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Starting Nine: History and reality as Braves need offense to keep stepping up

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Plus, Adam Duvall’s three-homer magic, Freddie Freeman walking with icons and Marcell Ozuna chasing Andruw Jones’ ghost

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves
As part of the 29-run eruption vs. the Marlins, Adam Duvall became the first Braves player with multi three-home games in a season.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

One night so perfectly summed up almost everything that’s so gloriously right and everything that can be so maddeningly wrong with this Braves team.

History was everywhere in Wednesday’s rout of the Marlins. It was in the 29 runs, the most in the National League in the modern era, a franchise-record nine RBI from Adam Duvall in his latest three-home run outburst — and it was in another epic implosion from Tommy Milone, the only acquisition made at the trade deadline.

The offense is very, very good. The rotation (especially with Max Fried out) is not, as the bullpen keeps shouldering heavy loads and it all gives us plenty to wade through after a history-making night at Truist Park.

1. Step up offense, Braves are going to keep needing it

It’s been one personnel disaster after another for these Braves, from Freddie Freeman’s COVID scare to Ronald Acuña Jr. being in and out of the lineup, a month-plus absence from Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka’s season-ending injury and Max Fried landing on the injured list, leaving the rotation without a single pitcher that was expected to be in the mix back in the spring.

As manager Brian Snitker so simply summarized, it’s all been so 2020.

“It’s this year, more than anything, with what’s transpired and what we’ve been through,” he said. “This is just another little bump in the road. We just have to keep going.”

That they have, clinging to a two-game lead in the National League East after salvaging a win over Miami in the series finale before the Braves had to D.C. for four with the Nationals. Snitker was 2018 NL Manager of the Year after the surprise run to the top of the division, and third in the voting last season, but a third straight division title might be the most impressive one under his watch, given what Atlanta has already overcome and that the biggest issue with this team figures to only be magnified sans Fried.

There’s some irony that Snitker was so heavily criticized (and justly so) for his bullpen management against the Nationals, and comments after in which he basically stated he didn’t want to overtax his best relievers by using them when the Braves are losing. Now he seems part soothsayer, as a bullpen that has thrown the most innings in the NL (196) and second most overall, is almost assuredly going to have an even heavier workload until Fried makes his return from a left side muscle spasm in his back.

Through four games since Fried went down we’ve seen the bullpen have to cover a combined 20 2/3 innings (including six after Ian Anderson, so good in his first two outings, lasted just three innings in a 10-inning affair with the Marlins) with the Braves using Anderson, Tommy Milone, Josh Tomlin, Robbie Erlin and Kyle Wright — who showed better control in his return Tuesday with two walks but he still logged just four innings — and that’s all before we even get back to Fried’s turn in the rotation. With 24 starts of four innings or less from starters, the seventh most of any Braves team since 2000, that number only figures to climb.

Contrary to what anyone that tuned into Wednesday night’s offensive clinic is thinking, or who since Aug. 21 has seen Atlanta has hit more home runs (41) than anyone and scored the third-most home runs (131) in the game, but the Braves aren’t going to score 29 runs a game. It is in an offense, though that we’re seeing is more than capable of being the counter for a starting staff has been scored on more than just four other NL teams these past 18 games and relief for a relief corps that has the league’s third best wOBA against (.281).

The hope is that Fried will be back Oct. 16 vs. the Orioles, or he could come back two days later on the road against the Mets. That’s also hoping he automatically returns to his Cy Young pace and the guaranteed six innings he was logging per start? While his four-seamer dropped to a season-low 91.3 mph in his last outing vs. the Nationals, it was already sliding at 92.2 mph in the outing before that after sitting at 93.9 in his first seven games.

There’s also a chance Cole Hamels would be able to be plugged in during the series in Baltimore on Sept. 14-16, but that’s barring any further hiccups from a veteran who has already dealt with shoulder and triceps issues and last pitched against someone other than another Braves player on Sept. 28, 2019. It’s also expected that he’s going to need further building up, meaning further stress on the bullpen with the left-hander on the mound. There’s always hope that Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb stroll in from Gwinnett to provide some contributions, but Anthopoulos seemed non-committal when asked specifically about Foltynewicz’s progress at the team’s alternate site.

