Chris Sale impresses and Braves score big early in win, but Michael Harris II is going on IL (2024)

ATLANTA — When you’re as frustrated as the Atlanta Braves hitters have been for nearly two months, getting consecutive wins with multi-run first innings feels close to monumental. Last year, it would’ve felt practically mundane.

And when Austin Riley hits an RBI double in the five-run first inning and launches a ball nearly to the concourse above the left-field bleachers an inning later for a two-run homer, the sense of relief with the long-slumping third baseman seems as palpable as excitement in the dugout among teammates who had precious little to celebrate since late April.

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In a sweep-averting 6-3 win at Baltimore on Thursday, the Braves got four hits from Ozzie Albies and two-run doubles from Marcell Ozuna and Matt Olson, and on Friday they backed it with a 7-3 homestand-opening win against Tampa Bay at sold-out Truist Park, a win fueled by Ozuna’s three-run homer in the first inning and Riley’s 422-foot homer in the second.

“I’ve been obviously working hard trying to get right, and to see some results is nice, and help the team,” said Riley, who had three hits and three RBIs, after hitting .161 with two RBIs in his previous 16 games since returning from a side-muscle strain. It was his first homer since May 3, snapping a 90-at-bat drought that was the longest of his career.

But even their second consecutive win since a five-game losing streak came with a setback: Michael Harris II left Friday’s game after straining his left hamstring in the first inning, and the center fielder will go on the 15-day injured list.

“It’s tough,” Riley said. “What he does out there in center, and obviously in our lineup, you hate that. You really do. Seems like we’ve been kind of snakebit on injuries this year, but it’s got to be that next guy up mentality.”

Harris had led off each of the past two wins with first-inning singles. He was 6-for-18 in his past five games and starting to look more comfortable in the leadoff role since replacing injured starter Ronald Acuña Jr. atop the order. Now, the Braves have lost another leadoff man, at least temporarily.

Albies, who doubled in each of the past two games after Harris’ first-inning leadoff singles, could be moved back to leadoff, where he briefly split duties in a platoon with Harris.

The Braves will call up an outfielder Saturday from Triple-A Gwinnett, possibly the recently acquired veteran Ramón Laureano, who had three hits Friday before being removed late in the game.

Harris’ hamstring tightened between second and third bases as he was running on Albies’ double, and he was replaced by pinch runner J.P. Martínez, who stayed in the game in center field.

Michael Harris II exits tonight's game after suffering an injury while running the bases. pic.twitter.com/pS9McimEvg

— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) June 14, 2024

Despite the two wins and the multi-run first innings, no one in the clubhouse is ready to say the Braves are back. Two games do not warrant that after the stench of the previous 41 games. The Braves went 17-24 in those while posting the fewest runs (138) and lowest OPS (.631) in the majors during that period from April 27 through Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to Baltimore.

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“Coming off a year like last year, I don’t know if the guys put too much pressure on themselves to try and repeat,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said before Friday’s game, “and then we got off to a slow start, and now it’s like, trying to keep our head above water and start swimming again.”

He paused before discussing the current vibe among the Braves, who never experienced anything akin to such a teamwide hitting slump in 2023, when they tied the single-season homer record with 307, led the majors in OPS by 50 points at .845, and set an MLB full-season record by slugging .501.

Before Friday, the Braves were ninth in the NL in homers (66) and sixth in the league in slugging (.397) and OPS (.705). Even considering slugging is down across MLB this season, that was a precipitous year-over-year decline.

“It’s been frustrating,” Seitzer said. “All the guys’ attitudes are great, every day they come in and feel like this is gonna be the day they go. We’re tweaking, making adjustments, trying to do everything we can to keep ’em in a good place to where they’ve got a chance to get it rolling.”

Riley said Thursday in Baltimore, “It’s like the offensive numbers we put up last season, and eight (2023) All-Stars — I wouldn’t have pictured it the way it is right now, for sure. Because there’s so much talent in this clubhouse.”

