Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Slogging without injured MVP (again), Atlanta Braves facing an alternate October path

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WASHINGTON — They’re not happy by any means, not satisfied, certainly, with their position in the National League pantheon, and not conceding anything in a division that they’ve dominated the past six seasons.

But the Atlanta Braves of this glorious era have been through it – the NLDS gut punches, the season-ending injuries, the happy miracle of 2021 following four unremarkable trades and a sprinkling of autumn magic to reap the ultimate reward.

Why, then, should two devastating setbacks and a curious offensive funk dampen their hopes when they know they can be dashed when all is relatively well?

“We play a strange game,” third baseman Austin Riley tells USA TODAY Sports. “It’s a beauty in itself. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last three, four, five years is you gotta take each day for what it’s worth, and you can’t look too far ahead.

“You never know what’s going to happen. You take ’21 for an instance, it wasn’t looking good for us at one point. Next thing you know, we’re in the hunt. Next thing you know, we win. Last year and the year before, you win 100 games and get put out in the first round.

“This game is crazy.”

It’s not even summer yet, and things are already crazy for the Braves again.

For the second time in four seasons, superstar right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. – the reigning NL MVP – has suffered a torn knee ligament that’s knocked him out for the season. Dominant right-hander Spencer Strider – who struck out 281 batters a year ago – blew out his elbow two starts into this season.

And an offense featuring four Silver Slugger winners still in the prime of their careers – a group that led the majors with 947 runs scored in 2023 – has floundered, ranking 18th in runs and producing a grim WRC+ of 88 since May 1.

Combine that with the scorching (and, it seems, potentially sustainable) start by the Philadelphia Phillies, who have built a nine-game lead in the NL East, and the likelihood is strong that the Braves’ six-year run atop the division will end.

Yet the boom-boom of identical four-game eliminations at the Phillies’ hands in 2022 and ’23, and the 88-win, Acuña-less, mercenary-driven title of 2021 has an effect on a group. Impervious to struggle, you might say.

“Eventually, we’re going to come out of this offensive funk we’re in. I have no doubt that’s gonna happen,” says Brian Snitker, their manager through it all, on Sunday after the club lost its third game in four days against the Nationals. “Because we’re not playing bad baseball. Things aren’t going our way. When you got on them runs where they do, that’s when you get on a run.

“Keep grinding. Keep fighting the fight. That’s what we do.”

Bye-bye, bye?

Adam Duvall still recalls the afternoon of July 30, 2021 with great clarity. He was relaxing in the baseball purgatory of Miami, preparing to head to the ballpark, when he got the call he’d been traded to Atlanta – with a request he get there by game time.

The mid-afternoon flight, the punishing Atlanta traffic, the arrival 30 minutes before the game, the 1-for-4 after quickly renewing relationships from his previous stint – and then the crazy run that followed.

Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler were all acquired by general manager Alex Anthopolous that afternoon, nine days after Acuña tore the ACL in his right knee. Joc Pederson had arrived two weeks earlier.

The acquisitions didn’t command the bold headlines at the deadline, not when Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kris Bryant and other huge names changed hands.

The results did plenty of talking.

Pederson, clad in pearls, homered twice and drove in five runs in the NLDS triumph against Milwaukee. Rosario was NLCS MVP after going 14 for 25 with three homers against the mighty Dodgers.

Soler claimed World Series MVP honors, homering three times in six games against Houston.

And, one year before Major League Baseball’s expanded playoffs turned 30 teams into crazy dreamers, the 88-win Braves showed it wasn’t so much what you did as when you did it.

“It’s really about playing your best brand of baseball at the end of the season and down the stretch,” says Duvall, back with the Braves after spending 2023 with the Boston Red Sox. “There’s plenty of teams that start off hot and you think ‘oh man, they’re going to win every game.’ But baseball is baseball; it’s going to even out.

“You just progressively get better throughout the season and have that end goal of, let’s get to the playoffs at the end of the season and see what happens. Just getting better every day. It’s what you try to do. That way, you can play your best at the end.”

The Braves were on the business end of that lesson the past two seasons.

Their 101- and 104-win teams were gifted first-round byes, only to twice get posterized in Philadelphia. The eliminations were eerily similar.

Ranger Suarez started and got no-decisions in both Game 1s claimed by the Phillies. The dominant Strider got trucked both years at Citizens Bank Park, where bats were spiked, legends made and fans rollicked.

This year, there will be no Strider, no Acuña and likely, no first-round bye. No Surgeon General would ever recommend that diet.

But when the alternative guarantees nothing, what’s the harm?

Be humble

In an offensive environment that remains toxic to hitters – with the leaguewide average at .240, worst in 56 years, and OPS at .699 – it’s nonetheless odd to see the Braves struggle so.

One year after Matt Olson hit 53 home runs, he has nine, with a .239 average and a .750 OPS more than 200 points behind his 2023 mark.

Riley, 27, has just three homers, batting.234 with a .657 OPS. Second baseman Ozzie Albies, like Riley a two-time Silver Slugger winner, is simply adequate (.265, .725 OPS). Catcher/DH Sean Murphy has missed all but 10 games with an oblique injury.

The battles unfold every night when the lights come on, but also much, much earlier, in film rooms and subterranean cages and quiet moments of contemplation.

For Riley, that means cleaning things up mechanically to allow for a more adjustable swing path, enabling later moves to get to balls. Mentally, it’s about channeling old teammates like Nick Markakis, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann, and contemporaries like Acuña, all masters of the even keel.

“My dad always instilled a very humble mindset,” Riley says of his father Mike, the original shaper of that powerful swing. “Trusting your preparation. That’s what I’ve learned from playing with some of the best. I try to take the small victories whenever they’re there and build off that and try to build momentum.

“In this game, the failures that I’ve had, when I come out of them it’s like I was closer than I think I am. It just takes one little swing, one little feel, one little cue to get you rolling.

“Next thing you know, you’re going off for a month.”

For now, the lone Brave who can make that claim is designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, whose 18 homers, 55 RBI and .988 OPS have kept the 35-28 club afloat.

The struggling sluggers have not yet tested his patience.

“I always say to my teammates, ‘Don’t worry about it. As soon as you make good contact and make outs, it’s going to come. The result is coming when you need it most,’” says Ozuna, on pace for 46 homers and 141 RBI. “I’m there. I’m there already. I’m just waiting for my guys backing me up. Riley is going to be there, and Oly too.

“I don’t worry about them.”

And why should they? The NL is a weird place, what with the Phillies and Dodgers running away at the moment and a mass of mediocrity – nine teams below .500 yet within three games of wild card position.

The Braves are snugly in the middle, knowing that’s not the worst slot to occupy even as autumn arrives.

And a certainty that better days are to come.

“You gotta handle it,” says Snitker. “Because if you do, there’s always good on the other end of it.”

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