Things could not feel more different now from when the Braves started their season 0-3 at the hands of the Phillies. Atlanta’s young pitching staff looked helpless while Philadelphia’s offseason acquisitions were already paying dividends. However, in hindsight, that series was incredibly flukey.
The Braves top three starters to begin the season were Julio Teheran, Bryse Wilson, and Kyle Wright. It was fun to watch the youngsters, but they were only in Atlanta because of a multitude of injuries to the starting rotation. Since, both Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have been sent down to Gwinnett. In their place stepped in Mike Soroka and Max Fried – both of whom have electrified all season.
The bullpen also had no identity. Only two relief arms remain from the Opening Day roster – A.J Minter, who just rejoined the team, and Luke Jackson, who has blossomed into Atlanta’s closer. The Phillies will be facing a completely different pitching staff this time around, and their offense is not clicking like it was at the beginning of the season.
I shouldn’t have to tell you about Bryce Harper’s demise. He looks exactly like the player that he was last year, hitting a hair over .250 with fewer home runs than Dansby Swanson. His defense is also atrocious, which is why he has a worse WAR than Nick Markakis. Take that for data, but he’s not the only one failing to live up to expectations.
Maikel Franco flashed his inner Barry Bonds in the opening series, collecting four hits, two home runs, seven RBIs, and three walks. He’s been a walking garbage can ever since. His WAR is -0.7, and he is slashing .206/.278/.379 for the season. And unfortunately for all of baseball, Andrew McCutchen was lost for the year with a torn ACL.
Meanwhile, the Braves lineup has hit their stride. Since the arrival of Austin Riley, Atlanta is 17-8 and averaging over 6.3 runs per contest. There are no easy outs, creating arguably the best offense in the National League, and undoubtedly the hottest.
Atlanta’s pitching staff has begun to round into form as well. The aforementioned Mike Soroka and Max Fried have led the rotation to this point, but not enough can be said about the resurgence of Julio Teheran. He’s been lights out for the last month and a half, allowing five earned runs in eight starts since the calendar turned to May. Fortunately for the Phillies, they won’t have to face Dallas Keuchel, who is scheduled to make one more start in the minors before his Braves debut.
The bullpen has experienced a similar boost. The additions of Touki Toussaint and Sean Newcomb have brought life and confidence to the group. Jacob Webb has emerged as a fantastic option since coming up from AAA. Anthony Swarzak has turned out to be a tremendous acquisition via trade, and Luke Jackson has developed into a reliable closer (for now). It’s not pretty, and something I like to call the island of misfit toys, but it is getting the job done right now for the Braves.
For all these reasons; it is Atlanta in first place by a game and a half and not Philadelphia. The Braves have won seven in a row, including a four-game sweep of the Pirates in which they scored 34 runs. Yes, you read that right. Atlanta is scorching, and you can bet they remember what happened to begin the season and the opinions that followed. They are out for revenge, but more than anything, they are out to make a statement as to who the real division champs are. Pennants are won on the field – not in the offseason. The Braves aim to show the Phillies that this weekend at SunTrust Park.