CHICAGO — Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox used to always say, “You play the schedule.” In other words, you don’t change your approach based on whether the current portion of a schedule is deemed easy or difficult.
Well, the Braves have righted themselves while spending the past few weeks cruising through an easy portion of their schedule. But after claiming a 6-0 win over the Cubs on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, it was time for them to begin looking forward to the chance to now challenge themselves against some of the National League’s top teams.
“This was a good road trip,” Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson said. “We lost the first two here [in Chicago], so it was a big emphasis today to put a cap on what was a good trip. Now, we get to go home and hopefully we’re as hot as the weather there.”
After bidding adieu to a 14-game winning streak with a pair of losses to begin this weekend’s series in Chicago, the Braves avoided a three-game sweep with the assistance of home runs by Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Harris II. d’Arnaud’s three-run homer in the first inning and Harris’ solo shot in the fifth provided some cushion for Anderson, who allowed three hits over 6 2/3 scoreless innings.
As the Braves won 15 of their past 17 games, they shaved five games off their National League East deficit and now sit 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets. They achieved this success at the expense of the Rockies, A’s, Pirates and Nationals. But games against teams with a losing record aren’t gimmes. Remember, this successful streak was preceded with two ugly losses in Arizona and interrupted with a pair of losses here at Wrigley.
Now, the Braves head home to play four games against the Giants and three against the Dodgers. After matching up against these NL West powers, they will head to Philadelphia for a three-game set against a Phillies club that has also been unbeatable most of June.
“That’s a tough stretch, but everybody goes through it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think we did a good job in this last stretch of beating the teams you’re supposed to beat and that’s not easy to do. That’s really hard to do.”
By the time July arrives, it will be easier to gauge where the Braves stand in their bid to win a fifth straight NL East crown and a second straight World Series.
Why are the Braves in better shape now?
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Harris:
Multiple problems were solved when Harris was brought up from Double-A Mississippi on May 28 and Acuña began playing right field on an everyday basis on June 1. Marcell Ozuna went from defensive liability to designated hitter and Adam Duvall became the primary left fielder. Now, the Braves have one of the game’s better defensive outfields.
Duvall has benefited from putting less strain on his legs than he did while playing center field. The veteran outfielder exited May with a .526 OPS and has produced a .984 OPS this month. He is now matching expectations after coming off a 38-homer season and Harris has continued to exceed expectations while hitting .321 with three homers (all opposite-field) and a .884 OPS.
Harris has quieted concerns about how ready he was when he was promoted from Double-A with just 197 games above the high school level under his belt.
“Michael Harris just keeps learning and is amazing with the power the other way,” Snitker said. “He jumped that ball. It’s very impressive how he has handled himself.”
The Braves successfully stabilized their rotation when they moved Spencer Strider from the bullpen to the rotation on May 30. Strider’s first start was marred by some defensive mistakes. But he has posted a 1.76 ERA in three starts this month. Anderson stumbled on Tuesday against the Nationals, but he has now pitched into the sixth inning in nine of his last 10 starts. This production from the final two spots of the rotation has kept stress off a bullpen that leads the NL with a 2.92 ERA.
“When it’s your day, you want to go out there and perform,” Anderson said. “I think the lineup is the same way. They see the guys getting going and they want to be a part of it.”
Yeah, the lineup has looked very deep, despite the fact Matt Olson has produced just a .661 OPS during 17 games in June. But though some of Olson’s numbers aren’t where they were expected to be after he was acquired to replace Freddie Freeman, his three doubles on Sunday increased his MLB-leading total to 27. He is on pace to hit 65 doubles this year. Earl Webb set the MLB single-season record with 67 doubles in 1931. No player has produced a 60-double season since 1936.
“He hit some balls really, really well,” Snitker said. “He’s got that stroke now. So, that’s awesome.”