Baseball fans generally disagree about when it’s OK to start thinking about the standings and playoff races.
Generally, most would agree that June wouldn’t be “do or die” time in that regard. For this Atlanta Braves team, however, these 11 games could be just that.
Yesterday, the Braves kicked off four games on the road against the National League East-leading New York Mets, with the Mets 5 games ahead of Atlanta in the standings. The Phillies are just ahead of the Braves and 4 games back, but I choose to ignore the Phillies whenever possible.
Then the Braves play a four-game series in Cincinnati against the volatile Reds, while the Mets will play four games against the Phillies and a single game against the Nationals before heading to Atlanta for a three-game series to flip the calendar to July.
The math here is simple, folks.
To address the games that aren’t head-to-head between the Braves and Mets, I think most of us would feel pretty good if the Braves split that Reds series. Meanwhile, you have to at least assume the Mets will go 3-2 in their non-Braves games. That means the Mets would gain a half-game over that time period.
Thus, if the Braves were to simply split all these games with the division leaders, they’d be 5 1/2 games back after July 1. But they can’t split seven games. So they need to go at least 4-3 against the Mets to avoid going 6 1/2 down.
With a team that has struggled to string together wins, you’d hate to enter that three-game home set needing a sweep to stay afloat, especially since Jacob deGrom and Taijuan Walker are both lined up for that series. That means the Braves need at least a split in New York.
It seemed fairly obvious that the team felt that way as well. Originally, Ian Anderson was said to be the starter for Game 1 of Monday’s doubleheader against deGrom, with Kyle Muller set for game 2. Sometime before the lineup came out for that first game, however, Muller was bumped to Game 1 against the deGrom monster.
That move paid off. While deGrom didn’t absolutely demolish the Braves through seven innings of a shortened game as might have been expected, he only allowed three baserunners through five shutout innings.
And even Muller’s exit in that game showed the urgency the Braves see in this series, as the rookie was lifted after just four innings 56 pitches and one earned run. The Braves had runners on second and third after a Kevan Smith double, the only hit off deGrom for the day, and the pitcher’s spot up. Pablo Sandoval popped out, but manager Brian Snitker saw a chance to score on the Mets’ ace and took it.
It didn’t pay off in the end, however, as the Braves lost 4-2. In the very next frame, after Shane Greene loaded the bases due to poor control and some bad luck, Snitker inexplicably turned to Sean Newcomb. The lefty predictably gave up a three-run double, and that was – as they say – all she wrote.
Anderson made good on his end of the deal, as he, AJ Minter and Will Smith combined for seven shutout innings in the second game. For the second straight day, Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a solo home run to provide all the runs the Braves would need in a 1-0 victory.
So even if the in-game strategy didn’t work, the shuffling of the rotation yielded exactly the result the Braves were looking for – a split of the first two games of the series.
Now it’s up to Charlie Morton and apparently Kyle Wright. Morton (6-3, 4.03 ERA), coming off an absolute gem against the Cardinals last week, will be facing off against Marcus Stroman (6-5, 2.35 ERA) tonight. Kyle Wright (0-0, 4.15 ERA) will make his second start of the season Wednesday after being called up to replace Max Fried, who went on the IL with a blister issue.
Wright’s first start of the year was a bit of a rollercoaster. He went 4 1/3 innings against the Chicago Cubs on April 16, surrendering two runs on three hits and two walks. He struck out five batters, but he also hit four batters. All in all, the Braves will need a better outing from him this time around.
Win either of these next two games, and gaining ground in the division over this next stretch is still attainable. Win both, and things could really start to get interesting as we move into July.
Lose both, and it could be a very unhappy summer in Braves Country. These next two games could be the difference between the Braves pulling within 3 games of the Mets – and perhaps taking a lead the next week – and falling 8.5 back.
The Braves announced the lineup for Tuesday night’s game around 3:30 p.m., with no real surprises included.