The Baltimore Orioles’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread.
For them to have any shot at keeping the dream alive, they’ll need to rally in a big way against a team that’s already making postseason plans.
The Atlanta Braves are up next, and with a 28-19 record that’s given them a three-and-a-half game lead in the NL East, they pose a stiff challenge for the Orioles. Atlanta has the highest-scoring offense in all of baseball, and the Braves’ +57 run differential is the third best in the National League and the fourth-best in the majors.
Baltimore pitchers won’t like the task ahead of them. Atlanta hitters have smacked the second-most home runs in baseball (80, behind only the Dodgers), and their collective .833 OPS and .270 average rank first and third, respectively, in the majors.
And the Orioles have to essentially clean up against this team. Easy. No sweat.
The Braves offense
In fairness, if you want to be a prolific offensive team, it helps to have perhaps the game’s best young offensive player. Ronald Acuna Jr. has continued his progression into full-fledged superstar, with a .279 average, 11 home runs, 32 runs and a 1.068 OPS in 33 games. He’s done this while hitting primarily out of the leadoff spot, giving the Braves a threatening presence in the lineup from the get-go.
You don’t become one of baseball’s best offenses with one man, however. The Braves have a pair of hitters sporting an OPS over 1.000 in Freddie Freeman (.333/.450/.618, 10 home runs) and Marcell Ozuna (.320/.406/1.029, 14 home runs), as well as another couple of big bats in Dansby Swanson (.297/.369/.847) and Adam Duvall (.261/.313/.908, 13 home runs).
Add in a .300-hitting catcher in Travis d’Arnaud (.317) and old friend Nick Markakis (.253), and the weak spots in the lineup are hard to find. Orioles pitchers, vaya con dios.
The Braves rotation
The Braves have looked more mortal on the mound, with a team ERA of 4.60 that ranks 17th in the majors and .248 team on-base percentage that ranks 20th.
Leading the way for Atlanta has been Max Fried, who’s been tremendous with a 6-0 record, 1.98 ERA and 1.060 WHIP, but the Orioles may have caught a break. Fried struggled in a Sept. 5 start against Washington and was put on the IL with a muscle spasm in his lumbar spine, taking him out of action until Sept. 16 — the last day of the series.
Fried aside, the Braves’ rotation has seen some mix-and-matching. Ian Anderson (3-0, 1.64), Josh Tomlin (2-2, 4.68) and Robbie Erlin (0-0, 8.49) have been consistent members, but Erlin is out of the picture after being designated for assignment, and Cole Hamels has been summoned after sitting out thus far with shoulder and triceps trouble. Former Oriole Tommy Milone, who was dealt at the deadline, is on the IL after making three starts with his new team.
Numerous other Braves have seen a handful of starting opportunities. Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright and Sean Newcomb have each gotten at least four starts, but all three have struggled in their chances.
In the bullpen, the Orioles will find some shutdown arms in Shane Greene (1.19 ERA in 22.2 innings), A.J. Minter (0.54 ERA in 16.2 innings) and Tyler Matzek (3.74, 30 strikeouts in 21.2 innings), forming a bridge to closer Mark Melancon (2.04 ERA, 10 saves).
The teams will play Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, each game starting at 7:35 p.m.
According to Atlanta’s schedule on ESPN, starting pitching assignments are in place for the first and final games of the series. In the first game, Toussaint will get Jorge Lopez, who’s appeared in seven games, made three starts and sports an ERA of 6.38.
In the third game, it’s looking like Hamels against Keegan Akin, who’s 0-1 with a 4.61 ERA in three starts. Akin was excellent against the Yankees two starts ago, pitching 5.1 shutout innings, but then he struggled in a rematch Friday, allowing four runs and not even getting out of the first.
The starters for the middle game are yet to be announced, but the Orioles likely won’t have to worry about facing Fried, who’s slated to pitch against the Mets on Friday.