Albies' leadoff spark key as Braves top deGrom

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ATLANTA -- As fans clamored for Ronald Acuña Jr.Ronald Acuña Jr. or somebody other than Ender Inciarte to fill the leadoff role, Braves manager Brian Snitker progressed through Spring Training knowing that if Ozzie Albies proved he could handle right-handed pitchers more consistently, he would be placed at the top of the lineup on a daily basis.

A little more than two weeks into this season, Albies has earned the chance to be the regular catalyst for what has the makings to be a potent lineup. The switch-hitting second baseman batted leadoff for the first time against a right-handed pitcher on Sunday night and made his presence felt during a 7-3 win over the Mets.

“I really like where he’s at with his total game, because when he is up there, he’s an exciting player and he can make things happen,” Snitker said. “That can really fill a nice spot for us.”

As Albies slashed .333/.417/.476 over 24 plate appearances while serving as Atlanta’s leadoff hitter against left-handed starters, Inciarte was slashing .158/.238/.316 over the 42 plate appearances he tallied as the leadoff hitter against right-handers.

Snitker knew a change was necessary, but before making the switch he wanted to see Albies prove he had made the adjustments necessary to avoid extending the struggles he experienced last year when he produced a meager .492 OPS against right-handers after the All-Star break. The 22-year-old has thus far passed the test, as he’s produced a .400 on-base percentage from the left side.

“Whenever he puts it in play, you never know what’s going to happen,” Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran said. “He just starts running like crazy.”

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Teheran allowed one run over six innings and exited with a 1.78 ERA over his past 16 starts against the Mets dating back to June 21, 2016. He got an early run courtesy of Nick Markakis’ second-inning leadoff homer against Jacob deGrom and took the lead for good on the energy Albies showed when he singled in the third, stole second base, advanced to third on a throwing error and scored on the red-hot Acuna’s single.

Markakis homered for the second straight day, and when Josh Donaldson did the same with his fifth-inning solo shot, deGrom had allowed two homers for the second straight game. He didn’t allow more than one homer in any start last year. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner allowed three earned runs and issued four walks while totaling 114 pitches over five innings.

“I don’t know the locations of all the balls the guys hit, but I assume it wasn’t as pinpoint as he’s accustomed to,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. “That is what you have to be prepared for against a guy like that. You’re not going to be able to hit that backdoor cutter at 95 [mph]. It’s a little challenging, but you’ve got to be ready for the mistakes.”

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Albies’ single came against deGrom’s first-pitch changeup on the outer third. His eighth-inning leadoff triple was recorded against right-handed reliever Jeurys Familia’s fat first-pitch fastball. The first of these two hits was the most encouraging, given Albies hit .143 (13-for-91) against offspeed pitches thrown by right-handed pitchers in the second half last season.

“He’s been making adjustments to the league,” Snitker said.

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When Donaldson signed his one-year, $23 million deal with the Braves in November, he responded to a question about changing leagues by asking the reporter if he’d seen his numbers in Interleague games. More recently, when asked what he could offer the Braves, he asked the inquiring reporter if he’d seen the back of his baseball card.

The conservative Spring Training workload prescribed by the Braves’ medical staff may have negatively influenced Donaldson as he went 4-for-27 with no extra-base hits through his first eight regular-season games. But he has gone 10-for-26 with five doubles and two homers over his past seven games, mashing balls like he did when he was an annual candidate for the American League MVP Award.

Seven of the nine balls Donaldson has put in play since Friday have had an exit velocity of 98 mph or higher. His line drive homer against deGrom had a 109.3 mph exit velocity with a 16 degree launch angle, the lowest launch angle recorded on a homer hit by a Braves player since Statcast began tracking data in 2015.

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“For a few years there, there were no holes or anything,” Flowers said. “He could hit it up at his letters on the inside corner and outside corner, off the ground, hard and slow. He’s looking more and more like that. You can see his swing and his timing are getting there. You could see it coming over the course of the past couple weeks as he got closer to syncing it up. That was an impressive line drive today.”

With Albies at the top of the lineup, Donaldson surging, Freddie Freeman continuing to be a steady force and Acuna producing a 1.721 OPS over his past six games, the Braves are confident they have what it takes to win what should be a wild NL East race.

“It’s a solid, really good lineup,” Snitker said. “The way we play defense, I like where we’re at.”

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