Do Not Sleep on the Atlanta Braves
Written by: Daryl E. Robinson
On May 31, 2022, Cooper Hummel was jammed on a 10th-inning pitch that he floated just inside the right-field line for a game-winning double for the Arizona Diamondbacks. It capped off an 8-7 victory; a victory that most certainly should have been a victory for the Atlanta Braves instead, as the pitching of the reigning World Series champions allowed a 6-2 lead to evaporate. As the Braves walked off the field at 23-27 to end May, two very different men, in two distinctly different parts of the country, had two completely contrarian thoughts run through their minds. 15 days later, it seems most certain one was correct, and one could not have been more wrong!
As the calendar turned from May to June, the NY Mets set atop the NL East with a 10.5 game lead; following play on June 15, that lead has shrunk to 4 games over the Atlanta Braves. It was the finish of that game in the desert that had NY reporter Sal Licata go on TV that night and proclaim that the NL East race was over, never mind the fact that his premature burial of last year’s World Series winners completely ignored the fact that it took until August for that team to get over .500 and catch the Mets. History has a funny way of biting those who refuse to acknowledge it and learn from it!
Meanwhile, as Licata was shoving his foot in his mouth, Brian Snitker knowing they were capable of far more than they were producing, he used the collapse versus Arizona to fire him up and light a fire under his team! For Snitker, a baseball (and Braves) lifer, fighting from behind has become a role he is all too comfortable in. Using the fight with inconsistency and injuries last year, Snitker managed the Braves from mediocrity to the top of the baseball world. He accomplished this with pieces that GM Alex Anthopoulos traded for to completely rebuild an outfield that couldn’t produce and was ravaged by an early July injury to All-Star Ronald Acuna. For a team most saw as sellers, Anthopoulous saw the East as winnable and went on a buying streak that ultimately resulted in the most advanced World Series ring ever seen!
Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler became Braves legends in mere months, and the Braves went from floundering to flying high! The catalyst for this month’s turnaround has been the call-up of phenom CF Michael Harris II on May 28th from Double-A Mississippi. The move allowed the Braves to move Adam Duvall from center to left-field, instantly upgrading the outfield defense by allowing Marcell Ozuna to focus on hitting as DH, and not playing left-field where he is below-average, and sometimes a liability as a defender; and surprisingly since the move, Duvall’s bat has heated up as well. Harris’ bat also provides a little protection for Ronald Acuna at the top of the order, as does Dansby Swanson’s complete turnaround at the plate since being slotted into the number two spot in the line-up.
This year’s acquisitions may be less from other teams, and more from within the system, as Harris and C William Contreras have made Anthopoulous look like a genius for being willing to part with Christian Pache and Shane Langeliers as the biggest chips in the trade that netted Matt Olson from Oakland, once it became obvious that Freddie Freeman would not be returning. Harris is batting .328 in 18 games with 2 HR, 2 Doubles, 1 Triple, and 11 RBI while sporting a more than respectable .894 OPS. Contreras has put up an even more impressive 1.017 OPS in 28 games while batting .287 with 9 HR and 17 knocked in. And when the injury bug hit this past Monday, when All-Star second bagger Ozzie Albies fractured his left foot, Orlando Arcia jumped off the bench into a starting role and has only gone 7/9 with 2 HR 4 batted in, and a staggering 2.262 OPS.
Combine the offensive growth, with the most consistent pitching in MLB in June, where the Braves as a team have a combined 2.72 ERA with 146 strikeouts over 129 innings, and the fact that the Braves are undefeated in June is less surprising. A 1.02 WHIP and averaging 1.13 K per inning versus only 0.27 walks helps keep undue traffic off the bases, and the only complaint about the staff as a whole is the starters going full more than necessary and throwing unnecessary pitches. A staff bolstered by All-Star hopefuls Max Fried and Kyle Wright starting, being flanked by Will Smith, AJ Minter, and Kenley Jansen to shut it down, combines for the ability to be able to shut down opponents on days that the offense is not going off. The possible return of former phenom Mike Soroka to the rotation in the second half of the season, along with Tyler Matzek’s imminent return to the back end of the bullpen only serve as encouragement for a staff that is already trending up.
The Mets faithful obviously have reason to be hopeful, as they currently possess the best record in the Senior Circuit; but the surge of both Atlanta and Philadelphia, who are 11-2 since replacing Joe Girardi as skipper, is of obvious concern. And the thought that the eventual returns of Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom will automatically give them the edge, is putting a lot of eggs in a small basket. Scherzer pitched well down the stretch for the Dodgers last year, but his body gave out for him in the NLCS. And DeGrom is overcoming a shoulder injury, never a guarantee that a complete return to form will occur for a starting pitcher, even one as dominant as DeGrom has been in the big league.
Two men arrived at the same point on May 31, and from that junction saw two very different futures. Snitker ignited an engine of change in his ball club that has resulted in a tie for the third-longest winning streak in franchise history at 14 at press time. Ironically, Licata’s verbiage might have helped create the same impact; and all due to his inability to remember how often those that do not pay attention, so often see history repeat itself. Maybe Licata was right, maybe he was not; however, it very well could be that while the division race is over, he went all-in on the wrong horse!
“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”-Winston Churchill
Daryl E. Robinson is an Atlanta-bred, self-proclaimed “Sports Geek” and co-host of the Recliner Kings Sports podcast, who now resides in Rapid City, SD with his wife and son. In his off time, he obsesses over Braves, Falcons, Dawgs, and Hawks, plus pop-culture nostalgia, especially Jurassic Park and 80s animation.