The Braves finished a 5-3 trip Thursday, an eight-game stretch that easily could’ve gone better or worse. So 5-3 is an acceptable result.
Here are my takeaways before the Braves settle in for an 11-game homestand:
1. The Nationals aren’t better than the Braves. Most thought so going in, and the teams split a four-game set - but not all splits are equal.
Yes, the Braves had on-paper advantages with the pitching staff. But in their two losses, they lost their starter (Max Fried, Anibal Sanchez) after two innings. In their wins, Sean Newcomb matched Max Scherzer and then the offense unloaded on Tommy Milone.
Much was made of the Nationals catching fire. They were out to prove they were back in the National League East race. Instead, after four games, nothing changed.
“About the same,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said when asked if he’d seen any difference in the Nationals. “They always play us tough, but we play them tough, too. I thought it was a well-fought series. Two games we lost, our starters got knocked out in the second inning. So maybe if they go deeper next time we can win the series. But I thought we played a pretty good series, all things considered.”
Washington probably is the most talented team in the National League East, at least in the win-now roster discussion. There’s still a chance they stay hot and have a chance at a playoff spot next month. But the Braves are a more cohesive group right now. The results speak for themselves.
2. Freddie Freeman wasn’t lying when he called Charlie Culberson the team MVP. The utilityman homered in the first three games of the Nationals series, including one off Scherzer, and leaves no position untouched. But this team seems to find a variety of MVPs from unlikely places.
It was a losing effort, but Wes Parsons tossing five innings in an emergency Thursday can’t be understated. The bullpen has piled on innings throughout the year, and with the Braves shorter on depth than say, a month ago, any extra help is welcomed. Parsons gave the bullpen regulars a day off.
What about Johan Camargo, who was crucial in the Mets series? This guy was once relegated to the bench for Jose Bautista. He’s well past the injuries that derailed his start, and he looks well-worthy of the every-day third base job.
Ryan Flaherty hasn’t done anything lately, but how quickly we forget he was the team’s leading hitter during their surprising April. Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna have won games by themselves (and together).
Inciarte has gained his second-half form, with his home run in New York the difference in a win. Even Preston Tucker, now a Cincinnati Red, supplied offense during the Acuna waiting period. Like the Dodgers last season – who employed Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos – the Braves have limitless plug-and-play options, and they’re getting key contributions from a different man every night.
Freeman himself might be MVP of the league. Nick Markakis continues to be a stabilizing presence. The starting pitching is up and down, but Newcomb might be emerging as a frontline starter, and Mike Foltynewicz is gutting through starts even when his command is subpar. Anibal Sanchez, signed in mid-March, might be the best of the bunch.
The reason it’s Aug. 9 and the Braves are still in the playoff chase is simple: They’re maximizing almost everyone’s abilities. They’re getting expected production from their better players, with many others exceeding expectations.
That’s allowed for first-half Inciarte to have a lesser impact on the team and prevented Julio Teheran’s disappointing season from sinking them back into mediocrity or worse.
3. We looked at the Braves’, Phillies’ and Nationals’ schedules recently, and the slate unquestionably favors the Phillies. But if the Braves play a tick above .500 ball the rest of the way, they’re heading for 90 wins.
Even with the NL’s depth, it’s hard to imagine a 90-win team sitting out. If the Braves are destined for a wild-card game – perhaps in an environment like Chicago or Los Angeles – they at least seem to have found their starter: Newcomb.
The Braves do have a tough schedule moving forward. That’s not exactly uncharted waters.
“We’ve been saying that all year, haven’t we?” said manager Brian Snitker, an accurate statement considering 11 of the 15 NL teams sit above .500.
This team has passed every test. Every time it looks like the team is beginning a downward trend, they break out of it. They handle adversity well, limit distractions and rely on a different hero every night. They have the depth to withstand injuries, and the stars to carry them on tougher nights.
Sounds like a postseason team, does it not?