Sports

Like Most Good Sequels, Atlanta Has Stuck With What Worked

ATLANTA — The Braves are familiar with slow starts. En route to a World Series title last season, they overcame a 30-35 record on June 16. So when this year started to play out in a similar fashion, they kept their cool. The regular season, after all, is six months long.

“It was easy for us not to overreact, panic, whatever words that are synonyms,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “We all stayed calm and we knew that it would take us only one game to get us rolling again.”

On May 31, despite having a team record $178 million payroll, Atlanta was 23-27. Things turned around in a hurry this time around. Through Monday, the team had improved to 42-32, placing them firmly in the hunt for a wild-card spot in the National League and five games behind the Mets for first place in the N.L. East.

In the rough start, the team took some solace in not having lost more than two games in a row, but it had not managed to win more than two in a row either.

“It was hard to sustain anything because we would kind of kick ourselves in one area, whether it was starting pitching, bullpen, hitting, defense,” the right-handed reliever Collin McHugh said.

The longtime first baseman Freddie Freeman had left for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Key players like outfielder Eddie Rosario, and relievers Tyler Matzek and Luke Jackson were on the injured list. The star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was working his way into shape after knee surgery had ended his 2021 season early.

Ronald Acuña Jr. has reestablished himself as a force for Atlanta. He is hitting .281 with seven home runs and 13 stolen bases in his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligagment in his right knee.Credit…Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

And shortstop Dansby Swanson, Atlanta’s longest tenured player and a hometown kid who grew up 15 minutes from Truist Park, was off to a painful start. In many ways, Swanson’s turnaround, and his development into one of the best players in baseball, set the stage for Atlanta’s rise in the standings.

“Every season presents its own challenges and every team identity is different,” said Swanson, 28. “So you start to put together how a certain team operates best. We were kind of having to find ourselves and certain people were starting slow or whatever the case may be, and it just took time.”

Fourteen games into his final season before free agency, Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, was hitting .143 with 22 strikeouts in only 49 at-bats. Then someone sent him two photos: one of his swing when he was hitting well in 2021, and another of his swing from early April.

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“It kind of just hit me like, ‘Wow, you don’t start on time then it’s going to be hard to hit,’” he said. In other words, Swanson, a right-handed batter, was beginning his swing and all of its several moving parts, such as lifting his front leg, too late and thus he was missing pitches.

The bad habit was so simple and obvious that Swanson was surprised he hadn’t spotted it sooner. During the 2020 season, when he hit .274 with a career high .809 on-base plus slugging percentage, Swanson said he had made the timing of his swing a priority.

“It’s crazy how sometimes you kind of forget about it,” he said.

Swanson’s defense has always been stellar. Thanks to his offensive surge, he is leading all shortstops in wins above replacement.Credit…Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Since fixing that flaw, Swanson has been the N.L.’s best shortstop. Entering Tuesday’s games, his .871 O.P.S. trailed only Boston’s Xander Bogaerts at baseball’s most demanding defensive position. His batting average (.304) and home runs (13) ranked third for the position. Add in his stellar defense and Fangraphs had Swanson ranked as the seventh most valuable player in baseball (top among shortstops) in wins above replacement.

“We sit next to each other on the planes,” McHugh said, “and I remember early in the season and we were just talking and he knew he was struggling, and everyone knew he was, but he was the exact same guy. I thought, ‘Damn, this is pretty impressive to know you have the pressure of being here, being a free agent next year and having a lot of stuff on your mind.’”

To go along with his play on the field, Swanson has grown further into a team leader. During mound visits to go over a game plan with a pitcher, d’Arnaud said there are times he keeps his mouth shut.

“Shoot, I let him talk sometimes,” he said of Swanson. “He’s able to hype up the pitcher or get him to focus when we need to.”

D’Arnaud added: “I think the game has slowed down for him so much that now he’s seeing the whole game.”

Third baseman Austin Riley has an .828 on-base plus slugging percentage and 18 home runs.Credit…Bob Andres/Associated Press
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud has an .809 O.P.S. and 10 home runs in 49 games.Credit…John Leyba/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Behind Swanson, Atlanta has vaulted up the N.L. standings. The biggest area of improvement: a power surge led by Swanson.

From April 7 to May 31, Atlanta had averaged 4.1 runs per game and had amassed 62 home runs. In the 24 games since, it averaged 5.9 runs per game and had smashed 48 home runs. Third baseman Austin Riley, outfielder Adam Duvall, d’Arnaud, Swanson and Acuña had each hit at least five home runs. (The star second baseman Ozzie Albies added two before landing on the injured list on June 14 with a fractured foot.)

“Making better contact,” Manager Brian Snitker said of the surge. “We’re still striking out a lot. We’re not going to get away from that. That’s who we are. It’s part of how we’re constructed.” He added later, “Once guys get going, they start relaxing and feel like they don’t have to be the guy, and all of a sudden everybody starts being productive.

Atlanta is 19-5 this month — including a 14-game winning streak — amassing victories against rebuilding teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals, but also taking a four-game set from the San Francisco Giants and dropping a close three-game series against the Dodgers.

“We showed that, if you had any questions, we’re as good as anybody in this league,” Snitker said.

Freddie Freeman broke into tears multiple times during a weekend series in Atlanta in which Manager Brian Snitker presented him with his 2021 World Series ring.Credit…Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Against the Dodgers over the weekend, the Braves honored Freeman, who signed a six-year, $162 million deal with Los Angeles in the off-season after 12 years in Atlanta, and presented him with his World Series ring. He cried throughout a news conference before Friday’s game, during the ring ceremony and during a standing ovation before his first at-bat.

Freeman, who is from Southern California, had wanted to remain in Atlanta but he took the Dodgers’ slightly larger offer when the club that drafted him chose not to match it. Will Swanson, who was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015 but traded to his hometown team the same year, be the star who stays?

“I mean, who does know, right?” he said, adding that he and his fiancée, the pro soccer player Mallory Pugh, have prayed about his future. Swanson, who has a career .742 O.P.S., added later, “It’s been a huge blessing to be here. I have four nephews and they’re all here, and to see them grow up, and to be with my family and with my friends, the people I grew up with, my community of people, is an amazing blessing and definitely something that I do not take for granted.”

D’Arnaud said he hoped Swanson would remain with Atlanta for the rest of his career. The two have already helped the team win a championship but are aiming for one of the most difficult achievements in baseball: back-to-back titles. The last team to repeat as champion was the Yankees, who won three straight from 1998 to 2000. That’s 21 consecutive seasons without another repeat winner, the longest such streak in league history.

“For us to do it again, we know that the odds are against us,” d’Arnaud said. He added later, “You can’t control injuries, you can’t control how people play, you can’t control how teams pitch against you. The only thing you can really control is your attitude.”

Having this season’s turnaround start two weeks earlier than last year’s should help as well.

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