Everyone is intrigued by who is going to win the National League Central and West divisions, as well as who will have home-field advantage in the NL Wild Card game. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves continue to fly under-the-radar in the underdog role.
Going into this season, the playoffs seemed like a far-fetched aspiration for the Braves. The young talent was there, but the thinking was that this team was still a year or two away from competing for the playoffs. Instead, they’ve sped up the process and are 82-64. Currently 7.5 games up on the Philadelphia Phillies for the division lead, it appears the Braves will be crowned NL East champions at year’s end. Atlanta’s big division lead is largely due to the production of their everyday lineup.
The premier aspect of the 2018 Braves is their offense. Going into Thursday night, they were seventh in runs (690), second in hits (1314), third in batting average (.260), 10th in on-base percentage (.325), ninth in slugging (.425), and ninth in OPS (.751). Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis are each hitting above .300, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna have been stellar at the plate and in the field in their first full seasons in the majors, and Johan Camargo is growing into a well-rounded third baseman. The Braves also have the likes of Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, Charlie Culberson, and Kurt Suzuki in their order.
Manager Brian Snitker has a well-balanced order, in terms of veteran players and improving young talent, at his disposal. At the same time, the Braves starting rotation has also been reliable and productive in 2018.
Mike Foltynewicz has established himself as the Braves ace. In 28 starts this season, the righty has recorded a 2.66 ERA and 1.10 WHIP and totaled 186 strikeouts. Tuesday night, he had arguably his best start of the season, pitching a complete game and surrendering just one run on the road against the San Francisco Giants. Lefty Sean Newcomb has also been a reliable option every fifth day for Snitker and friends. While he owns a 1.31 WHIP, Newcomb has a 3.82 ERA and has not surrendered a single run in seven of his 28 starts this season.
Julio Teheran has been with the Braves since 2011, and he too has been a steady force on the hill, as he currently owns a 3.95 ERA. Veteran righty Anibal Sanchez has surprised many, starting 21 games and owning a 3.01 ERA. After being acquired from the Baltimore Orioles at the trading deadline, Kevin Gausman has recorded a 2.32 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in seven starts with the Braves. All in all, the Braves starting rotation went into Thursday night fifth in ERA (3.47) and second in opponent batting average (.224).
The Braves have five starting pitchers who they can legitimately send to the hill in the playoffs and an order capable of running up the scoreboard. The biggest hurdle they will have to overcome is inexperience.
The Braves’ last postseason appearance was in 2013, and only two players from that team are still with them today (Freeman and Teheran). They do have some players who have played in the postseason outside of their time with the Braves, such as Markakis, Suzuki, Culberson, and Sanchez. But, overall, this is a team with little postseason experience. So, how will they react to such play, and who could be their opponent in the NLDS?
If the postseason were to begin today, the Braves would draw the Colorado Rockies with home-field advantage on their side. In such a series, the Braves starting rotation would be put to the test. Headlined by Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, and Trevor Story, among others, the Rockies have a potentially potent offense. If the Los Angeles Dodgers happen to win the division — instead of the Rockies — they also pose a threat to Atlanta’s pitching staff. A lineup that features the likes of Manny Machado, Justin Turner, Matt Kemp, Cody Bellinger, and Max Muncy cannot be slept on, and some feel the defending NL champs are just a flip of the switch away from being the dominant team baseball is accustomed to. Plus, the Braves went 2-5 this season against both the Rockies and Dodgers.
No one thought the Braves would be competing for the World Series. Some still expect the Chicago Cubs, or whoever wins the NL West, to win the pennant. Very few have the Braves posing a huge threat in the first round, or the playoffs at all. Sure, they’re not a formidable or flawless ballclub, but there isn’t a single team in the NL that is definitively better than the rest. And the Braves are surely in the conversation for being the best team in the NL.
Yes, their bullpen has been underwhelming this season, as they went into Thursday night 16th in bullpen ERA (4.04). But if the Braves choose to go with a three-man rotation in the first round, they could have two of their starters come out of the pen as long relievers — which would deepen and bolster that aspect of their team for the most important part of the season.
The Braves got to this point by beating up on teams in their division — including some who were held in high esteem going into the regular season. Going 9-7 against the Washington Nationals, 7-5 against the Phillies, 12-4 against the New York Mets, and 14-5 against the Miami Marlins, the Braves made themselves the team to beat in the NL East as the season progressed. Now, they have to begin matching up with teams on their level, record-wise.
The Braves may not be anyone’s pick to win the World Series, or even the NL Pennant. But while everyone worries about how the Central and West divisions will fare, the Braves keep stockpiling wins and confidence — carrying momentum into the postseason.