ATLANTA — With success comes scrutiny. With scrutiny comes commentary. With commentary comes conflict. And thus, storylines are born.
This, as much as anything, explains where the Atlanta Braves are on the eve of their biggest series in four years or so, since their rebuilding project set out in earnest. Their plan is bearing fruit in the form of a 32-23 start and a four-week run on top (or virtually so) of the National League East.
Of course, that first-place slot in the division has been the domain of the Washington Nationals in recent seasons. With the Nats set to kick off a four-game set against upstart Atlanta on Thursday at SunTrust Park, we might find out if the Baby Braves are ready to put on their big-boy pants.
“This is the most people I’ve ever seen in here,” Braves closer Dan Winkler said in the home clubhouse before Wednesday’s game against the New York Mets. “That’s part of the fun is looking at the standings, for me, personally. But you go day by day. But it is fun when you’ve got the Mets coming in and the Nationals coming in.”
Not that everyone in the Atlanta clubhouse will admit the gravity of the situation. In fact, led by wily veteran catcher Tyler Flowers, the party line for many of the Braves is that they aren’t even aware of the situation.
“I didn’t even know where we were in the division or anything,” Flowers said after Tuesday’s win over New York. “A lot of guys in here probably don’t, with the exception of MLB Network seems to be on everywhere we go. I have no idea how many wins we have or losses. I think everyone is kind of the same way. You just kind of worry about today.”
That mindset has helped the Braves hold on to the top spot in the East for nearly the entire month, though their lead has never exceeded 1 1/2 games. In fact, the Nationals slipped ahead by a half-game Wednesday night. It has been a tight-rope act. Atlanta’s little flourish to those acrobatics has been a run of late-game surges that reached a head this week with walk-off homers by Charlie Culberson on Monday and Johan Camargo on Tuesday, both in comeback wins over New York.
Of late, the mighty Nationals have been rediscovering their dominance. The Nats have bounced back from an injury-addled, lackluster start and jumped from six games back to one game ahead in the loss column over the past month. Given what we know about recent track records and preseason projections, it’s hard not to see the vanished gap between the Nationals and Braves as a reassertion of the natural order.
“We look at what’s coming up in the standings and what we could do,” Winkler said. “That’s what is fun.”
The Braves might actually be catching Washington at a good time, in some respects — or at least just in time. First, the Braves won’t have to face Nats ace Max Scherzer, who throttled Baltimore on Wednesday. It’s no small thing to slip an ace in a four-game series. Scherzer shut out Atlanta on two hits on April 9 in the first game of a three-game set at Nationals Park, of which Washington took two.
Also, while the bruised and battered Nationals are healing, they aren’t yet in the free and clear. Reliever Ryan Madson is expected to return from the disabled list, but many others remain there, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Grace, Adam Eaton, Matt Wieters and Howie Kendrick among them. Washington might field a more representative active roster in subsequent meetings, and that’s all the more reason for the Braves to make hay while they can. That, of course, is an external observation of a club that isn’t looking that far ahead.
“You have to stick in day-to-day mode,” utility player and recent walk-off hero Culberson said. “Because honestly, I don’t really look at the schedule a whole lot. If we’re at home, on the road, you just kind of see how many games you have away and home. I don’t look too far ahead.
“If you start worrying about one, two, three, four series ahead of you, you’re not focused on what you need to do today. It’s good playing division rivals, and we have the Nationals coming up next. But if we can just focus on one day at a time and what we have in front of us today, that’s the biggest thing.”
Even though the Braves will miss Scherzer, they have to face a formidable Washington staff that has posted the majors’ lowest ERA in May. Atlanta has been the NL’s highest-scoring offense during the early going, but it has seen a drop-off of about a run per game in May.
Any time you’re spotlighting a series at the end of May, what you’re really talking about is the opportunity for a surprise team to validate itself in the doubting eyes of naysayers — for the time being.
One of those naysayers has been Mets broadcaster, Seinfeld co-star, All-Star first baseman and social media provocateur Keith Hernandez, who early this week took to Twitter to suggest that the Braves were in trouble because of a not-ready-for-primetime bullpen. As controversies go, this is pretty small potatoes. Baseball analyst provides analysis; hijinks ensue, and so do the questions in the opposing clubhouse. The Braves were put in the odd position of defending themselves against the barbs of some other team’s broadcaster.
“I don’t understand why that was a storyline,” Braves reliever Peter Moylan said. “The game is trending younger. You’re going to see these guys that come out and don’t have the experience. It’s like when you’re trying to get a job, and they say they want people with experience. How do you get experience without being able to come out here and pitch? So for [Hernandez] to go on Twitter and say something like that, I just thought it was completely uncalled for.”
Moylan, 39, has been a key member of the Atlanta relief staff, serving as a go-to resource for many of the young pitchers who have trotted through the bullpen gate. While some of Atlanta’s relievers have indeed run into command problems from time to time, the bullpen has performed well overall. The Braves rank 11th in the majors in bullpen WAR, per baseball-reference.com, and sixth in saves conversion (12-of-17, 71 percent).
Ultimately, no one will remember Keith-gate a week from now, but the takeaway for the young Braves is this: They are being watched. That’s the bittersweet companion to early-season success, and it’s something Washington stars such as Bryce Harper, Scherzer and Steven Strasburg got used to a long time ago.
“I think they will be fine,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of his emergent club. “It’s something that comes along with winning.”
As for that thing about passing tests and end-of-May games serving as a measuring stick, for a wanna-be contender, that talk goes only so far. Because even if you pass that early test, all you’ve really done is set up even bigger, and more complicated, tests down the road.
For the Braves, it’ll be a welcome challenge, and yes, it is actually a big series. But then again, the next one will be too.
“The biggest thing we can continue to do is just play for today,” Snitker said. “Live in the present. Today is the biggest game we’ve played all year. As tomorrow will be too.”