I’ve tried to temper my excitement for this year’s Atlanta Braves team.
But here we are on June 22 and they’re 5.5 games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies for first place in the National League East after erasing a four-run deficient in a 13-9 win over the Washington Nationals on Saturday.
So I can no longer contain my excitement (also I finally had time to sit down and write about it). The Atlanta Braves have a championship caliber lineup.
On Saturday they scored four runs in the seventh and eighth innings to slug their way to comeback victory. It was the third time in the last six games the Braves have scored 12 runs or more (all against division opponents), displaying where the Braves have upgraded the most from last year’s ahead-of-schedule Division Championship club.
The Braves were defeated 3-1 in the NLDS by the Los Angeles Dodgers last year and one thing was abundantly clear — Atlanta didn’t have the depth in its lineup that the Dodgers did.
So while Atlanta didn’t do much to shore up its pitching staff until signing Dallas Keuchel on June 6th, it did create the depth needed to make a deeper postseason run at the plate. What the Braves put together is one of the most balanced lineups in the MLB.
According to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, the Braves boast nine hitters with at least 125 plate appearances with numbers that would qualify them as average or better hitters. That’s tops in the National League and ties Minnesota for the most in the MLB.
Mainstay Freddie Freeman has put up MVP numbers so far. His three-run double on Saturday was his 20th double of the year. He’s hitting .318 with 21 home runs and 61 RBIs.
One of the reasons for the first baseman’s success is the Braves’ biggest offseason addition, former AL MVP Josh Donaldson. The third baseman signed a 1-year, $23 million deal. He’s found his stroke of late and has 14 homers and 36 RBIs on the year.
The 1-year deal was a win for both sides. It allowed Donaldson a year to show that he was healthy after missing big chunks of the last two years, while also allowing third base to be available for Austin Riley moving forward.
Riley’s bat proved too hot to keep in the minors early this season and when Ender Inciarte went down with a back injury, the 22-year-old was brought up to the bigs. All he’s done is hit 12 homers in 36 games.
He joins fellow phenoms Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson as building blocks for the Braves next run as perennial postseason contenders.
Acuña has 17 homers and is as exciting a leadoff hitter as there is in baseball. The switch-hitting Alibies added two more hits on Saturday to raise his average to .284 on the year.
Swanson (henceforth known as Mallory Pugh’s boyfriend in honor the USWNT’s World Cup title defense) is having a breakout year. His three-run homer on Saturday in the eighth inning was the decisive blow and was his 14th of the year to go with 47 RBIs.
It’s not all young talent for Atlanta though. Brian McCann has proven you can go home again with a .287 average and seven homers. He and fellow Peach State product Tyler Flowers (.272 avg., seven homers) have formed a productive catching duo behind the plate.
Nick Markakis has been solid as always with 42s RBIs. Hopefully Brian Snitker learned his lesson last year and will rest the 35-year-old outfielder more during the season to avoid a second-half slump like last season.
Last season Charlie Culberson earned his place in Braves’ fans hearts with clutch hit after clutch hit when he got his chances to be in the lineup. His opportunities have been fewer this year with the addition of Donaldson shifting Johan Camargo to the utility role, but he’s still been an incredible asset.
His biggest role has been as a pinch-hitter, with a .333 average, a homer, two doubles, two triples and eight RBIs. Culberson isn’t the only Brave making a name for himself as potent pinch-hitter.
Matt Joyce has 10 hits off the bench, with six RBIs and a homer. He’s been a solid addition in the outfield as well.
Inciarte was struggling mightily before the injury, but figures to boost the bench more if he returns this season. He also is the likeliest trade piece as a solid defender under 30 who has shown flashes of power the last two years.
It’s as deep a Braves lineup as I can remember. Which is why it didn’t matter on Saturday that starter Mike Foltynewicz gave up eight runs as his awful 2019 continued.
There’s no doubt the Braves need to add more arms, both in the bullpen and perhaps another starter if they’re going to really push the Dodgers. Fortunately they have the pieces do to so.
And if the pitching staff can get more consistent, paired with this lineup, we could be looking at a very fun October for the Braves.
(Photo: John Bazemore, Associated Press)