The NL East has been the most competitive divisional race all season, as the Mets and Braves have been two of the best teams in baseball every step of the way… until now. Following their eight-game win streak, the Braves have lost four of their last six, dropping each of their last two series. The window of opportunity was wide open for the Mets to take control, but they were unable to capitalize against the lowly Cubs, as they were swept at home. For two teams that have been so consistent all season, it’s almost shocking how both have slowed down at the exact same time, but that won’t last forever. Both clubs are far too talented to continue underachieving, and with the Mets leading by just a half-game, this race should come down to the wire.
From the Braves’ perspective, their struggles can be linked to several critical pieces going through slumps, whether it be at the plate or on the mound. The offense has been stagnant for the most part, specifically at the top of the order. Here’s how the top four in Atlanta’s order have fared thus far in September:
it's a tiny sample but the Braves top of the order isn't enjoying september pic.twitter.com/qh2d4cpJVC
— Brad Rowland (@BTRowland) September 15, 2022
Swanson and Riley are the least of my concerns. They’ve been leading the Braves all season, and I have no doubt they will catch fire sooner rather than later. On the other hand, Acuna and Olson will likely have the most significant impact on whether the Braves repeat as champions or not.
Jim Bowden of The Athletic recently broke down the 13 players that will need to step up for each team down the stretch, and the Braves’ was Ronald Acuna:
Acuña has been a disappointment this season in his return from ACL surgery a year ago, but thanks to the production of rookies Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom, the pressure on Acuña to perform has lessened. But as the Braves try to edge the Mets for the division crown, they need more from their superstar right fielder. Over the last 15 games, Acuña has batted .258 with a .310 on-base percentage and just one home run. However, he has stolen three bases in as many attempts during that span. Acuña’s base-stealing ability will be key down the stretch in helping the Braves batters after him get more fastballs to hit.
Nothing Bowden said was incorrect. Acuna has been a massive disappointment coming off his ACL injury, given how high expectations are for him. The problem is, I don’t think we can expect much more from him this season. He’s clearly not feeling anywhere close to 100%, and at this point, this just seems like this is who he will be in 2022, which is still a high-quality player, just not an MVP candidate.
For that reason, I really think it’s Matt Olson that has to step up the most down the stretch. He hasn’t come close to what was advertised when the Braves acquired him from the Athletics and is mired in a brutal slump. With that being said, I believe the Athletics version of Olson is somewhere deep inside of him, and if he can get going into the postseason, the Braves offense will be nearly impossible to stop.
Photographer: Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire