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Ashway: Braves' John Hart deserves credit (and thanks)
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Forsyth County News

Here’s an early vote for John Hart as Major League Baseball’s executive of the year.

Hart crafted a team that played its first 50 games at a .500 pace. That he did so out of the dysfunctional, disinterested rabble that limped home last September defies logic.

He cleaned house and created a team that’s fun to watch, as opposed to one that offends the senses. A team you can actually root for, as opposed to one you became indifferent towards. Like the players themselves seemed to be.

I know it’s impossible to be disappointed when you have no expectations. But by any reckoning, this team has been a most pleasant surprise.

Predicted by all the experts to be lucky to reach 70 wins, and by many to be closer to 100 losses, the Braves ended May a mere 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.

What they may lack in talent they make up for with passion. 

“There’s a lot of fight in this team,” Freddie Freeman told Mark Bowman of mlb.com Sunday.   

“I don’t think anybody ever feels out of a game,” added Jace Peterson. “Everybody is going to keep competing and battling. So, no matter what the scoreboard says, we’re going to fight.”

In the top of the ninth inning Sunday, the scoreboard said, “World Champion Giants 5, Braves 3.” That was after the Braves spent four innings making Madison Bumgarner look like he was back in the World Series. 

By the top of the seventh, new arrival Juan Uribe had knocked the Series MVP out of the game with a two-run homer.

Immediately, the bullpen’s latest weak link, Donnie Veal, coughed up the lead.

Come the ninth, the Braves got a home run from the slumping Freeman, and a walk to Andrelton Simmons. Then came the turning point.

Christian Bethancourt hit a game-ending, double-play grounder to Brandon Crawford, who misplayed it.

Suddenly, the Braves morphed into the Braves of old, pouncing on their opponent’s mistake and making them pay. Dearly. A. J. Pierzynski  blooped a single, and Peterson spun the carousel with a bases-clearing triple.

That single half-inning exhibited the appealing blend of these Braves. Youngsters like Peterson and Bethancourt, young veterans like Freeman and Simmons and veteran leaders like Pierzynski have combined to comprise a lineup that never says die.

The save went to Jason Grilli, who just happens to have more saves and a lower earned run average than the man he replaced, Craig Kimbrel.

Significantly, the win gave the Braves a winning month for the first time in a year. Their 15-13 May record matched their record for last June, clinched on the final day of the month with a come-from-behind win over the Mets.

In fact, Sunday’s win was the Braves first in which they trailed after eight innings or later, since that game. Their 70 straight losses in that situation, the true mark of a team that has packed it in, was the longest in baseball. By 30 games. It was the second longest in Braves history. The 1904-05 Braves lost 108 such games in a row.

Saturday’s game, though not as exciting, also provided a stark contrast to last year’s Braves. They managed five single run innings, and every time a batter failed to advance a runner, the next man up succeeded.

We also got to witness seven shutout innings from Williams Perez, which brings us to another point. This young pitching rotation gives fans something to savor with almost every outing.

We dare not curse this group with comparisons to John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, but the potential’s exciting to behold. Perez, Mike Foltynewicz, Alex Wood, and budding ace Shelby Miller are capable of winning every time they take the ball.

It almost seems like a perfect fit in this unexpected season that Julio Teheran, the alleged ace, would be the weak link. 

“Health wise, he’s fine,” manager Fredi Gonzalez told Bowman. “But it’s not the same Julio Teheran from a year ago, when you gave him a lead and it was over.”

Likewise, the bullpen remains combustible. Lots of young arms have had all sorts of moments. Brandon Cuniff’s ERA rose almost three runs in a single outing last Thursday, undoing two months of excellent work.

But, again, you’ve got a nice mix: two veterans, Jim Johnson and Grilli, holding down the last two innings while educating the youngsters.

So far, this rebuilding process hasn’t been nearly as painful as those who suffered through most of the ‘70s and ‘80s remember. This team is fun to watch, and it looks like a solid foundation has been laid for good things to come. 

Credit John Hart for all that.