Braves hit 'rut' with clock ticking in NL East race

September 23rd, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- The Braves won a World Series despite having a losing record for more than half of the 2021 season and they have produced one of the game’s best records since exiting May with another losing record.

The defending World Series champs might not understand the meaning of panic. But to win a fifth consecutive National League East title, they will need to show some urgency and avoid squandering opportunities like they again did in a 1-0 loss to the Phillies on Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s going to happen during the course of the season,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You just never know when you’re going to hit those ruts.”

It’s hard to say the Braves are in a rut, considering they have won five of their past seven. But a two-game losing streak in the middle of a tight pennant race can certainly enhance worry, at least among the fans.

“Nobody wants to play well and win more than the guys who are on the field every day," shortstop Dansby Swanson said. "There’s different ways to go about it and there’s different temperaments for different times of the year. And right now, it’s something we have to obviously figure out and just play better. There’s no two ways about it -- just play better and get going as a team, find ways to put runs on the board and keep other teams off the board.”

Ranger Suárez threw six solid innings and the Phillies bullpen provided effective relief. Sometimes teams are just on the wrong end of a strong pitching performance. But given the Braves managed just two runs against five Nationals pitchers on Wednesday, tipping the cap again seems useless, especially with the clock ticking.

With 12 games remaining, the Braves are 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets, who were idle on Thursday. The two division rivals will meet during a three-game series next weekend in Atlanta. So, there’s still time. But to make a run, the Braves need more from their offense, specifically more from Swanson, Austin Riley and Matt Olson.

Actually, Riley contributed three hits against the Phillies and Olson recorded a hit for the third time in four days. But their contributions weren’t enough to support Max Fried, who surrendered just one run while the Phillies forced him to throw 107 pitches over five innings.

“We’re still a confident bunch,” Fried said. “We know how talented we are.”

Nobody is questioning the talents of Swanson and Riley, who were both All-Stars, or Olson, who ranks seventh in the Majors with 70 extra-base hits. But there might be reason to question their endurance.

Swanson, Riley and Olson entered Thursday as the only MLB players who had logged more than 1,300 defensive innings this year. This is nothing new for any of these players, each of whom ranked among the top eight in innings played last year.

But the strain of playing every day might explain why Riley (.774 OPS), Swanson (.655) and Olson (.397) have all produced an OPS below .800 in September. Riley’s .751 OPS since the start of August stands as the leading mark among these three players.

As for Ronald Acuña Jr., he has provided production over the last couple of weeks from the leadoff spot, but he was unable to play after his back tightened as he took batting practice approximately 30 minutes before Thursday’s first pitch. The Braves hope he will be ready to play Friday.

“You've just got to find some ways to make things happen when you get opportunities, and tonight, we had a couple chances and didn’t really make much of it, whereas they did,” Swanson said. “That was the difference in the game.”

Yeah, it’s just two games. But after running themselves out of a couple opportunities on Wednesday and being shut out on Thursday, the Braves can only hope they don’t look back on these two losses and recognize them as the difference in their season.