When you're the Atlanta Braves and you've spent so much of this season a game or two or four below .500, the last thing you needed to hear Saturday was that your supposed pitching ace, right-hander Mike Soroka, tore his right Achilles' tendon for the second time in less than a year.
Already painfully thin on reliable pitching, the guaranteed loss of Soroka for the rest of this season (if not longer) would have seemed to all but end the Braves' marginal playoff hopes.
But then came Sunday at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, or, as Bally Sports television analyst and Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine quipped, "The Great American Small Park," which just goes to show it's impossible to build a park both hitters and pitchers love.
That said, any member of Braves Nation had to love the performance Atlanta rookie Kyle Muller turned in against the Reds in securing his first Major League Baseball victory in a 4-0 triumph. Not only did Muller get the win, he struck out nine Reds in five innings, allowing but one hit and two walks. This isn't to say the big lefty can necessarily fill Soroka's shoes, but he certainly provided hope, at least for one start, that he might boost a staff that has suffered more than its share of injuries and disappointments of late.
"Very, very impressive," Braves manager Brian Snitker of the 23-year-old Muller, who is listed at 6-foot-7 and 25o pounds on the roster. "Loved the assortment (of pitches). Loved how he regrouped. Struck out (Joey) Votto with a curveball that was really good. You never know when these (young) guys are going to grow up, figure things out. He was out there creating things he can fall back on."
With the New York Mets, who lead the National League East Division, arriving at Truist Park for a three-game series starting Tuesday, the Braves might fall even further back in the standings than the five games they currently trail the Metropolitans, or they could close the gap. Given that Sunday's win was the Braves' fifth shutout victory in their past 12 games, it would seem the three-time reigning NL East champions are beginning to find their way into the division race, even if they must do so with no chance of Soroka's return.
The bigger concern on that front is whether he'll ever be able to return. Achilles' injuries are devastating blows to elite athletes. The fact that Soroka has already had not just the original injury last August, but also a second procedure prior to this latest injury because of a setback during rehab can in no way be seen as a positive.
Said Snitker on Saturday of the injury that occurred Thursday as Soroka was entering Truist for rehab work: "It was his first day out of the boot. He was just walking. I hate it for him. All signs were a go until he took that step and felt that pop."
The Braves heard a much more positive pop off Ronald Acuña Jr.'s bat Sunday. After nearly being hit by a pitch from Reds starter Tyler Mahle in the fifth inning, Acuna crushed his 21st home run of the season to center field, the blast leaving the yard at a preposterous 117.4 mph, the highest exit speed of his career.
"I remember guys always saying you didn't want to knock down Hank (Aaron) or Frank Robinson because it would (tick) them off," Snitker said. "That's what I thought when Ronald hit that one out. It just serves notice (to pitchers) that you better be careful."
Now 37-40, the Braves need to be careful not slide too much further back of the Mets. They need more clutch hits from players not named Acuña or Freddie Freeman, though Austin Riley did crank his 13th homer of the year Sunday while also hitting a single to the opposite field to beat a shift.
And while the Braves have always been careful not to overwork their pitchers, especially when young, it would seem as if Soroka's latest setback opens the door to give Muller more freedom and opportunity than they might have otherwise.
Nor does Muller seem at all timid about the potential opportunity to start on a regular basis.
"It makes me feel like a big leaguer," he said of his first win. "It's really, really cool. Anyone coming into the big leagues is looking to have success early. Just knowing your stuff plays, it's a big confidence boost."
It just could be the confidence boost the Braves need to start a prolonged winning streak. Or as "Braves Live" studio host Jerome Jurenovich noted late Sunday afternoon: "Let (Muller) pitch. We need starters. Let him pitch."