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The Braves have new life and are right in the thick of it

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It’s been a rough season and the Braves have been down at times. They’ve never been out, though, and their resilience has them right in the middle of a fight for the division.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to start this out with a bit of an apology. When I wrote about the team’s short-term hopes following Ronald Acuña Jr.’s knee injury, I definitely took a bit of a pessimistic tone. Granted, it was a really low point in the season — a season that’s been rife with struggles on the field and plenty of issues off the field as well. It was totally understandable to feel a little down about how things were going and where things were heading with the team’s primary MVP candidate going down in horrible fashion. Between that and the way the team had looked for long stretches of the season and how things were looking elsewhere in the NL East, things were looking really gray and sour at that point!

Here we are in August and let’s just say that things have changed dramatically since then. The Braves have gone from perpetually spinning their wheels in the mud to finally getting things out of the ditch and back on the road. After spending most of this season looking up at their divisional rivals in New York, the Braves are suddenly looking down on the Mets in the standings. The Phillies have suddenly reached the summit and the Braves aren’t too far from the top, themselves. It’s almost as if it’s a brand new season for all three teams — especially as far as the Braves are concerned, who have found a second wind here in the dog days of summer.

A few things have changed since Ronald Acuña’s injury and now, with the main change being that the Braves are simply just winning again. Yeah, this is the analysis that you’re coming to this website for: The local baseball team is doing better because they started winning again. In all seriousness, it feels like this current run of form is the type of run that the Braves have been looking for ever since Opening Day. However, the big reason behind this push is the fact that the players and staff in the clubhouse never really gave up and the front office backed them up by making additions to the team at the deadline.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets - Game One
It’s been real nice having this guy around.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It would’ve been easy and understandable had the Braves just thrown their hands up and started packing it up for next year. Again, they had a rotten run of luck up until mid-late July and had just lost their superstar outfielder. However, I’d imagine that the front office figured that they had gone through all of that bad luck and tomfoolery and were still only a few games behind the divisional leaders. The furthest back that the Braves have been this season was back on June 16 which was when they gave up 10 runs to the Red Sox for the second day in a row in order to fall seven-and-a-half games behind the Mets in the East. That day may end up being rock bottom for the Braves from an on-field standpoint, because they’ve made a steady rise from being five games under .500 back then to being two games over .500 at the moment. Even with that incredibly wacky and historically incredible run of mediocrity following the All-Star break, the Braves are actually doing fine at the moment.

Credit has to be given to the front office for doing a pretty good job of fixing an outfield that has been decimated by injury and other issues. There’s no coincidence that this recent push towards a winning record coincided with the outfield transforming into a trio of Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler, and Joc Pederson. Pederson’s arrival shortly after Acuña’s injury was a signal of intent from the front office that they weren’t about to just roll over here in 2021 and the Soler and Duvall deals were proof that they were going to try to take a shot at this thing. What was a strength to start the season — which turned into a glaring weakness by the time the All-Star break rolled around — suddenly returned to being a strength. God bless Abraham Almonte and the legendary Guillermo Heredia, but they are much better utilized in their current spots as bench players and the Braves are better off for it.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals
Let’s ride this Soler-powered vehicle for as long as it goes, y’all.
Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports

Another major development is that the bullpen has gotten their act together. Atlanta’s relief corps struggled mightily out of the gate, but their current rate of production right now is night-and-day when compared to back then. From Opening Day until June 30, the Braves bullpen had an ERA of 4.71 and their xFIP was 4.48. According to FanGraphs, their WAR as a unit was sitting at 1.6 over 277.1 innings pitched, which was tied with the Nationals for ninth place in the National League. That’s not great, and we saw that bear itself out numerous times during the early part of the season. Things have changed significantly, though: Since July 1, the bullpen has carried an ERA of 3.15 and an xFIP of 4.17. They’ve accrued 1.1 fWAR as a unit over 111.1 innings pitched, which only trails the San Francisco Giants’ bullpen since July 1.

Braves relievers have been doing significantly better as of late and it’s basically been the quintet of Tyler Matzek, Edgar Santana, Luke Jackson, Chris Martin, and Jesse Chavez setting the tone. All five of those guys have been pretty reliable as of late, and I’m sure they appreciated the front office going out and adding Richard Rodriguez to the fold in order to help bolster the squad. While Will Smith hasn’t been spectacular over that stretch, he’s done enough to the point where he isn’t a negative to this team. When you take the entire season into consideration, Smith has actually had quite the bounce-back season when compared to the rough time he had in 2020. His xFIP for the entire season so far is a bit concerning (4.01) and ever since July 1 it’s been even more concerning (5.32) but unless he just completely falls off a cliff, he’s going to continue pitching high-leverage innings.

Also, it sure helps that the rest of the bullpen is stepping their game up. There’s no longer an uneasy and foreboding feeling of inevitability when it comes to these guys handling what are becoming even tougher late-game situations. They’ve turned the ship on the right path and credit has to be given to Rick Kranitz since whatever he’s doing must be working right now.

MLB: AUG 06 Nationals at Braves
Tyler Matzek is looking like himself again.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Between the new additions coming in and fitting the team like a glove, Charlie Morton hitting his stride, Drew Smyly not being a complete disaster whenever he tosses a few innings, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies locking in, Austin Riley finding his power stroke and Dansby Swanson going on a hot streak, the Braves are showing real signs of life right now. It’s looking like they’re going to be right in the thick of things as we get into the latter stages of this tumultuous season. This is a team that garnered a reputation for never giving up during games and now we’re seeing that they’re a team that doesn’t wilt if things don’t go their way over long stretches of a season. The resiliency being shown is really impressive and it’s honestly a testament to the man management skills of Brian Snitker that things never really turned sideways despite everything that’s been going on.

The Braves have weathered the storm of the first half of the season and now find themselves in a position where they’re right in the fight to retain their divisional crown. I’m still under no delusion that it’s going to be easy — the Mets could very well right their ship (even though the projection models are starting to jump from that proverbial ship) and the Phillies will have just as “easy” of a schedule as the Braves will going forward. With that being said, it wouldn’t be a shock if this ends up going down to the final homestand of the season for the Braves. They end September hosting the Phillies for three games, then they start October and end the regular season with a trio of games against the Mets. Hold on to your hats, folks. This is going to get real interesting and it appears that the Braves are absolutely up for the fight here in 2021.