By NOAH TRISTER, AP Baseball Writer
On the morning of June 18 two years ago, the Atlanta Braves were 21-46. Now they’re atop the NL East.
Atlanta has turned its stocked farm system into a major league contender faster than expected, and after Sunday’s 4-1 win over San Diego, the Braves lead second-place Washington by 3 1/2 games. At 42-29, they’re even with Milwaukee for the National League’s best record and look poised to be a factor in what should be an entertaining race for that league’s five postseason spots.
After three straight seasons with at least 90 losses, Atlanta is making a jump similar to what Minnesota did a season ago, when the Twins improved from 59 wins to 85 and earned a wild card.
If you’re worried Atlanta is a fluke, there aren’t many obvious red flags. The Braves have a run differential of plus-67, the second-best mark in the NL. They’ve been fortunate at times (11-4 in one-run games) and unfortunate at times (1-6 in extra innings).
The Braves are second in the NL in OPS after finishing 11th a year ago. Their ERA has improved from 12th to fifth. They have an MVP candidate in slugger Freddie Freeman, and 21-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies has 16 home runs. Outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. is on the disabled list after a knee injury, but he’s been considered one of the game’s top prospects. Shortstop Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, has improved his OPS from .636 a season ago to .737.
That formula — Freeman surrounded by young standouts — could serve the Braves well for a while, and Atlanta has also received a lift from some older contributors. Nick Markakis is hitting .327, and Anibal Sanchez is 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA for the Braves after signing a minor league contract before the season.
In November, Atlanta was hit with major penalties for circumventing international signing rules. That might hurt the Braves in the future, but it doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on their ability to compete in 2018.
Other developments from around the majors:
The Dodgers are 11-3 in June and have recovered from their poor start. They now trail Arizona by just 1 1/2 games atop the NL West.
Los Angeles can hope this season is following a similar trajectory to 2017, when the Dodgers went 21-7 in June on their way to 104 wins.
If you’re concerned about pace of play in baseball, you probably weren’t crazy about Joe Maddon’s maneuvering Wednesday. Maddon began the bottom of the eighth by bringing Steve Cishek in to pitch for the Cubs. After a single, Brian Duensing came on to pitch, but Cishek stayed in the game in left field. That enabled Cishek to go back to the mound one out later, with Duensing taking over in left. Duensing eventually went back to pitch and finished out the inning.
It was a clever way for Maddon to keep both pitchers available throughout the inning, but Chicago still lost 1-0 to Milwaukee.
LINE OF THE WEEK
San Diego’s Freddy Galvis went 5 for 5, including a three-run homer, in a 9-3 win over Atlanta on Friday night. Galvis drove in four runs in the game.