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Ashway: Gritty Braves just keep toughing it out
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

The race for the championship of the National League Least took another wacky turn on Sunday.

The Braves were able to avoid a sweep in San Francisco, and by the time they got to Phoenix, their division lead was back up to two full games.

For what it’s worth, how could a division comprised of such unimposing teams be clinched before the final week of play?

Subtracting their 18-8 August, the Braves are under .500 for the season. And August featured that nine-game winning streak, fashioned against the two worst teams in MLB’s worst division, as well as the worst team in all of baseball, the hideous Orioles.

The Braves are 7-9 in September through Sunday, which is par for the season. But in Arizona they’ll play a four-game set against the team with the second-worst record in baseball. Hope springs eternal.

After that, three games plus a suspended game against the formerly formidable Padres, who’ve fallen on hard times. Between them, the D’backs and Padres have managed to lose 15 of their past 20 games. Their ineptitude may be enough to ensure that the Braves return home for their crucial final homestand against the Phillies and Mets still ensconced in first place.

And that would be no small feat. Considering the obstacles this Braves team has overcome, it’s amazing that they’re even thinking about the playoffs. This team has managed to dig down and pull itself up during its darkest times all season.

Sunday was no exception.

Friday night saw Travis d’Arnaud deliver a three-run homer in the top of the ninth to put the Braves ahead, 5-4. Alas, closer Will Smith notched his sixth blown save in the bottom of the inning, surrendering a two-out, pinch-hit homer to Donovan Solano, fresh off the COVID-19 list.

Unable to muster a run in either extra inning, the Braves lost in the 11th when pinch-hitter Kevin Gausman, a pitcher by trade, lofted a bases-loaded sacrifice fly.

Predictably numbed, the Braves mustered only five hits and no runs in Saturday’s 2-0 loss.

Fully expecting the worst on Sunday, Braves fans were treated to the best. Max Fried was outstanding in the role of the stopper. He became the first Braves starter in seven years to record 10 straight quality starts. He also became only the fourth pitcher to shutout the Giants through seven innings this season. He allowed three hits, one walk, and threw 67 strikes in 99 pitches.

“Max is special,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told MLB.com. “He’s a guy that just continues to get mature and get more confidence.”

The scoreless game was broken up in the seventh, when Austin Riley doubled and Adam Duvall homered. Where would these Braves be without the contributions of Duvall since he was rescued from his Florida purgatory?

“Being able to drive those runs in was huge, because it was a stalemate,” Duvall told MLB.com. “It was 0-0. It felt like neither team could get anything going. So that was huge.

“That’s about as close to the postseason as you’re going to get. You’ve got two teams that are fighting, every game is huge, and everybody on that field knows how important it is to win the game. You could tell. Every out was big, every run was big.”

Another big run was produced on the next pitch. Eddie Rosario slammed a ball that eventually wound up in McCovey Cove. Upon adding a single in the ninth, Rosario became the eighth Brave to hit for the cycle.

Amazingly, Freddie Freeman hit for his second career cycle just a month ago. His first came in 2016. From 1896 to 1910, the Braves hit for the cycle four times. From 1910 to 2008 (Mark Kotsay), they amassed a single cycle, by the legendary Albert Hall in 1987.

The Braves have achieved half of the four cycles achieved in the major leagues this season.

Incredibly, Rosario saw only five pitches in his four at-bats. That’s the fewest number of pitches seen by a player hitting for the cycle since at least 1990, according to the Baseball-Reference’s database.

“We’re all aware that we’re in first place,” Rosario told MLB.com through an interpreter. “Any time that we go up against anybody, I feel like they’re going to give us their best shot. It’s not easy, but for us, we just have to keep fighting and grit out the tough series and tough games.”

It’s taken a lot of fighting and grit for this team to grind through this season. Don’t expect anything different over the season’s final fortnight.