Braves ready to run away with NL East? ‘It’s hard not to notice us’

WASHINGTON — Freddie Freeman won’t celebrate his 30th birthday until September, making him the middle-aged man of these Atlanta Braves. It is a unique and often joyful perch for a franchise cornerstone whose tenure now spans a decade.

Throughout the clubhouse, he sees the fruit of a youth movement he patiently awaited as the club suffered through rebuilding years. Dansby Swanson, then Ozzie Albies, followed by Ronald Acuña Jr. and finally the hulking, powerful Austin Riley have graduated from a farm that has largely been the envy of baseball.

A fellow Braves icon, 35-year-old catcher Brian McCann, has returned home after stints with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Josh Donaldson, given $23 million to provide at least a one-year bridge at third base, is resembling his MVP self after a 2018 season lost to a calf injury.

And in what’s increasingly a young man’s game, Freeman, wedged between the kids and the curmudgeons, remains the club’s dominant force. In June alone, he has driven in 29 runs, a stretch in which the Braves have won 16 of 21 games.

Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson celebrate a home run. (Photo: Jason Getz, USA TODAY Sports)

He’s hit 21 homers, sports a team-best 1.009 OPS and above all, his team may once again be making off with the National League East. The defending division champs carry a season-high 6 ½-game lead into Wrigley Field for a four-game series and, at the very least, seem far less flawed than their rivals who enjoyed much glitzier winters.

For Freeman, who debuted in 2010 on a Chipper Jones-led division-winning team and made the playoffs in three of his first four seasons, the slow climb has given way to a club that may be the most punishing of his tenure.

“I came up winning,” Freeman told USA TODAY Sports. “The guys we had – the Chippers, the Billy Wagners – it was very special. To go through the little three-year rebuild we had was tough. But you hear the guys that are coming and then they get here and you see how good they are.

“And then when you’re all here together, you’re winning, and people aren’t expecting you to win, it makes it that much more gratifying.

“It’s hard not to notice us now.”

There was no $330 million splash, like the Philadelphia Phillies made with Bryce Harper, or even a $140 million splurge on a much-needed starter, such as the Washington Nationals’ investment in Patrick Corbin.

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The Braves’ quiet winter inspired consternation in Atlanta, and even after the recent addition of Dallas Keuchel (who will receive $13 million for the remainder of the season), they’re far from perfect.

They have concerns about their fourth and fifth starter slots – 2018 All-Star Mike Foltyniewicz was sent to the minors after giving up eight runs Saturday – as well as the bullpen.

Then again, the Phillies, Nationals (8 ½ games out) and Mets (nine) would love such problems – especially with a lineup well-equipped to pick up an uneven staff.

The Braves rank second in the NL in runs and OPS and are third in home runs; they’ve hit 45 already in June, their most in a month since 2007.

Four times this season, they’ve erased deficits of at least four runs. Saturday night, with the red-hot Nationals on the verge of beating them twice in a row, the Braves scored nine runs over the final three innings. Freeman drove in five runs, tying the game with a three-run double.

“He’s on another planet,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s beyond. What he does is unbelievable.”

Since mid-May, when Snitker moved Acuña to the leadoff spot and the club summoned a rookie seemingly without position, the same could be said of the Braves.

Forcing their hand

In another era, Donaldson and Riley might not have crossed paths this year – especially when Atlanta seemingly blocked Riley by guaranteeing Donaldson $23 million to play third base.

Now, however, it’s power over everything, defense be damned. So when Riley slammed 15 homers in 37 Class AAA games, the script changed.

Welcome to left field, Austin.

At 6-3 and 220 pounds, grace isn’t the first adjective Riley inspires. Yet after just four games in left at Class AAA, he was summoned to Atlanta for a May 15 debut after Ender Inciarte got hurt, nudging Acuña to center field.

After some early hiccups, Riley – who logged plenty of hours in the Memphis-area baseball facility operated by his father, Mike – looks competent if not totally comfortable.

And the bat has more than made up for whatever high-wire acts have ensued in left.