Against the backdrop, it’s easy to see why even two wins since with wire-to-wire leads could feel more important than two games in mid-June would under normal circ*mstances. The long offensive spiral has caused much angst with fans across Braves Country, and also plenty of consternation within the Braves’ clubhouse, coaches’ room and front office, though things have never deteriorated with the team chemistry in which players take such pride.

“No one’s pouting, there’s no finger-pointing, no bad vibes,” said veteran pitcher Chris Sale, who had another strong performance Friday, allowing five hits and two runs with two walks and seven strikeouts in seven innings, and improving to 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA including a majors-best 7-0 home record.

Chris Sale, Unfair 81mph Back Foot Slider. 😯 pic.twitter.com/gdzwcUtsie

— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 15, 2024

Sale went out of his way to praise his teammates and the clubhouse atmosphere in his first season with the Braves.

“Everyone has been doing the same things, we’re just not getting the results,” he said. “Unfortunately this is a very result-oriented game. But everyone’s doing their early work, everyone’s getting their lift in, everyone’s doing what they need to do, it just wasn’t showing up.”

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That started to change in Baltimore, Sale said. Olson had a game-tying two-run homer later in a 4-2 loss Wednesday, then the Braves led throughout their series-finale win against the powerful Orioles.

“You kind of felt it over the last few days, like, ‘OK, something’s about to happen,'” Sale said. “We had a great ending to our road trip, and then obviously to start this one off today was big. Hopefully the boys will just keep doing what they’re doing and stay the course, and trust in themselves.”

The Braves have said for weeks that they would have a correction offensively, it’s just taking longer than any of them expected. Riley discussed his and the team’s recent hitting woes before Thursday’s game at Baltimore.

“We’re all talking, trying to help each other out, trying to break down swings and just getting different feedback,” said Riley, who averaged 36 homers and 99 RBIs during 2021-2023 while hitting .286 with an .878 OPS in that span, but hit .220 with three homers, 20 RBIs and a .618 OPS in 53 games this season before his big night Friday.

He described in Baltimore how Braves players have all been talking and providing feedback to each other about their swings and what they saw, trying to help each other.

“Because we all want to do well,” Riley said. “It’s been a tough stretch, to say the least. But it’s in there. We’ve just got to get it rolling.”

Maybe it’s beginning now. Only time will tell. But for two nights, they’ve at least resembled the juggernaut they were in 2023, when the Braves’ modus operandi was to put severe pressure on opposing pitchers from the opening bell. They led the majors with a staggering 146 first-inning runs and a .982 first-inning OPS last season.

Through Wednesday, they had the fourth-fewest opening-inning runs in the majors this season, with just 22 in 64 games. But they’ve scored seven in the first inning of their past two games and had eight hits including five extra-base hits.

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In both games, 3-hole hitter Ozuna drove in the first two batters in the first inning, with a double Thursday and his three-run homer Friday, which raised Ozuna’s NL-leading totals to 19 homers and 60 RBIs.

“I don’t feel like he’s getting enough love in the baseball world, what he’s doing for us just on a nightly basis,” Riley said of Ozuna. “He works really hard, he comes in every day and has the same energy. As long as we win he’s pleased with it, no matter what happens at the plate. You watch guys like that, for me personally, picking up on anything you can learn from. He’s been doing it a while and he’s doing it at a high level right now.”

The Braves hope they soon will be doing that collectively.

(Photo of Chris Sale: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

Chris Sale impresses and Braves score big early in win, but Michael Harris II is going on IL (1)Chris Sale impresses and Braves score big early in win, but Michael Harris II is going on IL (2)

David O'Brien is a senior writer covering the Atlanta Braves for The Athletic. He previously covered the Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and covered the Marlins for eight seasons, including the 1997 World Series championship. He is a two-time winner of the NSMA Georgia Sportswriter of the Year award. Follow David on Twitter @DOBrienATL

Chris Sale impresses and Braves score big early in win, but Michael Harris II is going on IL (2024)
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