Austin Riley and Matt Olson key to Braves winning the NL East and more

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The month of September has not been kind to the middle of the Braves lineup. Atlanta’s new first baseman is amid one of the most severe slumps of his career, and the man hitting in front of him isn’t performing much better. It’s almost a miracle the Braves have been able to keep pace with the Mets the way Matt Olson and Austin Riley are playing — a testament to the incredible depth in every aspect of the team. But for the Braves to accomplish their ultimate goal for the second year in a row, they’ll need both of them to start performing as they did during the first five months of the season.

Riley’s extensive slump is the more surprising of the two. Prior to September, he was a legitimate candidate for the NL MVP award, plus he began September hot, homering in the first three games of the month. September 4th is when everything changed. Since that date, Riley’s hitting a dreadful .148 with just two homers and a .507 OPS over 14 games.

With Freeman leaving, the proverbial baton of the most consistent presence in the middle of the order was passed to Riley. Since the start of last season, there have been very few stretches where the Braves couldn’t rely on him hitting for power and average. There’s likely an MVP in Riley’s future; I’m not worried about him breaking out of this spell eventually. But with 13 games remaining in the season, the time to do so is now because the only thing the Braves don’t have as they chase the Mets from one game behind is time.

Matt Olson is a different story. In his first year in Atlanta, he’s underachieved. I know it, he knows it, we all know it; there’s no use in sugar-coating it. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had some moments. It doesn’t mean acquiring him was the worst decision in franchise history. He just hasn’t come as advertised following his stellar season with the Athletics in 2021, and his September performance is a primary reason why.

Olson’s slump dates back even further than September 1st. It really began on Sunday Night Baseball in St. Louis, in which he went 0-for-4 at the plate. Since that game (20 games), Matt Olson is slashing .096/.185/.151 with a .336 OPS. He has just seven hits and one home run in his last 81 at-bats, causing his season stats to tumble. This will go down as one of the worst years of Olson’s career to this point, but he still has plenty of time remaining on his contract to turn things around. In fact, he might not even have to wait until the end of the season to get back in the good graces of Braves fans.

With a few clutch swings down the stretch and even more in October, not a sensible soul would care if Olson hit for a career-worst OPS over a full season. Sports are all about moments, and baseball is no different. If Olson can deliver consistently in those moments, he’ll quickly become a favorite in Braves Country. The Braves have enough talent around him to make the postseason for the next 5+ years. In the end, Olson’s legacy in Atlanta will come down to his performance in October.

Photographer: Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire

 

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