For a brief moment late Sunday afternoon, it seemed as if the Atlanta Braves were back in the playoffs, hunting for another red-letter October victory.
They'd rallied from a 5-1 hole to pull within 5-4 of the Miami Marlins in the bottom of the ninth, thanks in part to an Austin Riley two-run homer. Then Marcell Ozuna crushed a double with but one out to set the stage for either Adam Duvall or Eddie Rosario to win this one outright or force extra innings.
Six months ago, the Bravos on their way to their first World Series crown since 1995, this would have been an automatic "W."
Alas, this is April 2022, not October 2021. Duvall struck out. So, too, Rosario. Atlanta lost for the 10th time in 17 games. Three weeks into the season, the reigning world champs have yet to win a single series.
Said Bally Sports analyst Pete Moylan afterward: "There needs to be a little soul searching. But it's early, too."
This is also why, however tempting, it's not time to panic. These are the Braves, after all, the group that couldn't climb above .500 a single time until mid-August last season. Then they won it all. Seventeen games does not a season make. Especially when the best player in the franchise — one Ronald Acuña Jr. — has yet to take the field for Atlanta this year as he continues to recover from last July's major knee injury and the subsequent surgery.
As Atlanta manager Brian Snitker noted early Sunday evening: "We get (Acuña) back, who knows what might happen?"
Of course, much to his credit and undeniable wisdom, he also said: "But we need to win games before he gets here."
Not many teams blow their playoff chances in April. Nor will the Braves. They have had weak starts before and finished strong. The pitching will hopefully improve, given its current 4.59 earned run average, which ranks 24th among 30 major league teams.
And while the hitting hasn't been dreadful — Atlanta currently stands 10th in the majors in team hitting and ranks sixth for runs scored in the National League — it also hasn't been enough to overcome the pitching, as witness Sunday's failed rally from 5-1 down. Critics will blame allowing Freddie Freeman to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers for what ails the Atlanta offense. And it might be. But that shouldn't be judged until at least the All-Star break.
"This is part of a good team trying to find itself," Snitker said. "It's a grind right now. And we'll have three or four of these during the season. But these guys' trademark is that they never quit, and they never will."
That was the positive to take from Sunday. Down four runs in the ninth, the Braves had a realistic chance to win. As for never quitting, never giving in, merely consider Riley's homer. He had hit into a soul-crushing double play with the bases loaded in the seventh. Yet given a second chance to be a hero after earlier ripping two doubles against the Marlins, Riley delivered.
Maybe becoming a serious contender to repeat as champs could be as simple as something Bally in-game analyst Jeff Francoeur noted at the close of this one: "Hopefully they can get it going knowing that Ronald is not far away from joining them."
At this point, the best estimates have Acuña back on the field by May 6 against the Milwaukee Brewers. But SiriusXM radio analyst and The Athletic columnist Jim Bowden also wrote the following on Twitter after reaching out to Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulus on Sunday: "Schedule is for May 6, but if (Acuña) keeps progressing with no setbacks could be sooner."
Sooner would certainly be better. Good as the Braves were down the stretch last season without the two-time All-Star, they're better on both offense and defense with him on the field. Maybe much better. And while standing 10-17 is no time to panic, another month of this, even two more weeks of this with Acuña on the sideline would and should create some concern.
Just don't expect Snitker to begin losing sleep any time soon.
With words that would be hard to argue, he said the following when asked if this season is reminding him of last season, that eventual championship season, at a similar point in time: "It seems eerily the same."
So do these words, which the Braves skipper uttered for weeks before the switch flipped in August: "We just need that one big hit to get us going."
Duvall and Rosario became famous for such hits last October. If they start producing those again, 2022 could still seem eerily the same at the finish to 2021.