CHICAGO – Both games started in the afternoon on a work day, and on the verge of football season, so I’m betting that the TV audience for Wednesday’s Braves doubleheader sweep against the Phillies was significantly smaller than for most games this season.
Which would be a shame because those who tuned in saw the Braves team that so many of us thought we would see on a regular basis this season. Two strong starting-pitching performances from R.A. Dickey and Julio Teheran, power from Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp, table-setting and so much more from Ender “Eight Hits” Inciarte, steady on-base production from Dansby Swanson, some jolts of energy from Ozzie Albies, strong bullpen work, etc.
But we’ve not seen all of that on the same day very often this season. Not after Kemp was injured early and hurt again and went from early-season force to the disabled list or non-factor so many nights. Not after Teheran spent much of the season producing terrible starts in the Braves’ new home ballpark. Not after Freeman fractured his wrist, missed seven weeks and returned a few weeks sooner than expected, but admittedly with a wrist that’s only at 80-85 percent strength-wise.
Not after Swanson struggled for months and didn’t start producing again until he got back from a two-week demotion to Triple-A. Not after Albies took a little longer than expected at Triple-A this season to convince team officials he was ready and that he’d made enough adjustments to his left-handed swing to give himself a reasonable chance to perform well at the big-league level. Not after closer Jim Johnson’s sinker stopped sinking and the Braves stayed with him a little longer than most though they should’ve.
But Wednesday, with the Braves long since eliminated for all intents and purposes from the wild-card race and with little to play for at Philly except pride and a strong desire not to go winless all season at Citizens Bank Park, the Braves came through with not one, but back-to-back games that reminded us of why the players, front-office officials, manager and even some media types believed the Braves could play meaningful baseball well beyond the All-Star break and maybe even into September. For one day, at least, they looked like a solid all-around team.
Now we’ll see if they can continue it in a four-game series against a whole different caliber team than the Phillies. The Braves start a four-game series tonight (Thursday) against the Cubs at Wrigley, and the Cubs have put their lackluster first half behind them and are playing like the defending World Series champions, leading the NL Central by 3 ½ games and feeding off energized crowds at Wrigley. In other words, back to their recent norms.
But first, before this thing starts tonight at Wrigley, let’s look back at what just transpired.
Dickey and Teheran did something in Wednesday’s doubleheader that Braves starters have rarely done lately, pitching consecutive starts that weren’t just quality starts – I mean, six innings of three earned runs or fewer is not a high bar for “quality” – but outstanding starts.
Between them, Dickey and Teheran posted a 1.23 ERA in the doubleheader, allowing two earned runs in 14 2/3 innings with 17 strikeouts and only two walks. And by the way, Rhy Hoskins didn’t hit a home run in the three-game series after coming in on fire, having homered in eight consecutive days in which the Phillies played a game (they had a doubleheader in that span in which he homered in one of the games).
The three total runs allowed by the Braves in the doubleheader were the fewest allowed by Braves pitchers in consecutive games since June 8-9, when they beat the Phillies 3-1 and beat the Mets 3-2. And that was after pounding the Phillies 14-1 on June 7.
The Braves gave up four runs in that three-game winning streak June 7-9 against the Phillies and Mets, then posted a 5.02 ERA over the next 70 games while going 30-40 before Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep. In those 70 games, the Braves gave up five or more earned runs 34 times including seven or more earned runs an alarming 20 times.
Think about that: Seven or more earned runs allowed in 20 of 70 games. Combine that with the inconsistent and lately underperforming offense, and it’s not hard to see why the Braves had crumbled.
And then there was Inciarte, who was a stunning 8-for-10 with a triple, a walk and five RBIs in the two games Wednesday, only one hit shy of matching the MLB record for hits in a doubleheader. In the opening game he went 5-for-5 with a walk and four RBIs in six plate appearances, and the remarkable thing was that it was his third five-hit game of the season – he leads the majors in that category – and not even his first 5-for-5 game with at least four RBIs.
Inciarte was also 5-for-5 with five RBIs at Cincinnati on June 4, and that coupled with Wednesday’s 5-for-5 game made him just the fourth player since 1920 – the first year RBIs were an official stat – to go 5-for-5 with at least four RBIs twice in one season. The others were Joe Carter in 1986, Jeff Kent in 1999 and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant last season.
Inciarte is 32-for-79 (.405) in his past 18 games with two triples, two homers, 10 RBIs and a .960 OPS. He has 10 multi-hit games in that span including five games with at least three hits. Seldom will you see a leadoff hitter as effective as he is despite getting so few walks. He has four walks in that 18-game span and one walk with eight strikeouts in his past 12 games, but has hit .400 (22-for-44) in those dozen games.
August is going to be Inciarte’s best month statistically, as he enters tonight’s last game of the month batting .366 (41-for-112) with a .390 OBP, .464 slugging percentage and .854 OPS. His next-highest OPS was an .800 in May, when he rebounded from a sluggish first month to hit .336/.397/.403 with a seaso-high 12 walks in 28 May games.
Inciarte has hit .336 or better in three of the season’s first five months including back-to-back .336 averages in May and June. He hit .336/.375/.405 in 28 games in June with season highs of 19 runs and 13 RBIs.
After dipping to .269/.313/.380 with a .693 OPS in July, he’s bounced back with his best month in August, when Inciarte and the Braves hoped they would be immersed in a playoff drive and ready to make a September run at securing a wild-card berth.
Those dreams faded quickly after they fought to get their record to .500 at the 90-game mark July 16 after completing a three-game sweep of the Diamondbacks in the first series after the All-Star break. Things came apart from their and their season spiraled, the Braves posting a majors-worst 12-27 record from July 17 through Tuesday, before sweeping Wednesday’s doubleheader at Philadelphia.
The Braves and White Sox are tied for the worst record going back to July 17 at 14-27 through Wednesday.
But the Braves still have time, a entire month, to play a lot more games like the ones they played Wednesday and renew the faith of many fans starting to wonder if the team hasn’t taken a step or two backward in its rebuild.
• Let’s close with this great tune from Chicago’s own Smashing Pumpkins, in which they refer to the “city by the lake.”
“TONIGHT, TONIGHT” by Smashing Pumpkins
Is never time at all
You can never ever leave
Without leaving a piece of youth
And our lives are forever changed
We will never be the same
The more you change, the less you feelBelieve
Believe in meBelieve
That life can change
That you’re not stuck in vain
We’re not the same, we’re different
And you know you’re never sure
But you’re sure you could be right
If you held yourself up to the light
And the embers never fade
In your city by the lake
The place where you were born
Believe in me
In the resolute urgency of now
And if you believe there’s not a chance tonight
We’ll crucify the insincere tonight
We’ll make things right
We’ll feel it all tonight
We’ll find a way to offer up the night
The indescribable moments of your life
The impossible is possible
Believe in me as I believe in you