After a couple of tough losses on Friday and Saturday, the Braves will take the field on Sunday night seeking both a split in the four-game set against their division rivals, as well as a 5-5 homestand. The Braves won a series against the Mariners and then dropped a set to the Dodgers, and so must win tonight to avoid their second losing homestand of the season.
At 31-21, the Braves have a 4.5-game lead over the Mets and Marlins, which remains the biggest division lead in baseball. The Braves have baseball’s fifth-best record, but have largely treaded water after a strong start — they’re 5-5 in their last ten games, and 9-11 in their last 20, as well as mired in a very specific 6-10 stretch. They haven’t played particularly poorly in that stretch (WAR-wins suggesting an 8-8 record in those games), but have found ways to lose a few winnable games. In some ways, the last two weeks or so have felt like a compressed version of much of the early part of the 2021 season, or the first two months of the 2022 season, where the Braves play decently but do just enough to lose — the difference is that they built such a big lead early in the year, and their roster is so strong overall, that this recent rough stretch hasn’t really sounded any alarm bells. As a result, the Braves are just fine. Their in-game tactics may suggest some degree of consternation or panic regarding the fact that 40 percent of their rotation is out of action, but neither the team’s performance nor its place in the standings suggest anything other than staying the course, for now.
Somewhat fittingly for this game, then, the Braves are starting Spencer Strider, who has also been amazing, and yet, without that translating into the sorts of results one might expect. I’m not really even talking about Strider’s peripherals, which feature a 67 ERA- despite a 55 FIP-and 61 xFIP-, because those aren’t that far apart. Instead, it’s more that they’ve dropped two of his last three games, though he’s posted a collective 81/82/63 line in them, and has struck out 30 of the 76 batters he’s faced. Much like many of the Braves’ losses can be attributed to a bad move or two, Strider’s been burned by a few un-Strider-esque sequences. Against the Dodgers last time out, he allowed a homer and two walks in his first two innings as four runs crossed the plate, but then faced just two over the minimum over the next four frames, striking out 11 in the process. Against the Blue Jays, Strider was dominant but for bleeding a couple of runs late, but the Braves were shut out by Chris Bassitt.
Despite throwing less hard than in his phenomenal rookie year, and being a full-time rotation member at this point, there’s no real indication that Strider is any worse, or anything less than dominant: his 2.0 fWAR is tied for seventh in MLB, and he’s tied for 27th in MLB in RA9-WAR as well. The question in Strider games is less one about his performance, and more whether that performance alone will be sufficient for a win, or whether some small dinky thing will be enough to mar it.
Strider’s career against the Phillies so far has been kind of funny — he dominated them four times in the regular season last year (including a relief appearance): 1.27 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 1.95 xFIP, and a 43 percent strikeout rate. But, in last year’s NLDS, he had that whole thing where he cruised through two frames and then suffered a velocity decline and completely fell apart in the third, giving up a three-run homer to Rhys Hoskins as the Phillies eventually blew out the Braves, 9-1, and went on to win the series.
As for the Phillies, well, they’re going for their third win in a row. If they get it, it will be only their fourth streak of three-plus wins so far this season. (By comparison, the Braves have five, and their longest was an eight-game streak, to the Phillies’ longest streak being a five-gamer.) At 25-27 and six games back of the Braves, they’ve been mired in a stop-and-start pattern for much of the year: they’ve lost five games in a row in two different stretches in May alone, with those losses sandwiching a five-game win streak. They’re really not supposed to be as bad as their record, and they’re underperforming their BaseRuns by two games, which makes sense.
Tonight, they’ll be starting Dylan Covey, a journeyman who was claimed off waivers from the Dodgers earlier this year. Covey pitched 250 innings of replacement-level ball in a swing role for the White Sox between from 2017 through 2019, and has been limited to a few bulk/long relief appearances since. On May 17, he was called up by the Dodgers to make a spot bulk appearance which went not-great (3/1 K/BB ratio in four innings but two homers allowed), but then impressed in his first bulk outing with the Phillies, holding the Diamondbacks to one walk, zero homers, and a lone run over five innings. Swingman Matt Strahm seems to figure into this game as well unless the Braves blow Covey out early.
Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies
Sunday, May 28, 2023
7:10 pm EDT
Truist Park, Atlanta, GA
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM
XM Radio: Ch. 177