Wiedmer: Braves beginning to play like the defending World Series champs

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker holds up the trophy after winning baseball's World Series in Game 6 against the Houston Astros Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Houston. The Braves won 7-0. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker holds up the trophy after winning baseball's World Series in Game 6 against the Houston Astros Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Houston. The Braves won 7-0. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

By the time you read this, the Atlanta Braves will be one game past the midway point of the 2022 season, having either won or lost Tuesday night's game against the St. Louis Cardinals inside the Braves' Truist Park.

Winners in 24 of their past 30 games heading into Tuesday, it would appear the defending World Series champs are safely on their way back to the postseason.

But can they repeat? Can they do something no major league baseball world champion has accomplished since the dastardly New York Yankees went back-to-back-to-back from 1998 through 2000?

Moreover, with the Yanks once again the toast of the American League - a preposterous 58-22 at Tuesday's dawn - and the Los Angeles Dodgers a scary 50-29 before Tuesday's play - can these Braves again become the kind of team come October that shocked the world a year ago at that time?

If you listen to Atlanta manager Brian Snitker after Monday night's 6-3, rain-delayed victory over St. Louis, the answer is an unequivocal "Yes!"

Said Snitker in a post-midnight press conference due to a two-hour, 37-minute rain delay: "I like where we're at and I think we can continue to get better, honestly."

When you've already put together one 14-game winning streak this season and shaved seven games off the New York Mets' National League East lead in roughly a month - and the Mets were 50-30 on Tuesday - you're already at a level where getting much better should again put the World Series within your grasp.

After all, it's not like Atlanta has its full arsenal at the moment. Ronald Acuna Jr. is still not back to his pre-knee surgery form of a year ago. Second baseman Ozzie Albies is almost assuredly out until September with a broken foot. There's still no definitive word on when the long-injured pitcher Mike Soroka will return, though it could certainly be by August. Closer Kenley Jansen has heart issues.

And outfielder Eddie Rosario - the MVP of last season's NLCS - just returned to the lineup for the first time since April on Monday against St. Looie, going 1 for 4 at the plate following a two-month rehab from eye surgery.

Yet despite all those understandable excuses, the Braves have been baseball's hottest team over the past five weeks, strong at the plate, in the field and on the mound, both their starters and relievers as they entered Tuesday night with a 47-34 record.

Just look at Dansby Swanson, who should almost certainly be the NL's starting shortstop in the All-Star Game on July 19 at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.

Hitting just .143 through the season's first 14 games, Swanson has batted .335 with 14 homers since then, which ranks him third among NL players in batting average over that span.

Said Snitker after watching Swanson swat two doubles and drive home three runs against the Cards: "It's not a small sample size anymore. He's figured it out."

Atlanta pitcher Kyle Wright - who was robbed of what almost assuredly would have been his 10th win of the year because the rain delay left him an inning shy of being able to earn the victory - went even further in his praise of his shortstop, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft out of Vanderbilt.

"(Swanson's) been huge for us this year," Wright told MLB.com. "I definitely don't think we would be in the position we are without him. He deserves all his success. He's going to keep doing it because that's the kind of person and player that he is. It's been a ton of fun to watch this year."

Yet as good as Swanson's been, he is far from alone in putting together an All-Star worthy resume. Merely consider Wright, who's posted a 2.91 ERA in his first 16 starts, has a realistic chance to make the All-Star team, and can become the first Braves pitcher since Tommy Hanson to win at least 10 games before the All-Star break, given he probably has two starts left between now and then.

Echoing Snitker's earlier words about the whole team, Wright said of himself: "I feel like I'm back to who I believe I can be. I feel like I can still be better."

Then there's Matt Olson, the Atlanta native who's had the unenviable task of replacing Freddie Freeman at first base. All Olson has done is lead the majors in doubles to date (31) and stand fourth in extra-base hits (43). Marcus Giles set the Braves' modern record for doubles with 49 in 2003, a mark Olson could certainly top.

None of this guarantees a return to the postseason. Atlanta needs to get healthy and stay healthy. And while catching the Mets is a possibility, the more important goal is merely to make the wildcard round, which is a best-of-three this season, and certainly favors the deep and talented Braves.

Yet one thing above all others is without argument one game past the midway point of the season. As noted by Snitker: "We've come a long way from two months ago."

It's where they could be two months from now that should excite Braves Country and unnerve the rest of the National League.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.