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By Mark Bowman, MLB.com
Less than three full weeks removed from Opening Day, the Braves have already completed one-third of their 60-game schedule. The journey has thus far been much bumpier than desired. But given all that has occurred, they can’t complain about where they stand.
Even with the 6-3 loss suffered against the Yankees on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, the Braves still own more wins (11) than any other division opponent. But to win a third consecutive National League East title, they will need to fix the rotation concerns that grew during the current three-game losing streak.
“With the injuries and everything like that, we’re doing pretty good to be 11-9, really,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “At some point in time, we’re going to get healthy again and get on a run.”
With the Braves’ rotation currently consisting of just three members, Huascar Ynoa served as an opener for the second time in four days. He surrendered back-to-back homers to Gary Sánchez and Clint Frazier before exiting in the second inning. Tyler Matzek and Josh Tomlin, who have been two of the key pieces in a strong bullpen, both allowed a pair of runs before the end of the fifth.
This was yet another night of survival for the Braves, who have seen their starting pitchers complete less than five innings in 12 of their first 20 games. This is a product of losing five projected starters — Mike Soroka, Cole Hamels, Mike Foltynewicz, Félix Hernández and Sean Newcomb — to either injury, decline or choice over the past five weeks.
Fortunately the Braves will have their first off-day of the season on Thursday. This will provide a much-needed rest to a bullpen that has logged the NL’s second-most relief innings (86 2/3) thus far.
Here are the three biggest areas of concern with just two-thirds of the season remaining:
Even before Soroka tore his right Achilles, Max Fried was looking like a frontline starter. Two starts later, the lefty is an early NL Cy Young Award candidate. He ranks third in the NL with a 1.59 ERA and opponents have hit just .169 against him over 22 2/3 innings.
Unfortunately, Fried accounts for 43 of the 59 starts the Braves’ three current starters have combined to make. The other two rotation members — Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright — have shown tremendous potential with their stuff, but inexperience has led to inconsistency for these two hurlers.
At some point, the Braves might need to call upon top pitching prospect Ian Anderson or No. 9 prospect Tucker Davidson to join the rotation. But they too would likely experience growing pains.
So it’s worth keeping an eye on Foltynewicz, who has regained some weight and arm strength since being outrighted to the team’s alternate training site. There’s no guarantee he can get back to where he was. But he still seems to be a better bet than Hamels (left triceps tendinitis), who still has not started throwing off a mound.
Ronny and Ozzie
The Braves are hopeful Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s left wrist will be better after he rests it through this weekend’s series in Miami. They aren’t sure when Ozzie Albies‘ right wrist will be healthy enough to return from the 10-day injured list.
Acuña had a tremendous performance Sunday, homering three times during a seven-inning doubleheader sweep of the Phillies. But he slumped through the season’s first week. As for Albies, he was hitting .159 with a .468 OPS over 11 games before being placed on the injured list.
And it’s not like Freddie Freeman has been himself. The All-Star first baseman went 6-for-10 with two doubles, a triple and homer during Sunday’s twin bill, but he has totaled just five extra-base hits in his other 57 at-bats this year.
The Braves have been fortunate to get solid production from Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud. But to truly compensate for what is lacking in the rotation, they will need Freeman, Acuña and Albies to get back to their usual ways.
Though Snitker has been lifting his starter before the end of the fifth on a regular basis, none of Atlanta’s relievers have seemingly been overtaxed. Now that Will Smith is back in the mix, this could be one of the game’s best relief corps, especially when Chris Martin is activated from the injured list.
One key bullpen figure has been Matzek, who is back at the big league level for the first time since developing the yips in 2015. Before Wednesday, he hadn’t allowed a run in six appearances.
Another has been Tomlin, who also deserves a lot of credit for the strides A.J. Minter has made toward once again being a reliable high-leverage relief option. Tomlin had worked seven scoreless appearances before giving up his first runs on Wednesday.
“It’s going to happen every now and then,” Snitker said. “Those guys have been phenomenal for the first third of the season. That’s why we’re sitting here 11-9.”