ATLANTA -- Twenty-seven years ago in this city -- but in the clubhouse of a different ballpark -- a young man named Tom Glavine was explaining that the Atlanta Braves were for real. Nobody really believed it. The Braves had lost 97 games the year before. It had only been
ATLANTA -- Twenty-seven years ago in this city -- but in the clubhouse of a different ballpark -- a young man named Tom Glavine was explaining that the Atlanta Braves were for real. Nobody really believed it. The Braves had lost 97 games the year before. It had only been a couple of years since the local newspaper held a contest asking people to come up with a good ticket-selling slogan for the team. The best entry had been: "Atlanta Braves baseball: Better than getting hit in the head with a hammer unless it's a doubleheader."
Somehow, the 1991 Braves were in first place.
"This is a good team," Glavine insisted that day. "It doesn't matter if anybody out there believes in us. We believe in ourselves. They will find out soon enough."
Everyone did find out -- the Braves went to the World Series that year and again the next year. They reached the postseason every full season for 15 years.
I can't help but feel similar vibes about the Braves now. Atlanta lost 90 games last year, 93 the year before that and 95 the year before that. The club had a nightmarish offseason that included the forced resignation of general manager John Coppolella after MLB found that he and the team had committed significant rules violations in the international market (shortly after, Coppolella was permanently banned from the game). Yes, everyone knew the Braves had some exciting young talent -- Ronald Acuna Jr. was the talk of Spring Training -- but all that was future talk. This season figured to be another nonevent in Atlanta.
Instead, the Braves are in first place in the National League East (even after their loss to the equally surprising Phillies on Monday night). They lead the NL in runs. They have a better record than the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers -- the three teams that were supposed to dominate the league. And perhaps more than anything, they are thrilling, with a dynamic lineup that features a top four that rivals anything you can find in the game.
Sure, most people feel sure that the Braves will fade.
But everyone might find out soon enough.
"This is not a fluke," Brandon McCarthy said. He was saying this last Wednesday in the moments after the Braves beat the Cubs, 4-1, largely because two kids did what the irrepressible things they always seem to do. Ozzie Albies had led off the scoring by turning a single into a double through sheer speed and defiance. He scored the winning run after blasting a triple into the gap and coming home on Acuna's 108-mph rocket single that was past third baseman Kristopher Bryant before he could flinch -- whew, nobody hits the ball harder than Acuna.
"We see it every day," McCarthy said. "Those guys do things like that every day."
There is something about surprising teams that reminds a bit of the triumphant scene in "Field of Dreams," where Mark -- the brother-in-law who kept trying to foreclose on Ray's farm -- finally sees the ghost ballplayers. "Where'd all these people come from?" he asked.
That's how it is with Atlanta's lineup. For years, the Braves were a non-factor, a team few paid any attention to. Suddenly, they're loaded. Yes, the excitement builds around 21-year-old Albies and 20-year-old Acuna, but Freddie Freeman is one of the best players in baseball. Nick Markakis is hitting .341 and leads the Majors in hits. Dansby Swanson was the first pick in the 2015 Draft, and he seems to be coming into his own as a plus defender and solid hitter. Ender Inciarte is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner in the outfield, and after a sluggish start, he has started hitting (he also leads MLB in stolen bases). One catcher, Tyler Flowers, might be the league's best at framing pitches. Another, veteran Kurt Suzuki, just keeps on hitting.
Where'd all these players come from?
"You know it when you're around it," said 39-year-old relief pitcher Peter Moylan, who first came up to Atlanta in 2006. "These guys, especially the young guys, they know they're good. You can feel it when a team starts to believe in itself."
The belief begins with that lineup's top four -- Albies, Acuna, Freeman and Markakis. That gets the heart pumping.
Albies came up last season as one of the best prospects in baseball. He immediately held his own as a hitter, but who saw this year coming? Albies has been mashing the ball in ways that seem impossible for a 5-foor-8, 165-pound middle infielder. He was leading the NL in homers for much of the season; now his 13 homers puts him one behind Washington's Bryce Harper. Albies still leads the Senior Circuit in runs. He mixes speed and power with pure baseball joy in a way that reminds of another small middle infielder, one who happened to win the American League MVP Award last year.
"He's better than me when I was 21 years old," Jose Altuve told ESPN's Buster Only. "He's better at 21 than I am at 28."
Acuna is unlimited. There's no other way to say it. He's the No. 1 prospect in baseball and perhaps the most exciting prospect in the game since the young Michael Trout or Harper. Acuna is breathtakingly fast, he absolutely pounds the ball, he can play any outfield position and -- like Albies -- he exudes happiness in his play.
"I love to play," Acuna said. "It doesn't matter to me where they put me in the lineup, I'm just happy. But I like hitting after Albies and before Freeman."
Freeman is one of the game's purest hitters. His teammates marvel at him, because he's not one of those players who sits in the video room studying his swing or breaking down pitchers. Freeman isn't someone who endlessly hits in the batting cage.
Freeman is hitting .324/.428/.561, and he thrives on the moment. With runners in scoring position so far, he's hitting .419.
Markakis has been the surprise. Everybody talks about how professional he is -- he shows up every day, plays every day, doesn't let bad at-bats or bad hitting luck affect him. Players like that can make a huge difference when teams are trying to shock the world.
The Braves might not end up leading the league in runs, but they should score plenty. Can the pitching hold up? So far it's been pretty good; the bullpen has been particularly effective, particularly middle relievers Shane Carle and Dan Winkler.
The long-term answers, though, probably will be provided by Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz. Newcomb was a first-round pick back in 2014, and he came over from the Angles in the Andrelton Simmons trade in November 2015. When Simmons began to add hitting to his otherworldly defense, this looked like a lost deal for Atlanta, especially as Newcomb struggled to find his rhythm.
Well, Newcomb has found it now. After an inconsistent April, he has been all but unhittable in May. Newcomb allowed two hits or fewer in his first three starts of the month and has given up one run all month. He doesn't dazzle you; he's mostly a fastball-changeup pitcher. But when Newcomb's command is sharp as it has been this month, he gets a lot of weak contact and a lot of ground balls. Hitters have only hit four Statcast™ barrels off him all year -- barrels being the ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle. If Newcomb can maintain that kind of command all year, look out.
With Foltynewicz, it's different. His pure stuff has had scouts drooling for years. Foltynewicz mixes a high-90s fastball with a deadly slider and an occasionally devastating changeup. He doesn't quite need Newcomb's razor-sharp command to succeed, but for whatever reason, it had not come together the past three years.
This year, Foltynewicz has made some adjustments -- he's throwing his four-seam fastball and slider more and trying to overpower hitters. It has been working so far. His strikeout percentage is way up. A big part of the reason is that Foltynewicz is finding the corners of the plate more. When he's throwing that fastball or slider on the corners, hitters are more or less helpless.
Their success will go a long way in determining just how long the Braves compete. Many think the pitching will fall apart and this team will fade into the middle of the division while the kids learn how to win. That might be faulty reasoning though. The kids look ready to win right now. And Glavine's warning from so long ago still rings.
"I wouldn't say that everyone should just stop what they're doing and pay attention to the Atlanta Braves," McCarthy said. "But I think everyone in here realizes that we're pretty good."
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.