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Ashway: Braves fun to watch through season’s first half
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

Time now for the Braves midseason report.

Welcome once again to the bizarre world in which we now live. Normally, 28 games are contested through the end of April. Most serious students of the game discard any statistics compiled before the end of May as meaningless. “Small sample size” remains the buzz phrase.

It has ever been thus.

Back in the ‘50s, a rookie pitcher might begin his career with a pair of nice starts and create a buzz.  Future Hall of Famer Nellie Fox would always say, “Wait ‘till he’s been around the league once.”

No such luxury this season. Those stats we used to peruse at the end of May will be this year’s final stats.

So we may as well just sigh and make another concession to the virus in our midseason evaluation.  After watching the Braves post a 16-12 record and take a two-game lead in the division race, one thought seems paramount.

These guys are fun to watch. And with all the other wonderfulness that 2020 has bestowed upon us, that’s high praise indeed.

You can’t turn away because this team is likely to mount a comeback from any deficit at any time. They did it again on Saturday night. Trailing the Phillies, 4-0, entering the bottom of the seventh inning, the Braves scored six runs over the final three frames for a 6-5 win.

That marked the Braves third walkoff win in their past five home games. They’re also the only team in baseball to win at least four games when trailing after seven innings.

They almost notched another comeback win Sunday night. This time, Dansby Swanson was thrown out at the plate trying to score the tying run on Freddie Freeman’s double. 

“The more you come back and win games late, the more confidence you have in doing it and the more experience you have in doing it,” Adam Duvall, who delivered the winning single Saturday night, told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. 

“We know how to win ballgames late. It’s fun to be a part of. For us, it’s just a never-die mentality,” Duvall continued. “We just don’t give up, and we don’t fold. That goes to guys putting together good at-bats and being tough outs. That’s the thing about this team. Especially late in the game, guys dial it in.  It’s not an easy lineup to get through.”

It’s also a lineup that has continued to produce despite the absence of Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Nick Markakis. Through Sunday, the Braves were fifth in the MLB in runs scored, averaging just over five per game. They were among the leaders in batting average (6th), on base percentage (7th), slugging average (7th), and on base plus slugging (8th.)                

Of course, everything in baseball is interrelated. The Braves wouldn’t be in position to mount comebacks if the starting pitching hadn’t been so atrocious.

So far, it’s been Max Fried and the Mysterians. After Mike Soroka suffered his season-ending Achilles injury, Fried has blossomed in the role of the ace. He may not be able to sustain a 4-0 record and 1.32 ERA, but he’s only got to do so for another month.

With Kyle Wright, Sean Newcombe, Mike Foltynewicz already exiled to Gwinnett County, and Touki Toussant seemingly en route, its remarkable that this team has any chance at all.

Robbie Erlin and Josh Tomlin have been an upgrade, but they haven’t eaten many innings. Things are so desperate that when Tomlin started against Washington last Tuesday, he became the ninth different starter deployed by the Braves this season. 

The bullpen, solid and deep, has been the saving grace. Normally you’d expect the bullpen to be burned out under such conditions, but again, they’ve only got 32 games to play.

Through Sunday, the Braves starters were 26th in the MLB with a 5.37 ERA. Their record was 4-9 over 115.2 innings pitched, with 61 walks and 103 strikeouts.

The bullpen was sixth with a 3.38 ERA. Its record was 12-3 over 125.1 innings, with 47 walks and 130 strikeouts.

“With everything that’s gone on,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told Jeff Schultz of The Athletic, “with (injuries to) position players, the rotation, all of it, to be four games over .500 and in first place, I would not have predicted that.

“You look at the entire NL East, we all have our issues and concerns,” Anthopoulos continued. “We’re trying to come up with solutions for the rotation. We feel good about the bullpen, and from an offensive standpoint, adding back (Acuna, Albies, and Markakis) eventually should improve things in a significant way. We lost Soroka for a year; yeah, it’s a huge loss. But you don’t want to feel like you put a roster together that was solely dependent on one player.”

No, this year hasn’t been what we expected on all fronts, but at least with the Braves, it’s been fun to watch unfold.