December 7, 2022

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Braves confident 'best is yet to come' for stumbling lineup

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ATLANTA — The Braves might start rolling once Ronald Acuña Jr. starts playing regularly again.  Or maybe they need Charlie Morton to prove he truly can still pitch like a frontline starter on a consistent basis.

Or maybe most every hitter not named Dansby Swanson just has to pick up the slack. Swanson erased Max Fried’s deficit, but Will Smith surrendered another home run as the Braves suffered an 11-6 loss to the Padres on Friday night at Truist Park.

“It’s just one of those things,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We’ll keep grinding and fighting and eventually we’ll get it all going at once.”  

Focusing on offensive struggles doesn’t seem to be logical on a night when the Braves scored six runs. But as Swanson drove in four of those runs, it again became apparent that this capable lineup has had too many holes for too long. The futile production received from Matt Olson, Marcell Ozuna, Adam Duvall and Ozzie Albies over the past few weeks is a key reason why the  defending World Series champions are 15-18.

Before looking at the most recent struggles, we’ll glance at the season as a whole. 

Here we are 33 games into the season and Olson (.828) is the only qualified Braves player with an OPS above .800. Austin Riley ranks second at .796 and Swanson third at .709. Each of the other qualified players have an OPS below .700 — Albies (.698), Ozuna (.582) and Duvall (.564).  

To put this in context, the first-place Mets have three players — Brandon Nimmo (.875), Pete Alonso (.838) and Jeff McNeil (.821) — who have an OPS above .800. That’s not necessarily something to boast about. But when you consider who is in the Braves’ lineup, it’s certainly something the reigning champs were expecting to have at this point of the season.

“It seems like I’ve been talking about something like this at this point of the season each of the past five years,” Snitker said.

It should be pointed out the Braves spent most of the season’s first month without Acuña, who returned from a torn right ACL on April 28, played 10 games and then missed the past two with a sore right groin. The outfielder hopes to be back at the top of Atlanta’s lineup on Saturday. That will certainly help. But it still has to be more than just the Swanson and Acuña show. 

When the Freddie Freeman era ended in Atlanta, the Braves seemingly found the perfect replacement in Olson. The veteran first baseman was productive during his first few weeks with his hometown team. But he has hit just .159 with one homer and a .582 OPS over his past 17 games going back to April 24. 

Olson isn’t alone. Going back to the same date, Swanson has hit .291 with an .874 OPS. Riley ranks second on the team this span with a disappointing .723 OPS. Every other qualified Braves batter has provided meager production within this span. This includes Duvall (.609 OPS), Albies (.510 OPS) and Ozuna (.346 OPS). 

“You’re going to go through ups and downs in this game,” Fried said. “You’ve just got to stay with the process and put together good at-bats, and hopefully some balls will fall and you run into some luck and hopefully run into a good streak.”

Approaching the quarter mark of the season, the Braves still haven’t won three straight games. This has been influenced by the struggles of Morton, who had a 6.85 ERA before throwing five scoreless against the Brewers on Sunday. Acuña’s absence hasn’t helped either. But this lineup is more than capable of covering some of this team’s woes.  

Travis Demeritte’s three-hit game on Friday night gave further hope he can soften the loss of Eddie Rosario, who could miss three months after undergoing eye surgery. William Contreras’ third-inning leadoff homer in this series opener against the Padres further enhanced excitement about his young bat.

But while these unexpected contributions are appreciated, the Braves won’t get on a roll until Olson, Ozuna, Albies and Duvall get back to being their productive selves again. 

“You’d rather be playing well and not starting off slow,” Fried said. “But we know we haven’t played our best baseball yet. The best is yet to come. We’re just going to keep our heads down, keep working and then just ride that wave when it comes.”

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