Braves clinch first-round bye as they consider Wright's role

September 19th, 2023

ATLANTA -- As the Braves progress through the regular season’s final two weeks, they want to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason and evaluate how a player like Kyle Wright could fit their October plans.

These efforts can contradict themselves, like they did as Wright made what was essentially another rehab start in a 7-1 loss to the Phillies on Monday night at Truist Park. But even though they have now lost four straight games, the Braves still have enough cushion to put long-term value ahead of immediate results.

They also now know they will have home-field advantage in the National League Division Series. This was guaranteed when former Braves top prospect Adam Wainwright captured his 200th win as the Cardinals beat the Brewers on Wednesday night.

“My goal is to get back and be a weapon for us in the postseason,” Wright said. “So I've definitely put a lot of added pressure on myself. I still think there’s an opportunity for me to do so.”

  • Games remaining (12): vs. PHI (2), at WSH (4), vs. CHC (3), vs. WSH (3)
  • Standings update: The Braves (96-54) have clinched a first-round bye and home field advantage in the NL Division Series thanks to the Cardinals’ win over the Brewers on Monday night. They are the top National League division leader, meaning they would face the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 Wild Card in a five-game NL Division Series starting on Oct. 7.

Atlanta is two games ahead of the Orioles in the battle for MLB’s best record and home-field advantage for the postseason, and the team is 3 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers in the battle for the NL’s best record and home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series.

The Braves own the tiebreaker against both the Orioles and Dodgers.

Why should Wright even be considered for the postseason? The Braves likely won’t use more than three starters during the best-of-five NLDS, which has an off-day between Games 1 and 2. But their bullpen options are becoming less certain.  

Dylan Lee went from candidate to cast-off last week. Michael Tonkin got some huge outs in last Tuesday’s win in Philadelphia. But he has allowed at least two runs in three of his past four outings, including Monday, when he surrendered Kyle Schwarber’s 483-foot homer. 

So guys like Wright and Jackson Stephens, neither of whom has spent much time on Atlanta’s roster this year, are suddenly candidates. So, too, might be AJ Smith-Shawver or other Minor Leaguers, who could get a late-season look like Lee and Spencer Strider did in 2021.

What has gone wrong for the Braves over the past four games? Well, their pitching staff has surrendered 43 runs within this span. One game was started by Jared Shuster, who likely won’t be seen again this year after being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett for a fifth time. The latest game was started by Wright, who has totaled 15 1/3 innings since going on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation in May’s first week.

Wright allowed three homers Monday as the Phillies tallied four earned runs over four-plus innings against him. He issued four walks while recording five strikeouts. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but this was basically his fifth rehab start.

“I think he’s doing great for a kid that had no Spring Training and no regular season until now,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I don’t think you can expect much more than what he’s doing.”

Max Fried was given four rehab starts before he returned to Atlanta’s rotation in early August after a three-month layoff. As Fried has battled inconsistency over the past six weeks, he has pointed out how along with getting his body back in shape, he has had to reacquaint himself with game speed.

When Wright was activated from the injured list to start the second game of last week’s doubleheader in Philadelphia, he barely escaped a 36-pitch first inning. He escaped trouble in this latest first inning but encountered some tough luck in the second, when Johan Rojas hit an opposite-field homer against a fastball above the letters.

Bryce Harper homered against a curveball on the outside corner in the third, and J.T. Realmuto hit a sinker that stayed in the zone in the fourth.

“I think sometimes I’m having trouble finding a feel for the game,” Wright said. “I think that’s where I got in trouble sometimes. To Harper, the curveball, I don’t think I should have thrown that one, because I kind of got him with that on his first AB. He’s such a smart hitter. You usually can’t get him out on the same pitch twice.”

Wright relied on that same repertoire that helped him become MLB’s only 20-game winner last year. He relied heavily on his curveball, which induced a whiff on six of 14 swings. His sinker and four-seamer sat 94-95 mph last year but were closer to 92-93 mph Monday.

There’s time for Wright to make two more regular-season starts. What he does during those outings will provide a better feel for what potential value he could bring at some point during the postseason.  

“This one wasn’t pretty, but I do feel it was a lot better than the last one,” Wright said. “I have to continue to be aggressive and execute at the same time.”