ATLANTA -- Instead of attempting to overanalyze why Dansby Swanson has always seemingly had the knack to come up big in big situations, it might be best to just use the simple explanation Kyle Wright has developed since meeting Swanson when they played together for Vanderbilt University in 2015.
“It’s the proverbial ‘it’ factor, he’s got it,” Wright said. “He’s just a winner. He hates losing. Everyone hates losing, but he hates it more than the average person. His competitive fibers just take the stage in the biggest moments.”
Given a chance to shine yet again, Swanson didn’t blink as he helped the Braves move into sole possession of first place with a 4-2 win over the Mets on Saturday night at Truist Park. His go-ahead home run off Max Scherzer enhanced his legacy and strengthened Atlanta’s bid for a fifth straight National League East title.
Games remaining: 4
Standings update: Braves lead NL East by one game
Tiebreaker info: The tiebreaker goes to whichever team wins Sunday and wins the season series, which is knotted through 18 games.
“I grew up in a sports family, like I was always on a field or on a basketball court my entire life, even probably from times I can’t remember, when I was in a stroller, being dragged around everywhere,” Swanson said. "I do feel like God made me for certain things, and I do think [being able to deliver in the clutch] is one of them. I’m so thankful for it.”
So, too are the Braves, who have seen Swanson and Matt Olson homer in both of the first two games of this weekend’s big series. By winning these first two games, the Braves now have a one-game lead over the Mets with four games left in what has been a great NL East race. Atlanta’s only other first-place stint this year occurred on Sept. 9, when they gained a half-game lead and then lost it the next day.
Maybe it was fitting for the Braves to gain their biggest lead of the year on the same day Wright earned his MLB-best 21st win. He far exceeded expectations in 2022, as he entered this season with two career wins in 14 starts. Atlanta has also quieted those who gave up on the Braves when they entered June 10 1/2 games behind the Mets.
“[Our players] have played a lot of big games these past few years, and I think they were looking forward to this series,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We’re not done. We’ve still got work to do. They like this atmosphere and this feel for games this time of year.”
Whoever wins Sunday will win the 19-game season series and thus gain the tiebreaker. So, if the Braves win the series finale, their magic number would be reduced to one, meaning just one more win or one additional Mets loss beyond Sunday would decide the race.
If the Braves lose the series finale, they would be tied with three games remaining, but the Mets would own the tiebreaker.
“You just got to approach it the same way,” Olson said. “You show up, try to win a ballgame tomorrow and go from there.”
As the first few weeks of September elapsed, there was reason to question when Swanson, Olson and Austin Riley would get back to their productive ways. Each has contributed to the efforts that have allowed the Braves to beat Jacob deGrom and Scherzer in the first two games of this series.
Olson delivered an RBI single in the fourth and then damaged Scherzer again with a leadoff homer in the sixth. The veteran first baseman entered play Monday hitting .102 with one homer and a .353 OPS over his past 25 games, but he has gone 8-for-16 with four homers during the five games that have followed.
Had Olson not been selected by the A’s in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft, he would have likely followed through with his plans to be Swanson’s roommate at Vanderbilt. But he ended up having to wait another decade to play alongside the guy who seems to have the clutch gene.
“[Swanson] didn’t have the best start to the season, and I was impressed with how he handled it,” Olson said. “Look at where he is now.”
Swanson entered Saturday ranked 13th among all MLB players with a 6.0 fWAR. Nobody expected him to reach this mark when he hit .143 with a .432 OPS through this season’s first 14 games. The stoic shortstop wasn’t overwhelmed by that stretch, and he didn’t seem bothered as he produced a .666 OPS in the 62 games that followed the All-Star break leading into this series.
After Olson and Riley hit back-to-back homers on Friday, Swanson tallied his own solo shot off deGrom. Those who have seen him deliver in big games for the Braves and Vanderbilt weren’t thinking about batting average, OPS and xwOBA when he came to the plate to face deGrom. The same applied to the plate appearance against Scherzer, who threw five pitches out of the zone (two of which Swanson swung at) and then paid for the 3-2 center-cut fastball that landed over the left-center-field wall.
“Ever since he’s got here, he’s always shined in that spot,” Snitker said.
Swanson has hit just .185 with a .577 OPS in 65 at-bats in Close/Late situations this year. But his reputation has been built on memories of big moments, like when he and Jorge Soler hit back-to-back homers to help the Braves gain a comeback win in Game 4 of last year’s World Series.
Wright, who pitched 4 2/3 innings in that World Series game, also fondly remembers Swanson hitting a game-winning homer in the ninth inning of a 2015 NCAA tournament game against Indiana.
“It’s not a secret he steps up in those moments,” Wright said. “He’s just wired right. That’s just the best way I can explain it.”