Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Braves showing what’s possible when team doesn’t think, ‘It’s over’


If cardiologists were capable of examining a city’s sports heart, Atlanta’s would look more battered than most. It would be flattened by tire tracks from a vehicle with New England plates, dented by a Jim Leyritz-autographed bat, blown into little pieces by an explicable busted coverage and an Alabama freshman quarterback by way of Hawaii.

Dramatic endings involving Atlanta’s pro and area college sports are common. Sometimes they’re uncommonly good. (Morten Andersen’s overtime field goal at Minnesota, Francisco Cabrera’s ninth-inning hit against Pittsburgh, Sony Michel’s OT run against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.) More often they’re Boris Karloff/John Carpenter-like frightfully bad. (Google for examples.)

Given all the gory history, what’s going on with the Braves right now can’t really be termed a market correction. Because a true market correction would have to stretch to 2100.

But a team projected to win 75 games is on pace to win 95, and ironically the biggest reason for success is what the Braves have been able to accomplish in moments when hearts often get stomped.

• Final at-bat wins: 10. That ties them for first in the National League with Milwaukee. That puts them on a pace for 21, which would exceed last year’s league-leading 20.

• Walk-off wins: 7. That ties them for first in the major leagues with St. Louis.

• Game-ending home runs: 5. That’s tied for the major-league lead and only two short of the 47-year-old franchise record.

• Offensive production from the seventh inning on: 143 runs and a .347 on-base percentage, each best in the majors. The Braves have hit 31 of their 89 homers in the seventh or later, tied for the league lead.

This isn’t normal.

For once, Atlanta abnormal is good.

“Things don’t change for us late in games, and I think that’s what’s made us so good,” Dansby Swanson said. “We just do what we do, regardless of the situation. Up 10, down 10.  Doesn’t matter. Nothing changes.”

It happened again Monday night. Ozzie Albies homered to lead off the 11th inning, giving the Braves a 5-4 win over Cincinnati. The Braves trailed 4-3 before coming to bat in the seventh. They have erased deficits in the seventh inning or later a league-leading 14 times.

Even in a city with so much mental scar tissue, there comes a point when these rallies shouldn’t come a surprise any more.

It remains to be seen if this will be sustainable over a full season. The Braves still will go only as far as their starting pitching and hiccuping bullpen takes them. Saturday’s game against St. Louis will mark the midway point of the season.

But there’s no reason to believe this team’s confidence in late-inning games is going to change. That’s a major plus moving forward because it illustrates character of players, clubhouse chemistry and, yes, leadership of manager.

The Braves have had 47 last at-bat wins since Brian Snitker was named interim manager just over two years ago.

But, you know, fire him.

Snitker also has witnessed his share of late-game misery: “With other teams it was like, ‘We’re not coming back. It’s over.’ I’ve been on those teams. We didn’t have the things going on that would allow them to come back.”

But there has never been a sense of panic with this team, not even when the outcome seemed out of reach. That confidence has impacted the way Snitker has managed some games.

“There’s been a lot of games where it’s been like, ‘I don’t want to use this reliever, we’re only five runs down with three more at-bats so we better save a guy,’ and we do (come back),” he said. “Whereas before, it was like: Game’s over.”

Several players continue to point to the closeness of the players and how that feeds into team performance.

“When you have a group of guys you connect with, it’s more than just a teammate, it’s a friendship-level thing,” Charlie Culberson said.

I know. Sounds hokey. But the 2010 Braves, in Bobby Cox’s final season, was one of the tightest-knit baseball teams I’ve seen. It held together despite a run of injuries and a blur of lineups. But those Braves endured, had 13 walk-off wins and made the playoffs as a wild card.

That was a veteran-laden team. This team has more unproven youth. But both share a trait: excelling in improbable circumstances.

Listen to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Check out the podcast show page at AJC.com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunes. Also on Google play. Also via Stitcher or via TuneIn, or via the AJC sports podcasts, or the WSB Radio on-demand page.

 


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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.