Last Week in Atlanta – Week 18

The Braves took on a couple of superlatives this week – the greatest two-way player ever to play the game in Shohei Ohtani, and the most handsome player in the league in Dansby Swanson. Obviously both are dangerous – but who posed more of an issue for Atlanta this week?

Overall Record: 70-39, 1st place in NL East

Record this week: 3-3

Best moment of the week:

Especially when pitchers are involved, the first outing after a long-term injury is nerve-wracking – will their stuff still be there? Are they going to have to shake off the rust? Thankfully for Max Fried and the Braves, the answer was ‘no’ on both counts as he looked every bit the ace he’s been for the last few years. He threw six innings of three-hit ball with no walks as he shut out a potent Cubs lineup to take the win.

Max playing at his best will be key for the Braves going forward – with the trade deadline passed, they’re relying on a Fried-Strider-Morton-Elder quartet for the playoffs. Given the strength of the batting lineup, that should be more than enough – but there’s a drop-off from Elder to the other starters (Michael Soroka, Jared Shuster, Yonny Chirinos et al.) that the Braves won’t want to have to deal with.

Worst moment of the week:

In the absence of any truly bad moments this week, we’ll instead check in with a couple of guys who have been slumping since the All-Star break. Sean Murphy is hitting .135 in his 14 games since the break – far below the MVP-level stats he was putting up at the start of the year. Catcher is a position that the Braves are uniquely deep at – Travis d’Arnaud would likely start on a fair few other teams – but it would be nice to see him break out of this slump soon.

Bryce Elder is also having a bit of a tough time at the moment. In his first 17 starts of the season, he’d made it through five innings every time – but in the five games since, he’s been knocked out before the fifth on three occasions. Some spotty outings from Elder and Charlie Morton have led to a less dominant streak of late – the Braves shouldn’t be worried about the playoffs at this point, but they will be looking ahead to them to make sure they get hot at the right time.

Player of the week:

The Ronald Acuna Jr. clause is in full effect here, as he of course had another excellent week – but this week i’d like to talk about Spencer Strider. He’s now made his eighth consecutive start with nine or more strikeouts – the longest in the league this year, just ahead of… Spencer Strider, who tallied five such starts in a row earlier this year. His stuff has been filthy, and his base stats don’t reflect how unlucky he’s been on balls in play – he has a relatively high ERA of 3.94 but a FIP (a metric that measures only what the pitcher can control) of 2.94 – which leads the National League. This week, he pitched 6⅔ innings of excellent work against an Angels team that had no answer for his pitching. Let’s see how long the streak extends.

Editor’s note: it did not extend – Spencer had his worst outing of the year, going just 2⅔ innings against the Pirates, allowing six earned runs and tallying only three strikeouts.

WTF moment of the week:

The Braves have a new home run celebration – the dugout turns into an apiary. Apparently it’s to give the ball a little more oomph to get over the wall (do the Braves really need it…?), but it’s also got heavy Angels in the Outfield vibes.

View from the other side:

This week, fellow Bat Flips and Nerds editor and Cubs superfan Sean Guest is here to give his take on the series at the Friendly Confines. You can (and should!) follow him on Twitter on @SW_Guest!

Heading into this series, the Cubs were one of the hottest teams in baseball, having won eight of their last ten games. They’d just taken three of four against the better-than-expected Reds, and appeared to be relishing the opportunity to measure themselves against the best team in the majors.

From a fan’s point of view, Friday night’s game was humbling. All the optimism that had accumulated over the prior couple of weeks as the Cubs battled back to .500 took a hit as the usually reliable Kyle Hendricks uncharacteristically gave up seven runs on eight hits while facing 11 batters in the fourth inning. To make matters worse, the offense, which had put up record numbers against weaker opposition in the games prior, failed to score a run while registering just four hits.

If the past few weeks have taught us anything though, it’s that this team won’t quit. Just over two weeks ago they were eight and a half games back in the NL Central standings, a number they’d reduced to just two and a half heading into this series. And they quickly showed why in Game Two, scoring five runs in the first inning to take control of the game. That was exactly what they needed to navigate a bullpen day started by Javier Assad in the absence of the injured Marcus Stroman. It was Mark Leiter Jr. who handled the game’s crucial moment though, working out of a bases jam that could have tied it up for the Braves. The drama didn’t end there though, as closer Adbert Alzolay gave up a two-run homer in the ninth that brought the Braves to within two before eventually shutting them down.

The Cubs carried the momentum of that performance into Sunday’s game, showing more than enough character to bounce back from Matt Olson’s two-run homer in the second before coming from behind again in the fifth. That was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish thanks to Justin Steele’s season-high 110 pitch outing and yet another pivotal high-leverage bullpen moment, this time handled ably by Michael Fulmer, who whiffed Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley to successfully navigate a bases-loaded jam – exactly the kind of situation that would have sunk the Cubs earlier in the year.

While it’s unwise to place too much emphasis on the outcome of a single series, this was a big one for the Cubs. Beating the struggling Cardinals and White Sox – as they have in recent weeks – is all well and good, but going 5-2 against the second best team in the division and the best team in baseball is a significant statement. They showed a lot of fight in this series in particular, winning games they wouldn’t have won as recently as a month ago, improving their postseason odds and getting a good look at the kind of team they no doubt aspire to eventually field in the process.

Optimism tracker:

8/10. The starting pitching is causing a little concern, and, as much as I trust the front office to make the right move given their history, I hope it’ll pay off even if a couple of the starters remain a bit shaky through the rest of the year.

What’s on next week?

Next week we’ve got the rare eight-game week! The week starts with four games in Pittsburgh from Monday to Thursday and then ends in the Big Apple, with four from Friday to Sunday (with a double header on the Saturday). I’ll be most excited for the Max Fried game on Wednesday as he goes up against young Quinn Priester and the Pirates.

UK friendly games:

Thursday 10 August @ Pirates (5:35pm), Saturday 12 August @ Mets (6:10pm)

Featured image of Max Fried by @KnockahomaNTN on Twitter.

Charlie Deeks is the Atlanta Braves correspondent on Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @Omashaft!

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