That’s all hope, and this offense is potent enough to make up for it and with a 98.9 percent chance of making the postseason (per FanGraphs) and a 70.5 percent chance to take the division, it would take a collapse of epic (or more to the point 2011 Braves) proportions for this team not to play on into October. These bats are too deep to believe it can happen, no matter the rotation’s struggles and the current state of crossing its fingers hoping Fried gets back sooner rather than later and in dominant form.

But getting to the postseason, and whatever unfolds when Atlanta gets there, just got that much more riveting. Buckle up.

2. History, Part 1: An offense that’s officially historically scary

Ozzie Albies made his return to the lineup Wednesday, marking his first action since Aug. 4 — a span of 31 games — and the second baseman ushered in his return with his second home run of the season, part of an 11-run second inning vs. the Marlins as the Braves scored 29 runs, the second-most in MLB history. It’s the kind of output that even withstood a Milone start (more on that later), with the most runs scored by anyone other than Rangers, who had 30 on 8/22/07, and underscores what’s currently the most productive offense in franchise history. This squad currently has a collective 114 wRC+, which bests the 112 set in 1964 and tied in 2003, and just whets the appetite for what this group could do in the duration of a 162-game season. With 255 runs and 79 home runs, Atlanta is playing at a pace of 960 runs and 297 homers, the former would take down 2003’s franchise record of 907 scored and the homers would be 48 more than the mark set by last season’s lineup. There are four teams with two players hitting 58 percent above league average or higher: The Nationals (Juan Soto and Trea Turner), Dodgers (Mookie Betts and Corey Seager), Giants (Brandon Belt and Mike Yastrzemski) and Mets (Dominic Smith and Michael Conforto) are the only other teams with more than one player higher than 158 wRC+. But only the Braves can boast three such players in Ronald Acuña Jr. (180), Freddie Freeman (172 wRC+) and Marcell Ozuna (158). Say its production that’s unsustainable and a byproduct of this 60-game season, but that even stretched into Atlanta lineup history as only three teams ever had multiple players to hit 50 percent above league average or higher: the 2003 squad that had both Javy Lopez (170) and Gary Sheffield (163) and ‘07 with Chipper Jones (163) and Mark Teixeira (160) and 1994 with Fred McGriff (156) and David Justice (151), but never three players above that threshold. That’s how otherworldly what we’re seeing out of this group, headlined by Acuña, Freeman and Ozuna is.

3. History, Part 2: Adam Duvall’s three-homer magic

While we’re discussing Braves history, let’s talk about the place Adam Duvall has carved out — in just a week’s span. After hitting three home runs on Sept. 2 in Boston (making Atlanta the first team to ever have players hit three home runs in consecutive games), he did something no one on the franchise has ever done as he went deep three times as part of Wednesday’s record-setting fireworks. He’s the first Braves player to have multiple games with three-plus HRs, and in MLB history, only Sammy Sosa, with three such games in 2001, can best Duvall. It’s just the 24th such season ever, with Duvall putting his name alongside Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Willie Stargell, Willie Mays, Joe Carter and Jeff Bagwell. Most stunningly, Duvall has pulled this off 43 games into a 60-game season, while getting three or more plate appearances 29 times. The lesson here, is that Adam Duvall, now also holder of the Braves’ record with nine RBI in single game, needs more plate appearances.

4. History Part 3: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta icon

Freddie Freeman’s 1,500th career hit was just a footnote in that fireworks filled finale vs. the Marlins, but it doesn’t downplay that he’s making a serious case as one of the team’s most accomplished players since the move to Atlanta. With 1,501 hits become the seventh Braves player in the modern era to reach 1,500, but he’s just fourth to do it since the team planted its flag in Georgia in 1966, following Dale Murphy, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. Through their first 1,388 games, only Hank Aaron (1,742), Chipper (1,567) and Tommy Holmes (1,502) have more hits than Freeman, with Freeman trialing just Jones in the franchise’s Atlanta era.