Riley hit 12 homers and drove in 34 runs in his first 34 big league games. The bat has cooled somewhat – Riley has two homers in his last 37 at-bats, and is striking out 34% of the time.

They’ll take it – particularly given his .919 OPS.

“Absolutely,” says Snitker. I’m sure he’ll continue to (improve contact). Every time he comes to bat, I expect something really big to happen. I’m going to try to stay out of the bathroom when he’s up. I’m going to try to see it. You never know what he might do.”

Austin Riley has flashed his power since reaching the majors. (Photo: Brett Davis, USA TODAY Sports)

Riley, 22, grew up around elite players at his father’s facility, and on his travel teams. He does not fear striking out, particularly in this era.

“Everybody throws 100; you have to be ready to hit,” he says. “You’re going to get one pitch an at-bat to hit, in my opinion. You don’t want to miss it.

“I take pride in learning and everything I see, I take into consideration. If you look at it, the longer I’ve spent at a level, the better I’ve got, the more I got comfortable, the more I understood how they were pitching me. The at-bats got better. I feel like that’s the same way here.

“It’s the top level – I have to keep plugging, keep working and I feel like that will eventually come through.”

In that regard, he’s fortunate to spend so much time in Donaldson’s orbit. The 33-year-old 2015 AL MVP was long ago a proponent of what has become modern hitting gospel. For Riley, he’s also a model for working smarter.

“If you watch him, everything he does is with a purpose,” says Riley. “He does nothing that has no meaning to it. That’s what I’ve kind of learned.

“I used to be a guy who’d get in the cage and just swing, swing, swing. Now, I’m in there for, max, five-six minutes. Quality over quantity. Everything he does is under control.”

Donaldson brings a certain edge to the Braves – he successfully appealed a one-game suspension for a dust-up with Pittsburgh pitcher Joe Musgrove – but more important, he’s been healthy. After a debilitating calf injury limited him to 52 games in 2018, it took him a minute to re-acclimate to the grind this year.

Consider him back: Donaldson has seven home runs since June 11, pushing his season total to 15 and his on-base (.366) and slugging (.500) back to his usual levels.

With age, he says, he becomes even more process-oriented. He also respects Riley’s approach, and figures with adjustments, the young slugger’s success should be sustainable.

“What I’ve been impressed with is how much he’s been able to cover – pitch coverage, plate coverage,” says Donaldson. “There’s not one thing I’ve seen that’s stood out as a weakness. He goes up and has good at-bats and has had a lot of success.”

'My teammates picked me up'

Freeman calls Donaldson “a refreshing personality,” in that the Braves have lacked a player with his combo of clubhouse levity and on-field intensity. Albies 22, and Acuña, 21, are joined at the hip in the room and contractually – they’re signed through at least 2025 and 2026, respectively.

While every season has its drama, this team has a knack for extracting what it can from every man. Third baseman Johan Camargo saw his job disappear with Donaldson’s signing and his future as an everyday player diminished with Riley’s emergence.

Sunday, he delivered a crucial pinch-hit for the second consecutive game – a go-ahead two-run home run in the 10th inning of a 4-3 win over the Nationals – Atlanta’s sixth consecutive series victory.

“It was complicated, for lack of a better word, but fortunately it really felt like my teammates picked me up,” Camargo said through an interpreter. “I got a lot of counsel and advice from Charlie Culberson, Matt Joyce. It helped me adjust to the role and develop and improve as the season’s gone on.”

The Braves should endure a few more tweaks by year’s end, largely to a pitching staff that may tap the farm again to replace Foltyniewicz. Another bullpen arm or two seems likely.

Yet they’re pretty set afield, with a lineup that, one through eight, doesn’t want for much. At the center of it all is Freeman, who in this year of the longball is on pace to set career highs in homers and RBI.

The lone constant bridge to their past may also enjoy the finest year yet in the win column.

“He deserves it,” says McCann. “He went through those three years where the team was rebuilding and he still put up his numbers, still showed up, and now he’s reaping those benefits.

“He’s going to lead this team to great things.”

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