As tempting as it might be to jump on the Atlanta Braves early-season bandwagon, April enthusiasm has a way of making September fools.
Even after Saturday night’s loss at Pittsburgh, the Braves have the best record in baseball and have enjoyed a rare 10-game winning streak, provoking glee from a fan base eager to rekindle the spirit of 1991-2005 when division titles were an annual expectation around here.
“We just keep going back to how early it is,” starting pitcher Kris Medlen told reporters after that 10th consecutive win on Tuesday lifted the Braves to 12-1. “We can start as strong as we want but we can stumble up in the middle of the season or whatever it is. So just try and stay consistent and take it a game at a time.”
A 10-game winning streak in the first two weeks of the season is no small thing, of course. Only five previous teams since 1900 have ever accomplished such a feat. Only one, however, went on to win the World Series (1955 Brooklyn Dodgers) and only one other even reached the postseason (1982 Braves).
That Braves team is the best cautionary comparable for anyone getting too carried away with this season’s promising start. Those Braves won a record 13 consecutive games to start the season (tied by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987) but by the end of May was sitting at 27-20. It regained enough composure after the All-Star break to win the NL West by one game only to be swept by St. Louis in the NL Division Series.
This 2013 Braves team is already somewhat of a mystery. If you’ve figured them out, please share.
Before Saturday’s game, they had given up the fewest runs (37) in baseball – 18 fewer than the next stingiest defense in the National League (Dodgers).
In the process, the Braves scored twice as many runs (74) with the most home runs (29) in the majors. That offensive success comes despite having half of their every day position starters batting under .200, including Dan Uggla (.164), B.J. Upton (.158) and Jason Heyward (.127).
The only real conclusion we can reach based on careful consideration of the facts is that the Braves are much better when they score
(13-1) than when they don’t (0-3).
Atlanta has homered in every single victory – often repeatedly – and been stymied in all but one loss.
“It’s nice to have that type of arsenal in your club because it’s a game-changer,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said recently. “One swing of the bat and you can put some runs on the board, so that’s always nice.”
Atlanta was the first National League team to hit 29 homers in its first 15 games since Cincinnati in 2006. Left fielder Justin Upton has nine of them (the fastest Braves to reach that number) as he raises the family curve while his center field brother, B.J., struggles at the plate.
After so many recent seasons when run production has doomed the Braves when it matters most, the productivity is refreshing.
“These runs don’t come too often,” said Uggla, who got off to a similarly rancid start two years ago before going on a 33-game hitting streak that helped push the Braves to the brink of the postseason before an epic wild-card race collapse. “You’ve got to ride the wave as long as you can ride it. It’s definitely a lot of fun. We’re playing good baseball. We’re coming from behind. We’re battling. We’re still in the process of figuring it out as a collective team. But we’re off to a great start. There’s a great vibe in the clubhouse and we’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep riding it. And keep picking each other up.”
Off nights, however, have provided quite the contrast. Three of the Braves four losses have been by shutouts.
Kansas City snapped the 10-game streak with a 1-0 victory – the lone run getting driven in by former hometown Atlanta headache Jeff Francoeur, of all people.
Then in Pittsburgh on Friday, the Braves sent the minimum number of batters to the plate (27) in a 6-0 loss to the Pirates.
Starter Paul Maholm, who hadn’t allowed a run before Saturday’s game, was tagged for three as Atlanta suffered back-to-back losses for the first time this season.
As impossible as it is to pinpoint just what this Braves team is capable of over the next 145 games, a quick start is never a bad thing.
Neither is sitting three games ahead (with a three-game road sweep in the pocket) of the favored Washington Nationals or being six up on recurring nemesis Philadelphia.
Perhaps if B.J. Upton and Heyward decide to finally become consistent contributors, these Braves might have more in store than just a hot start.