Braves’ offense humming despite sluggers slumping; Atlanta stars play every day

Braves’ offense humming despite sluggers slumping; Atlanta stars play every day

By Oghale Apr24,2024

ATLANTA — Matt Olson is hitless in the past seven games, Austin Riley has two RBIs in the past 11 games, neither of them has homered in more than two weeks, and Ronald Acuña Jr. has a slugging percentage and OPS that’s more than 200 points below what he produced last year in his MVP season.

None of that matters much because the Atlanta Braves lineup depth and steadily improving starting pitching, coupled with a strong bullpen, has kept the engines humming for a team that’s won eight of nine games to stay ahead of the surging Philadelphia Phillies atop the NL East standings.

Max Fried had his best start of the season Tuesday, a three-hit shutout with no walks against the Miami Marlins for the Braves’ first nine-inning shutout since 2022, and the 5-0 win clinched another series for the only team in the majors that has not lost consecutive games this season.

The Braves lead the majors in most major offensive categories including batting average, OBP and slugging percentage, despite slow starts by some of their best hitters. It’s a stacked lineup that could be something to behold when that trio of sluggers — Acuña, Olson and Riley — starts to heat up.

And the Braves do not doubt that each will, most likely sooner than later given their track records.

“(Olson) and Riley both, the mechanics are a little out of whack,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. “Ronnie’s not synced up the way he was last year. Not yet. I felt like, probably for our last five days, (Acuña) is getting close. But Matt and Austin have been working with some mechanical adjustments that we’ve seen some differences from when they’re going well.”

Adam Duvall had a two-run homer in the sixth inning to open a 5-0 lead Tuesday.

Travis d’Arnaud, after hitting five home runs in a span of eight at-bats over his previous three games, didn’t leave the yard Tuesday. But he bounced a double over the center-field fence and added a sacrifice fly in the three-run sixth inning — just before Duvall homered off lefty starter Trevor Rogers — and a single in the eighth inning.

Riley and Marcell Ozuna also had hits in the sixth inning, just the second for Riley in six games, both singles. Riley last homered on April 7, the same day Olson hit his most recent home run. Ozuna has nine of the Braves’ 28 homers and 27 of their 128 RBIs, for a team that leads the majors in runs per game (6.04).

“It’s crazy, I feel like we’ve been playing good baseball, but I don’t feel like we’ve been playing as good as we can,” d’Arnaud said. “Obviously Ozo’s been carrying a big load of that. So, I think as the season goes on we’ll hopefully just keep getting better and better. I think as the season goes and we get in that kind of groove, it’ll be fun. And fun to watch.”

Most teams would struggle if three of their top hitters were not producing anywhere near their accustomed levels. But few teams can even come close to the depth that Atlanta has in its lineup.

“We’ve got good length,” Seitzer said. “And Ozuna has been picking us up. Travis has been picking us up, big time. Guys are grinding at-bats, bottom line. (Orlando) Arcia has been swinging it good, too. Mikey’s (Michael Harris II) been doing well. Yeah, we’ve got length. It’ll be good when we get the guys going that aren’t going yet.”

Everyday Olson, Acuña, Riley and …

No team has used the same lineup and played as many players in all or nearly every game in recent years as often as the Braves under manager Brian Snitker, whose lineup Tuesday had five players who’ve started all 22 games at the same positions this season — Acuña, Olson, Riley, Ozuna, Harris — and another, Arcia, who’s started all but one game at shortstop this season.

And if second baseman Ozzie Albies wasn’t on the 10-day injured list with a broken big toe, it’s safe to assume he would have started every game. He’s eligible to come off the IL Friday, and Snitker hopes to have him in the lineup that night after watching Albies take batting practice and infield drills without any difficulties this week.

The only positions where Snitker has used any platoon this season are catcher and left field. His lineup regulars want to play every day and have come to expect they will be in the lineup during anything other than an extreme slump, nagging injury or soreness that’s not quite bad enough to land them on the IL.

And it’s hard to argue with the results that Snitker and the Braves have had with this play-every-day approach. Last season, the Braves had three of the 11 major leaguers who played 159 or more games including Olson, who played all 162.

In 2022, Olson and former Braves teammate Dansby Swanson were the only MLB players to play all 162. In 2021, the year the Braves won the World Series, Atlanta’s Swanson and Riley led the NL with 160 games played and teammates Freddie Freeman (159) and Albies (156) were right behind them.

“I’ve been on some pretty good teams, seen some pretty good players,” Braves utility player Luke Williams said, noting the uniqueness in atmosphere and philosophy with the Braves. “It’s different here. The Dodgers obviously have the stars, and it’s a great vibe there. But it’s a little different here.

“These guys, it’s every single day. It’s every single day, and it’s impressive. Because that’s not as common a thing anymore in baseball.”

Williams’ rookie season was in 2021 with Philadelphia, when Bryce Harper was the NL MVP. He spent much of the 2022 season with Miami, in Sandy Alcantara’s Cy Young Award season with the Marlins. And Williams played parts of last season with the Braves and Dodgers.

“A lot of teams are going to the matchups and kind of looking at the analytics of everything,” Williams said, “instead of saying these are the best players we’ve got and we’re going to play them.”

The Braves, Williams said, use analytics effectively without being consumed by it.

“From an outsider’s perspective, before I came over here,” Williams said of the Braves, “you see the coaching staff and it’s an older coaching staff, so you’re thinking, ‘OK, I don’t think they’re buying into the analytics probably yet.’ But then you come over and I think it’s a great blend of old-school baseball, but the analytics are there and we’re using them. But it’s a happy medium of baseball feels and experience, and alright, this is what the numbers say.

“It’s a matter of when to use it and when to use your baseball intuition.”

(Photo of Michael Harris II reacting to a double: Dale Zanine / USA Today)

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