Wiedmer: Braves Looking More And More Like A Playoff Contender

  • Monday, July 8, 2024
  • Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer

Because Comcast is my cable provider, I’ve spent most of the summer without Atlanta Braves baseball to give purpose and passion to my evenings. Apparently Comcast (or Xfinity, if you prefer) and Bally Sports -- which has the day-to-day television rights to the Bravos in much of the Southeast -- are involved in a bitter contract dispute that has led Comcast to temporarily (fingers crossed) drop the Braves from its viewing package.

So most of my sticky summer nights are spent watching NCIS and Law and Order reruns on Sundance, and occasionally thinking back to when NCIS star Mark Harmon was the star quarterback at UCLA.

Anyway, as the Braves have struggled all season with injuries and relatively poor hitting compared to last year’s magical regular season of Major League record-tying home runs (307) and 104 wins, I’ve been largely in the dark about this season’s details.

Oh, I know the bad stuff.

I know 2023 National League Most Valuable Player Ronald Acuna Jr. was lost early to a knee injury and flamethrower Spencer Strider was also sidelined for the year with arm trouble.

Considering that catcher Sean Murphy was also knocked out for months on Opening Day with an injury and it’s easy to apply Murphy’s Law to this entire season, meaning anything that can go wrong will.

But thanks to FOX televising Saturday night’s 5-1 win over the dastardly Phillies, a couple of Braves truisms still seem to hold -- Atlanta appears to be the same mentally tough team it’s been for the past six seasons in reaching the playoffs, and the bats appear to be getting hot at just the right time to all but guarantee a playoff berth, if only as a wildcard team this time around.

It’s what happened on Sunday against Philadelphia, however, that should give Braves Country reason to believe Atlanta could do something it hasn’t done the last two Octobers -- Beat the obnoxious Phillies in the playoffs.

With Reynaldo Lopez and his MLB-leading 1.71 ERA on the mound for six scoreless innings, the Braves won 6-0 against baseball’s hottest team to take the weekend series, 2-1, and pull within eight games of the Phils in the NL East. Critics will say Sunday’s win came against Michael Mercado, a rookie making just his second career start. And that’s a fair point.

But Atlanta also started Spencer Schewellenbach -- he of the 2-4 record and 5.02 ERA -- and won 6-1 on Saturday. Despite all the injuries and poor hitting, the Braves are continuing to develop a nice starting rotation in Strider’s season-long absence, enough so that failing to acquire another strong starting pitcher at the trade deadline (though always welcome) shouldn’t torpedo a second-half playoff run.

Obviously a year ago everything pretty much went right for the Braves until the playoff loss to the Phillies. There were no season-long injuries to key players. Lots of guys -- including Acuna, Olson and Riley -- turned in career years.

Now it hasn’t. The franchise has had enough adversity to fall apart, yet it remains a wildcard favorite, owning the fourth best run differential in the National League (+59) heading into its Monday night game at Arizona. That game is the start of a seven-game road trip before next week’s All-Star break. It’s also the start of 14 road games the Braves will play over their next 20 in the month of July.

As much hope as was found in the weekend series win over the Phillies, it might be best to judge the long-term potential of these Braves in those 14 road games.

Still, Sunday marked the fourth win over the Phillies in six games this season, with seven still to go. And while Lopez showed what he can do on Sunday, Braves ace Chris Sale (11-3, 2.71 ERA) hasn’t seen Philadelphia since March 31, when he gave up two runs in 5.1 innings in an eventual 5-4 loss.

Sale has seemingly gotten better since then, perhaps good enough when paired with Lopez to give Atlanta the kind of 1-2 punch it needs to make another World Series run to match that magical 2021 season, when the Bravos won it all without Acuna, who’d also been lost that season with a knee injury.

“It was a good series,” said Braves skipper Brian Snitker at the close of Sunday’s win. “We wanted to win each day. One got away from us (the 8-6 Friday loss that included an uncharacteristic three errors). But it was a pretty good bounceback the last couple of days.”

If that bounceback continues out west, the Braves just might be headed for the kind of storybook ending they authored three years ago.

And if not, NCIS and Law and Order aren't the worst ways to spend a summer night.

* * *

Mark Wiedmer can be reached at mwiedmer@mccallie.org

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