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AP photo by Hakim Wright Sr. / Atlanta Braves catcher William Contreras gestures to the crowd after hitting a home run in the second inning of Sunday's home win against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

A few minutes after the Atlanta Braves' impressive 6-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon, Bally Sports analyst and former Braves pitcher Peter Moylan made the following observation:

"With the tougher competition coming in, things are about to get REAL real."

Yes, indeed.

The Braves have gotten back in the playoff hunt the past four or five weeks by feasting on weaker opponents, winning 21 of the 29 consecutive games they've played against teams with losing records at the time they faced them.

Come Monday night inside Atlanta's Truist Park, that is going to change in a really big way.

For starters, the San Francisco Giants — winners of seven of their last nine, though they did lose to Pittsburgh on Sunday — arrive for four games against the defending World Series champs.

Then the real fun begins, if you want to look at it that way. The Los Angeles Dodgers will be in the Big Peach on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for what could be a season-defining series. Let Atlanta win anywhere from three to five games or more of the seven games they'll play against the Giants and Dodgers, and it would certainly appear to be ready to stay in the playoff hunt the rest of the way.

But let's say the Braves win two of the seven, or worse. What then? Winning 14 straight before losing Friday and Saturday at Wrigley was certainly impressive, but this week is when we begin to find out if such runaway success was more about the opponent or Atlanta.

Not that this stretch hasn't given Braves Country justifiable hope moving forward. After one of his worst starts of the season at Washington — four runs, four walks and six hits in four innings last time out — pitcher Ian Anderson threw a gem against the Cubs, allowing just three hits in 6.2 shutout innings while striking out six.

"Just getting into the seventh inning was big today," said Atlanta manager Brian Snitker of Anderson's effort. "His stuff was really good today. We feel like we've got five guys (starters) who give us a chance to win every time out."

Then there's Atlanta native Matt Olson, who ripped three doubles and collected a walk. Having struggled early in the season after coming over from Oakland when it appeared the Braves weren't going to be able to re-sign Freddie Freeman, Olson is now batting .251 with eight home runs and 32 RBI. Not great, but certainly better than the first month, when he hovered around .200 at the plate.

Finally, there's the rookie phenom Michael Harris II, who hit his third homer in his 22 big-league games to date this season and is batting .321 with nine hits and seven RBI in his last six games.

The league's pitchers will surely adjust to him, and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to them the rest of this season and beyond, but his defense and attitude appear to be all-world and if he can continue to connect at the plate, the Braves will not only have one of the best defensive outfields in the majors, but also one of the more formidable offensive ones.

A single quote from Snitker concerning Harris II: "Michael Harris keeps learning and amazing me."

Of course, the Braves skipper also said this, "We're going into a tough stretch going into the All-Star break. We did a good job of beating the teams we were supposed to beat. After losing two in a row, it's big to win this one."

It is a tough stretch. In addition to the Giants and Dodgers, the Braves must visit similarly hot Philadelphia before welcoming NL Central co-leader St. Louis to town in early July. Those four teams are now a combined 37 games over .500.

"Those are definitely tough teams we've got coming up," said Harris II. "We've just got to play good, situational baseball and try to get the dubs (wins)."

Whether they do or not, it feels like we're about to be introduced to the real Braves of 2022 over the next three weeks.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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