Many pundits wrote the Braves off even before pitchers and catchers reported in February. A team in mid-rebuild, they said. More joined the “Braves remain a doormat” crowd when the team posted a majors-worst 9-22 record at spring training.
And after Atlanta lost six of its first seven regular-season games, then followed up a four-game sweep of the Padres in the first SunTrust Park series by losing their next six games, the Braves were 6-12 and many were saying they were as bad or worse than last year’s team and might even lose 100 games.
Well, don’t look now, folks, but the Braves are 12-11 since that 6-12 start. Seven of their 11 losses in that stretch have come against teams currently leading divisions (Houston, Washington, Milwaukee) or in second place (St. Louis).
“That’s their job, right? That’s their job to be wrong on TV, and more times than not they are wrong,” Braves veteran right fielder Nick Markakis said. “It’s very hard to predict anything in professional sports or sports alone. Anything can happen. This is the professional level, we’re all professionals and anybody can beat anybody on any given day, I don’t care who they are. Just kind of go out and do out thing and be consistent.”
They have series wins in that stretch against NL Central-leading Brewers in Milwaukee and at home against the Nationals in a series that ended Sunday with a 3-2 loss against Stephen Strasburg at top form, after the Braves won the first two games of the series. Oh, by the way: That Nationals series was the first for the Braves since they lost Freddie Freeman to a fractured wrist, a player who is arguably more important to his team than any player is to any other team.
Granted, the NL East is not very good, but the Braves are in second place, folks. They are 18-23, seven games behind the Nationals, a half-game ahead of the Mets, whom many pundits had predicted to win the division title or at least a wild-card berth, and three or more games ahead of the division dregs, the Phillies and the Marlins, a team that many had picked as a dark-horse playoff contender.
“We started out rough and a lot of people wrote us off. A lot of people write a lot of people off and end up being wrong. Hopefully we can do that, we can prove people wrong and go out there and play baseball and win as many games as we can.”
It’s worth repeating, the Braves just won a series against the Nationals – a team that’s owned the Braves for three seasons -- without Freddie Freeman, one of the few players who did much against Washington over those three seasons.
“Very encouraged,” manager Brian Snitker said. “These guys, there wasn’t any ‘woe is me’ or feeling sorry, they all kind of rose to the occasion in the games after Freddie got hurt, then everybody picked it up. Exactly what you want to see a team do. It didn’t surprise me with these guys.”
The Braves are 18-23 despite a 4.59 ERA that most believe will improve. A year ago after 41 games, the Braves were 11-30 with exactly the same ERA and not much reason to think that ERA was going to improve.
A year ago through 41 games, the Braves hit .235 with a .299 OBP, .622 OPS, 18 homers and 135 runs (3.3 average) through 41 games a year ago. This year they’ve hit .261 with a .333 OBP, .742 OPS, 44 homers and 188 runs (4.6 average per game). Yes, 44 homers and 188 runs this year compared to 18 and 135 at the same point a year ago.
The loss of Freeman for approximately 10 weeks is a huge blow, make no mistake. Huge. But he alone obviously didn’t account for that huge a disparity in offensive production, and that’s why Braves players weren’t convinced like so many others of us that this team was in major trouble as soon as a wrist fracture was confirmed and that 10-week estimate was announced for their marquee player.
The Braves didn’t have Matt Kemp for the first four months last season. They didn’t have Markakis producing like he has so far this season. They weren’t getting nearly offense early last season from catchers A.J. Pierzysnki and Tyler Flowers that they’re getting now from Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, or the production from second base that they’re getting now from Brandon Phillips. Just to name the most obvious improvements.
“That’s a big loss,” Kemp said on Sunday of the Freeman injury. “That’s something we can’t control. We can only control what we do now and that’s keep playing good baseball. And I’m proud of the guys for responding the way we responded these last (four) games. We’ve just got to keep going.”
If they can get anything from just-acquired first baseman Matt “Big City” Adams like Adams produced for St. Louis in the three seasons when he got 300 or more plate appearances, it will at least lessen the blow a bit from Freeman’s absence. And Adams could be a much-needed boost for the bench once Freeman returns, provided the Braves keep him. If not, trading him could possibly help fill another need.
If the Braves get improvement from their rotation – either from a couple of current members or any newcomer they acquire – and the bullpen continues its recent performance, then a little less offense should be something they can deal with until Freeman gets back. And as we’ve seen from Dansby Swanson in May, the rookie shortstop can and will provide plenty of offense that was lacking from him in his first April in the major leagues. The kid is special, and he’s surrounded by a group of veteran players that has done him a major service by being patient and supportive both to him and in comments on and off the record to reporters.
Around a team with a less character or some insecure players, there would have been petty off-the-record comments made about Swanson and his woeful April after all the attention he received this winter and spring. There were none. He’s a high-character guy who struggled like so many other rookies do, but Swanson never complained or moped, never stopped working hard, and his teammates respected him for that and supported him. Always.
That is really big. Bigger than most outside an organization realize. And it says plenty not just about Swanson but about the guys setting the tone in this clubhouse.
Hey, I’m in the group that figured the Braves would struggle to keep their heads above water without Freeman. But they showed something in that Nationals series. And talking to the guys, I was equally impressed by the optimism and lack of feeling sorry for themselves after the Freeman injury. They’re a tough bunch, and I think that comes both from the top (Brian Snitker) and especially from players such as veterans Markakis, Phillips, Freeman, Kemp, Flowers, Suzuki, Jim Johnson and one whose form of leadership-by-example probably perhaps goes unnoticed outside the clubhouse – Jace Peterson.
It's an entertaining team to watch, and a tough team. And to me, toughness is the characteristic that can’t be overstated. Talent is obviously the most important thing in baseball or any other sport, but toughness … don’t sell it short. If you’ve wondered why this team or that one couldn’t seem to put things together when they seemingly had all the talent to contend, more often than not I’d suggest that underlying lack of toughness was a big factor.
This team has that. And it could help them get through a 10-week period without their biggest talent.
We’ll find out. But the weekend was certainly a good start.
Let's close with this appropriate tune from the great Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions
"KEEP ON PUSHING" by Curtis Mayfield
Keep on pushing
I've got to keep on pushing (mmm-hmm)
I can't stop now
Move up a little higher
Some way, somehow
'Cause I've got my strength
And it don't make sense
Not to keep on pushin'
Keep on pushin'
Now maybe some day
I'll reach that higher goal
I know that I can make it
With just a little bit of soul
'Cause I've got my strength
And it don't make sense
Not to keep on pushin'
Now look-a look (look-a look)
What's that I see
A great big stone wall
Stands there ahead of me
But I've got my pride
And I'll move on aside
And keep on pushin'