5. History, Part 4: Tommy Milone on the wrong side of it

The acquisition of Tommy Milone wasn’t exactly the inspired maneuver to bolster the rotation with the postseason looming, but hey, at least he’s been able to make a little history. Following the Braves’ 11-run inning Wednesday vs. the Marlins, he excited in the fourth having allowed eight runs on eight hits with two walks, that coming on the heels of Milone yielding seven runs after the Braves scored 10 and was out in the bottom of the second inning. With those two implosions, the right-hander became the first pitcher in the modern era to be in multiple games in the same season in which his team scored 10 or more runs in an inning and fail to get a win in either game. But, hey, 29 runs is pretty special, right?

6. Marcell Ozuna’s pursuit of an RBI crown

Furthering the theme of chasing the past, reigning NL Player of the Week Marcell Ozuna is doing exactly that as he sits second in the pursuit of the circuit’s RBI crown, with his 38 trailing only the PadresFernando Tatis Jr. (39). It’s been 15 years since Atlanta had the RBI king when Andruw Jones drove in 128 in 2005 and before that, only Dale Murphy — tops in 1983 with 121 and tied with the Expos’ Al Oliver with 109 in 1982 — and Hank Aaron, who drove in 127 in 1966, the Braves’ debut season in Atlanta, have led the league in that department. Whether or not he claims the NL’s overall lead, Ozuna is well on his way toward some MLB history in this first year with the designated hitter in the league as he has a 12-RBI lead over the BrewersKeston Hiura among NL DHs.

7. Markakis in a bad way after red-hot August

One week after applauding Nick Markakis for his most productive month since signing with the Braves in 2015 (173 wRC+) the 36-year-old is an extreme bad way in September, going hitless in 26 plate appearances for a minus-80 wRC+ and he’s struck out nearly 27 percent of the time. Granted, the overall numbers aren’t out of whack with what he’s done over these past five seasons (.259/.326/.420 slash line after averaging .284/.359/.403 from 2015-19), but the strong first half (120 wRC+ after the past two year) and second-half collapse (88 in ‘18 and 86 in ‘19) is playing itself out in condensed form. Just like everything else in this abbreviated season. Oddly, Wednesday night’s rout would have seemed the perfect time, with the Braves piling up 23 hits in all, to get Markakis at least an at-bat in hopes of getting him jump-started. Didn’t happen, as only Adeiny Hechavarria came off the bench in the win.

8. Let’s have a frank conversation about streaking

Comeback Player of the Year may already belong to Tyler Matzek, the NLs strikeout leader among lefty relievers (26 Ks) and who has a 1.29 FIP, the lowest in the league with a minimum of 15 innings pitched, after having not pitched in MLB in five years. It’s a great story, but let’s not sleep on two others coming out of the Braves’ bullpen in Shane Green, A.J. Minter and Darren O’Day, who have been on streaks going back a year. Greene, who had made 19 appearances this season, hasn’t allowed multiple runs since Sept. 11, 2019, a span of 26 games that is the fourth-longest active streak in the majors; meanwhile O’Day has his own streak of not allowing more than one run since his Braves debut Sept. 7, 2019, a span of 22 games and Minter’s run is at 22 straight as he last gave up multiple runs July 18.

9. Pitfalls in the “easy” part of the schedule

This was the point in the schedule where the Braves were supposed to be able to exhale, and what’s left to play has that cakewalk feel, at least in rank. With a remaining opponents’ winning percentage of .438, only the Cardinals (.421) have an easier path ahead of them, with Atlanta having just 17 more games to play to St. Louis’ 22 due to its COVID-19 postponements. But the underlying storyline is that the Braves still have to take on two teams vying for wild-card spots, as there are four more at home with the Marlins (Sept. 21-24) and three in Baltimore (Sept. 14-16), with Miami currently holding on to a spot in the postseason, while the Orioles are a game back of the Yankees for the final spot in the American League’s seeding. Since Aug. 31, Baltimore is fourth overall (right behind the Braves) with 128 wRC+ and tied for sixth with 50 runs scored and boasts the best ERA at 2.50 in that span, while the Marlins are fourth (2.85). With the Marlins and Orioles fighting for their postseason lives, it would seem the Braves will need to take advantage of four vs. last-place Nationals, sub-.500 Mets and three against the Red Sox, AL East-bottom dwellers ... and that’s not a sentence anyone thought they’d be reading in 2020.