For an hour or so Tuesday, all things seemed possible: Freddie Freeman was back and the biggest crowd in the brief annals of SunTrust Park had gathered and the Braves were within a game of .500 and it was the Fourth of July and … hey, was this 1991 all over again or what?
Giddiness soon took a hike. The Braves fell 13 runs short of winning. (Biggest loss in STP history.) There were fireworks afterward, but the game itself was a damp squib – and a reality check.
(Wednesday’s game was only marginally less bad. The Astros won 10-4. They outscored their hosts 26-8 over two nights. They had 35 hits and 14 doubles. The three men atop their lineup — George Springer, Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick — were a collective 18-for-31 with 15 RBIs. Carlos Correa, their best player, sat out Game 2 with an injured thumb. We say again: The Astros are really, really good.)
Yes, the Braves had surged to 40-41 at the season’s numerical halfway point. They’d done so against a schedule ranked at MLB’s weakest. They’re second in the National League East, but it’s a distant second – as of Wednesday noon morning, they trailed the Nationals by nine games – in a terrible division. If we go by ESPN’s Relative Power Index, the worst teams in the majors are NL Easters: Mets No. 28, Braves No. 29, Phillies No. 30.
Historians among us note that the aforementioned ’91 season saw the Braves reach the All-Star break at 39-40, 9 ½ games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, 4 ½ back of second-place Cincinnati. Those Braves came within a run of winning the World Series.
Difference was, those Braves had spent every day from May 3 to July 6 at or above .500. They’d led the division May 13. They were within a half-game of first June 1. The All-Star break found the worst-to-first Braves at their nadir; they’d lost seven of nine. They came off their intermission and swept four games from St. Louis at the same time the Dodgers were losing four in Montreal. Just like that, the Braves were within 5 1/2 of L.A. They wouldn’t trail by more than six again.
Those Braves had two Hall of Fame pitchers, the 1991 NL batting champ and MVP in Terry Pendleton and the 1990 rookie of the year in David Justice. They also had the 21-year-old Steve Avery, who outpitched even Tom Glavine and John Smoltz over the second half. Lousy for nearly a decade, the Braves were primed to get good. It started to happen in the first half of ’91; it did happen in the second.
The 2017 Braves aren’t nearly so far along. They’re moving faster than we (and they) imagined, but this is not yet a playoff club. Freeman’s claim that this team “was built for the long haul” ignores the obvious: Many of these guys were hired to be traded by the deadline. They do have a nice-looking batting order, but we saw the difference Tuesday between nice and, in the case of the rampaging Astros, top-shelf.
The Braves were 16-12 in June, a month that saw them rank 12th in the majors in both runs scored and team ERA. For the season, they’re 21st in the former category and 23rd in the second. Granted, having Freeman back and having gotten rid of Bartolo Colon will help both indexes. Many folks have forgotten about Sean Rodriguez, but his swifter-than-anyone-anticipated return should offer another jolt. But enough to make a real difference in the standings?
Both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs gave the Braves a 2.7 percent chance of making the playoffs as of Wednesday morning. Both projected the Braves to finish 76-86, which would represent a 7 ½-game improvement over last season. As cold as that might sound, it still seems about right. (After Rodriguez was injured, I adjusted my original prediction of 80-82 to 77-85.)
Those 16 runs Houston hung on the Braves on the Fourth only inflicted one loss. Still, the effect was jarring. For the first time as a big-leaguer, Sean Newcomb was overmatched. At the moment, nobody else is as good as the Astros, but the teams upcoming on the Braves’ schedule are no slouches.
From May 1 through July 3, Braves played 11 games against teams now above .500. (They went 6-5.) From July 4 through Aug. 3, they’ll play 19 of 26 games against teams above .500; three of the sub-.500 games will involve the Cubs, the reigning champs who are somehow 41-42. Strange things happen in baseball, but this team being even in cosmetic competition for a playoff berth come Aug. 1 seems too much to ask.
The aim here isn’t to rain on anyone’s parade. (The Braves have seen way too much rain at SunTrust already.) But be honest: Can you really imagine this club winning 90 games? For postseason purposes, that number is important, seeing as how the Rockies, current holders of the second wild card, are on pace to win 92. The East-leading Nats, who face the Braves this weekend in D.C., are on pace to win 96.
In the grand scheme, a July sag mightn’t be so bad. It would bring clarity. It would allow general manager John Coppolella to do a bit of selling without having to worry about wrecking his team’s playoff chances. As much as we’d like to believe in the precedent of 1991, these Braves aren’t as good as those. This year is not that year.