the World Series last season — were expected to challenge for the NL’s best record and the NL’s spot in the late October title series against the AL champion. That hasn’t happened. They’ve dealt with a cavalcade of injuries to the players who were supposed to help carry the club, and the ones who have stayed on the active roster have dealt with inconsistencies.
“The thing is, they were big pieces,” Swanson said. “It was Mike (Soroka); he was working to come back and wasn’t able to get all the way back. Oso (Marcel Ozuna), Trav (Travis D’Arnaud) and obviously then (Ronald) Acuña. It felt like there was always something early on, guys having to battle and fight through stuff.”
So here they are a few days into August, and not only are the Braves 14 games worse than the team with the NL’s best record (the Giants), they have yet to even climb over .500 this season. The woebegone Rangers (currently 39-68), Pirates (41-66) and Marlins (46-61) are the only other teams to make that rather dubious claim.
The Braves have been 4-4, 12-12, 24-24, 29-29 and 44-44. They’ve been one game under .500 an incredible 28 different times, including after their win in St. Louis on Tuesday, which left them at 53-54 on the season. Oh, and their win Tuesday made it 18 consecutive games alternating wins and losses, an incredible streak of consistent inconsistency.
“It’s just been tough to get on a roll,” Swanson said. “There have been times you feel like we’re going to break out, and the next day it just doesn’t happen.”
“We’re still here, right?” he said.
They certainly are. Even with a 53-54 record, they’re only 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot because of, well, geography. They’re in the NL East, and the NL East isn’t very good this year. If they were in the NL West, they’d be 14 games back. In the NL Central, 10 1/2 games out.
But those hypotheticals don’t matter. They are in the NL East, and they are within striking distance of a playoff spot. Opportunity is the only thing that does matter. And they wouldn’t even need a major miracle to rally for the division title and a spot in the NLDS — skipping over the winner-take-all NL Wild Card game that will almost certainly be played by two teams with better records than the NL East winner.
What they would need couldn’t even be called a minor miracle.
Let’s do a little math. The Mets lead the NL East with a 55-51 record, a .519 winning percentage. That plays out to 84 wins for a full season. At this point of the season, with Jacob deGrom out until at least September, Francisco Lindor out for a while and several regulars struggling, it’s not like the club’s primed for a strong August that bumps up that winning percentage. Even Steve Cohen, the new owner, knows things aren’t going well.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the Mets’ act stays basically the same and they finish with 85 wins, and the Phillies, who are 54-53, finish with that same total.
To get to 86 wins and claim the division title in that completely plausible scenario, the Braves would have to go 33-22. That’s a .600 winning percentage. They haven’t done that this year, but they’re not far off that pace lately. Even with their recent seemingly never-ending stretch of W/L alternations, the Braves are 16-13 since June 29. Change the outcome of just TWO of those games — noting that eight of those 13 losses were by a single run — and that 18-11 record would be good enough for a .621 winning percentage.
That’s just one more well-timed dying quail, one extra flare, one gork or one ground ball with eyes per week and, boom, they’re in the playoffs. No miracle needed, just a tiny bit more consistency to salvage what heretofore had been a season from hell for Atlanta.
That division opportunity is why, despite the sub-.500 record, the Braves were active before the July 30 trade deadline, completely remaking an outfield that was devastated with the loss of Acuña to a torn ACL a few days before the All-Star break, and the loss of Ozuna to a finger injury (and then domestic violence charges that are still being investigated by MLB).
The Braves traded for outfielder Joc Pederson on July 15, then added outfielders Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler — he homered on Tuesday — and Eddie Rosario right before the July 30 deadline. They also added reliever Richard Rodriguez in a deal with the Pirates.
“Anytime you get new people and new faces, and obviously the high quality of players they are, it can bring a new spark of energy,” Swanson said. “We have a lot of belief in this team, and have had that all year, it’s just that finding the consistency has been tough. Obviously part of that is due to the injuries and stuff you can’t predict that’s happened. That’s the makeup of our team. We’ve been through stuff and we’re tough.”
And, again, despite the inconsistencies, there are signs that something is brewing.
The lineup has swings-and-misses throughout, yes, but there’s power. Four sluggers in the current lineup have at least 20 homers this season — Freddie Freeman (24), Austin Riley (22), Adam Duvall (22) and Swanson (20) — and Ozzie Albies is right behind, at 17. Catcher Travis D’Arnaud, who batted .321 for the Braves in 2020 but has only played 23 games this year before landing on the IL, is on a rehab assignment and should be back soon.
And look at the pitching staff, which was far too often a mess early this season. Starter Charlie Morton has a 2.73 ERA in his past nine outings. Drew Smyly has a 2.50 ERA in his past seven starts. Max Fried has a 3.36 ERA in his past 10 starts, including six shutout innings in St. Louis on Tuesday. Rookie Kyle Muller has a 1.88 ERA in his six starts this season. And Ian Anderson, last year’s postseason rookie rotation hero, is scheduled to start his rehab assignment on Thursday as he comes back from a shoulder issue.
In a season of downs, things are finally looking up. Opportunity is knocking.
“We just keep showing up,” Swanson said. “We have the faith that what needs to happen will happen, and that’s why we’re never giving up.”
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