Kelenic finding home atop lineup as Braves' offense keeps rolling

June 22nd, 2024

NEW YORK -- Austin Riley is back to being his dangerous self, and Ozzie Albies has regained his power stroke. But as the Braves have rolled through the past week, the most encouraging development might be the instant comfort has found in the leadoff spot.

“He’s been huge,” Riley said. “He’s embraced [the leadoff role]. I think he likes it a lot. He’s intense, and he’s putting up really good at-bats.”

Kelenic’s two-hit performance helped build an early lead for the Braves, who matched a season high with eight extra-base hits in an 8-1 win over the Yankees on Friday night at Yankee Stadium. The team’s latest offensive outburst backed a dominant Chris Sale, who would have tossed five no-hit innings if not for a defensive miscue.

“It’s fun when we’re playing this type of baseball,” Kelenic said. “The Yankees are a hell of a ballclub, and so are we. I feel like this is a playoff atmosphere with two teams just going toe to toe. I enjoy playing games like this.”

Albies, Riley and Matt Olson all homered against Yankees starter Carlos Rodón, who allowed season highs in hits (11), runs (eight) and earned runs (seven) while completing a season-low 3 2/3 innings. Ramón Laureano tallied three doubles, and Sean Murphy chased Rodón with a double in a three-run fourth.

The Braves have won seven of eight since suffering a season-high fifth straight loss on June 12. They have scored six-plus runs in six of these eight games. They reached this total in 13 of their first 24 games, but fell short of it in 33 of the 41 games played from April 27-June 13.

As the team struggled, manager Brian Snitker and his players kept saying the offense would erupt in impressive fashion once it ended its struggles.

“I think that’s why everyone has remained so patient,” Sale said. “We’ve all been kind of saying the same things for a while. So it’s exciting to see it come to fruition.”

Nobody would have predicted this offensive surge would have coincided with Kelenic filling the leadoff spot. Snitker wants Albies in the second spot. So he felt his best choice was Kelenic, who moved to the top of the lineup on Saturday, the day after Michael Harris II suffered a left hamstring strain that will sideline him until at least the second half of July.

“[Kelenic is] doing the job,” Snitker said. “He’s getting an opportunity and making the most of it.”

Kelenic has produced an .825 OPS over 16 games in June. He was moving in the right direction already, but he has hit his stride over the past week. The talented outfielder has hit .321 with two homers and a .916 OPS in the six games he has served as the Braves’ leadoff hitter.

The sample size is small, but the process has been encouraging. He singled in Friday’s first two plate appearances, hit a long fly ball in the fourth inning and then drew a walk in the fifth.

“I’ve always had confidence in myself,” Kelenic said. “But to recognize Snit put me in the leadoff spot, it’s a sense of confidence he has in me. I’m super thankful for that opportunity and I’m going to do everything I can to contribute any way I can.”

Kelenic is setting the table for what has suddenly become a dangerous group:

With his first-inning homer and fourth-inning double off Rodón, the Braves’ second baseman has four extra-base hits in 14 at-bats going back to Monday’s eighth-inning game-winning homer against the Tigers.

The third baseman’s opposite-field homer in Friday’s first inning preceded a pair of walks and a single. He has hit .545 with four doubles and four homers over his past 22 at-bats.

The first baseman was the first of the Braves’ sluggers to halt his struggles. He has hit .322 with five homers and a .967 OPS over his past 24 games.

Then, of course, you have Marcell Ozuna, who still owns the National League’s second-best OPS (.977) despite joining Orlando Arcia as the only Braves to go hitless on Friday.

Even without any assistance from Ozuna, the Braves tallied eight extra-base hits for the first time since March 30 in Philadelphia. Three of those came courtesy of Laureano, who has become a good option against left-handers since being released by the Guardians on May 25.

“We’re swinging the bats well,” Riley said. “We just look to keep it going.”