Braves close NL East gap behind Olson's power, Elder's shutout

September 27th, 2022

WASHINGTON -- As the Braves rolled toward what is likely to be a winner-take-all showdown with the Mets for the National League East this weekend, playing almost as well in September as they have all year, they’ve done so more or less without . The 28-year-old slugger has been there, to be clear, durable as ever, on pace to lead the Majors in games played. But the All-Star first baseman hasn’t really been himself, mired instead in a month-long slump Atlanta has grown anxious for him to break out of.

Perhaps that is starting to happen, and at just the right time. Olson’s best game in weeks and rookie right-hander ’s six-hit shutout powered the Braves as they gained a game on the idle Mets with Monday night’s 8-0 win over the Nationals at Nationals Park. Olson homered and drove in three, while Elder delivered the first shutout by a Braves rookie in 32 years to help Atlanta cut its NL East deficit to one game ahead of its three-game clash against New York at Truist Park.

“[Olson] squared up some balls,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Hopefully that feeling gets him going.”

The Braves’ 13th win in 17 tries against Washington this season was another team effort, with Marcell Ozuna and Orlando Arcia also homering behind the gem from Elder. The club’s No. 3 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, became the first Atlanta rookie to throw a shutout since 1990, when rookies Steve Avery and Paul Marak did so less than a month apart, on Aug. 24 and Sept. 23. Elder’s was also the Braves’ first complete-game shutout since Max Fried’s against San Diego on Sept. 24, 2021, and the third thrown by a rookie pitcher this season.

This year’s three rookie shutouts are the most in the Majors since three rookies combined to throw four during the 2019 season.

“I'm going to go back and watch that, because his sinker must have been just something else the way they were taking it and couldn't really do anything with it,” Snitker said. “It's amazing how many guys don't touch that rubber in the ninth, so it was great for him to experience that and know what that feels like. That's a big thing to get a complete game.”  

Said Olson: “Amazing start.”

But the most impactful swings of the night came from Olson, who yanked his 29th homer off Cory Abbott in the fourth and added a sac fly two innings later.

“I hung it and he executed it, and it was a beautiful swing,” Abbott said. “There's nothing really else to say about it.”

There is more to Olson’s side of the story. He rated as the NL’s least productive qualified hitter in September, entering the game batting .102/.194/.159 (9-for-88) with one home run and 31 strikeouts in his past 25 contests. Despite that recent slump, the overall production has been there for Olson (29 homers, 95 RBIs) in his first season in Atlanta after arriving via trade and signing an eight-year, $168 million extension in March.

But for the Braves, everything right now is about their upcoming showdown with the Mets. That series is likely to decide the division, and Atlanta is managing its roster accordingly, pushing Fried off Tuesday’s game in the nation’s capital so he can pitch on extra rest against New York instead. For the Braves, ensuring their best players are at their best for that set is a clear priority.

Getting Olson back to feeling at least close to right at the plate is a big part of that.

“I’ve been saying it all along -- we’ve got one of the deepest lineups,” he said. “One through nine, anybody can do it. Obviously, personally, you want to be at your best. But we've got a lot of good talent in that lineup, and it can be anybody’s night.”

Another key for Atlanta is avoiding the potential trap of this week’s three-game series against the last-place Nats in D.C. Elder made sure that happened Monday night. Backed by a number of strong defensive plays, the 23-year-old struck out six and walked only one to breeze through nine innings on 106 pitches, admirably filling the injured Spencer Strider’s rotation spot.

The Braves will trot out another highly touted rookie in No. 1 prospect Kyle Muller in Fried’s spot Tuesday, turning to their depth in that instance out of choice rather than necessity. But both examples illustrate the quality of starting pitching depth they’ve gotten all year, and their comfort leaning on it during this uber-important penultimate week of the season. Elder in particular sports a 2.76 ERA across eight fill-in starts.

“It means a lot,” Elder said. “We’re trying to stack wins on top of each other here and get ready for this weekend.”