The Atlanta Braves play baseball like each individual member of the batting order has no idea that he has any teammates, and therefore cannot get stuck on base without ruining the half inning. (Bugs Bunny used this philosophy to great effect in “Baseball Bugs.”) The team that all but clinched the NL East with a sweep of the Mets this weekend strikes out in 24.6 percent of their at-bats, more than any team except the Angels and the Pirates, but they also showcase the most top-to-bottom raw power of anyone in baseball, leading the league in slugging and placing second only to the Yankees with 241 dingers. They swing hard, and they often miss hard, but infuriatingly for their opposition, they can win by just piling up the solo homers and letting their stout bullpen protect the lead.
That’s exactly what happened in Atlanta’s last three games. On Friday, Austin Riley, Matt Olson, and Dansby Swanson all tagged Jacob deGrom—who otherwise tallied 11 Ks—with no-doubter solo shots en route to a 5-2 victory. On Saturday, Swanson smashed a two-run blast in the fifth against Max Scherzer to give the Braves a 3-2 lead, and then Olson added one in the next inning for a 4-2 win. And on Sunday night, despite the Mets outhitting the Braves 11-5, Atlanta left with a 5-3 win thanks again in part to this damn Dansby Swanson and his partner in crime Matt Olson both leaving the yard with nobody on base.
The Mets certainly deserve scorn for not being able to cash in their opportunities throughout these fairly tight losses, and as punishment, barring some unlikely reversal of their two-game deficit as they finish out against the Nats and the Braves end with the Marlins, they have been denied the first-round bye given to the top two division winners. Instead, the second-place team in the NL East will face the dicey proposition of a three-game series, likely against the Padres but maybe against the Phillies, to earn the right to play the Los Angeles Dodgers, Devourer of Worlds, in the NLDS.
As far as their outlook has suddenly fallen, this to me still doesn’t feel like a classic case of Metsian collapse. The Braves are just that good, having completely shaken off their early-season hangover to go an astonishing 76-32 since the end of May. The top starters—Max Fried, Kyle Wright, and the rookie Spencer Strider when he’s healthy—keep the opponents’ bats quiet early. The aggressive sluggers like Olson, Swanson, Riley, and another rookie in Michael Harris stack up 1s in the line score. And the bullpen, most notably Raisel Iglesias and his 0.37 ERA since coming to the team at the deadline, barricades the door at the end.
It doesn’t always look pretty. In fact, the Braves can lull you into a false sense of security when they’re venturing out of the zone and whiffing more often than any other squad. But even though they aren’t putting people on base with the same regularity as their top postseason rivals, the times they do barrel that ball more than make up for all the ugly at-bats. You can’t deny that the formula is working, and all that the opposing fan is left to do is grumble about that insipid chant while watching the replay of their latest dong.