ATLANTA — It should have been different. After all, this was Hank Aaron Weekend at Truist Park, the Atlanta Braves honoring the greatest player in their history a few months after his death.
And as they entered Sunday afternoon's game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Aaron's smiling face on the day's program cover, his No. 44 once again stamped in the outfield (as it has been all year) — and with bobbleheads of Aaron being given away to fans — you got the feeling this might not only be the day the Braves reached .500, but the day they began a pennant-contending climb beyond that mark.
Instead, this one ended as so many others have this season with a chance to reach .500. The Braves were beaten 2-1. Over the past 16 games, beginning on July 17, Atlanta has followed every win with a loss and every loss with a win. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that odd streak is a record for Major League Baseball, surpassing the previous mark of 15 shared by several teams.
Said losing pitcher Charlie Morton after this one: "This loss was a microcosm of the season."
As he so often does, Braves skipper Brian Snitker focused on the positive against a Brew Crew that is now 20 games over .500 (63-43) and seven full games in front of Cincinnati in the National League Central Division. Thanks to the Reds' 7-1 win over the New York Mets, the Braves remain but four games in back of the first-place Mets in the NL East, with the Philadelphia Phillies in between them and 3 1/2 out of the lead.
"That's a good team," Snitker said of the Brewers. "We were one big hit away. Couldn't finish the deal."
The biggest chance for that big hit came in the bottom of the eighth inning with two aboard, one out and Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall coming to the plate. Since the All-Star break, the Brewers hadn't won a single game in which they'd scored fewer than six runs.
Alas, both Swanson and Duvall struck out, despite a fairly loud and sustained tomahawk chant filling the air from so many in the crowd of 33,469.
"This was a gauntlet we just came through," noted Snitker, pointing to the recent schedule against the Brewers, Mets, Phillies, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays. "And I think we're right about where we were when we started. This thing could have gone sideways and it didn't."
Indeed, while Atlanta keeps taking one step backward for every step forward, only the Phillies among those past five opponents are under .500 for the season, and they stand 52-53.
So maybe it will get better for the Braves, particularly with 12 of their next 18 games against the Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, who are each at least seven games below .500.
"It goes without saying we need to win those games," Morton said. "We're going to need to capitalize on those opportunities."
Atlanta is off Monday before beginning a three-game road series Tuesday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, which is followed by a six-game homestand, three each against the Nationals and the Reds.
This season certainly hasn't presented the opportunities the Braves expected it to, not with the three-time reigning division champions' best pitcher, Mike Soroka, sidelined for the entire season and their best all-around player, right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., lost for the last half of the schedule with a torn ACL.
But at least there are fans in the stands to watch and cheer, a far cry from last summer's COVID-19-altered campaign. Michael Smith has been part of the Braves' security staff on game days for 19 years. A 1967 graduate of Red Bank High School, the 71-year-old Smith and his wife Jackie split time between Atlanta and Chattanooga these days.
On Sunday, Smith said it still doesn't feel quite back to normal in the press box where he so often works.
"We're doing the best we can," said Smith, who roots for the Braves and the Tennessee Volunteers with equal passion. "I didn't work for a year (due to COVID-19), so it's good to be back. But it is different. It's understandable. This virus is still killing people. I keep a mask with me at all times. But there's a kind of camaraderie in this press box that's different now."
To the credit of the Braves organization, this Sunday felt like so many other Sundays, minus the red jerseys the club has sometimes worn. The tomahawk chant broke out a cappella on occasion. So, too, the wave. The matchless Timothy Miller, wearing his customary tuxedo, arrived in the seventh inning to sing "God Bless America" as only Miller can.
In an NL East overflowing with mediocrity, this scene could still play out on a Sunday in September with a playoff berth on the line. Four games in back of the Mets in early August is no time to panic.
Said a somber Morton at the close of a game he pitched well enough to win: "I believe in my teammates. We've got a good attitude. We have talent. We've still got time."
But he also said this: "Pitching, defense and offense haven't been meshing."
At least not for more than one game at a time.