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1 Jul 2023

Braves Reds Baseball

Matt Olson, who led the Braves with 11 home runs in the month of June, celebrates one of them with ... [+] fellow slugger Austin Riley. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

July is a big month for baseball. In addition to the All-Star Game and Hall of Fame inductions, this is the last month contenders can fortify their rosters before the trade deadline. But not everyone was happy to see the calendar flip.

The Atlanta Braves, to a man, were sad to see the end of June.

“I wish it were June the whole year,” said Ozzie Albies after the Braves finished with a flourish Friday, blasting six homers en route to a 16-4 thrashing of the Miami Marlins at Truist Park on June 30.

The Braves hit a franchise-record 61 home runs for the month, more than a dozen more than the next-best team, and led both leagues in runs, hits, batting, on-base average, slugging percentage, and OPS after losing their first game in June. No wonder they went 21-4, tying a franchise mark for wins in a single month.

That allowed them to open the largest lead – seven games over the Marlins – in any of baseball’s six divisions. Even though the Marlins and Phillies also played well during the month, both lost ground to Atlanta.

And the New York Mets, the pre-season favorite of many, skidded so badly that they finished June 18½ games behind the surging Braves after starting the month with a deficit of just 3½ games.

With 54 wins in their first 81 games, Atlanta has its best record since the schedule expanded from 154 to 162 games in 1962, when the Mets and Astros (then called the Colt .45s) joined the National League as expansion teams.

After the game Friday, Miami catcher Jacob Stallings said of the Braves, “They’re probably the best lineup in baseball one through nine and have Michael Harris II hitting ninth.”

Both Harris II, the 2022 NL Rookie of the Year, and veteran slugger Marcell Ozuna started the season so poorly that fans posted in social media that the former should be returned to the minors and the latter should be released.

But Braves manager Brian Snitker, a paragon of patience, navigated around their troubles. Snitker, a 67-year-old organization man originally hired by the late Hank Aaron, was rewarded when Harris II, an Atlanta native raised less than an hour from the suburban Cobb County ballpark, caught fire after a conversation with Ozuna.

So did Matt Olson, whose two-homer game Friday placed him with the legendary Lou Gehrig as the only players to hit at least two homers, knock in at least five runs, score at least four, and leg out a triple in the same game.

The lanky first baseman is on pace to top the Braves franchise record for home runs held by Hall of Fame contender Andruw Jones, who hit 51 in 2005.

Moving down in the batting order helped Olson, dropped from second to fifth by Snitker, who inserted the switch-hitting Albies into the No. 2 spot behind leadoff man and MVP front-runner Ronald Acuna, Jr. on June 15.

Olson also got advice from Ozuna, who not only has years of experience but plenty of time to observe his teammates while serving as the team’s designated hitter.

Twins Braves Baseball

Advice from veteran Marcell Ozuna (right, with Ronald Acuna, Jr.) helped Braves teammates Michael ... [+] Harris II and Matt Olson. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

After Ozuna told Olson he was dropping his hands rather than keeping them straight through the strike zone, Olson smacked seven home runs.

Thanks to his team-best 11 home runs in the month of June, Olson led the National League with 28 – two shy of major-league leader Shohei Ohtani – and 67 runs batted in.

“I talk to him all the time about hitting, about how he feels,” Ozuna told Justin Toscano of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m just here to help.”

For Ozuna, so awful in April that he went unused during an early-season doubleheader in New York, the swagger is back in the wake of two wasted seasons.

After nearly winning a Triple Crown during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, he fractured two fingers during a head-first slide into Rafael Devers in Boston the following May, then was suspended by Major League Baseball a few days later after his arrest for alleged domestic violence.

After his 2022 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, Ozuna became a pariah, kept by the Braves only because they couldn’t trade him (and his four-year, $64 million guaranteed contract).

But what a difference a year makes: Acuna, catcher Sean Murphy, and shortstop Orlando Arcia were elected to start in the All-Star Game and a half-dozen others, including Harris II, were finalists to join them.

Third baseman Austin Riley, a notorious streak hitter whose bat is heating up as the weather warms, told reporters, “Up until this past month, we hadn’t really clicked together. I think we’re doing that right now and it’s fun.”

Before the Braves did it this year, no National League team had ever hit 61 home runs in a month. In fact, only the 2019 Yankees (74), 2021 Blue Jays (66), and 2023 Rays (61) had ever reached that prolific power level.

Atlanta’s previous best was 56, accomplished in June 2019. “It’s the best offense I’ve ever seen for sure,” said pitcher Michael Soroka, who pitched six innings Friday to pick up his first win since tearing his Achilles tendon on Aug. 3, 2020.

With the return to health of Soroka, NL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2019, and Max Fried, runner-up for the NL’s 2022 Cy Young Award, the Braves expect to be even stronger during the second half.

Marlins Braves Baseball

Michael Soroka, recovered from two tears of his Achilles, got his first win in three years to mark ... [+] the end of a jubilant June for the team. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

In addition, they anticipate the August return of Kyle Wright, who led the majors with 21 wins last year before encountering shoulder problems.

“Nobody knew what would happen when Max and Kyle went down,” said catcher Travis d’Arnaud, a first-time All-Star in 2022. “All we really cared about was winning each series. We’ve stayed loose and haven’t put too much stress on anything.”

The Braves have tried eight different starters, including rookies Jared Shuster, Dylan Dodd, and AJ Smith-Shawver, and gotten wins from 11 different pitchers. But they’ve managed to post the second-best team earned run average in the NL thanks to Bryce Elder, who leads the league in ERA, and Spencer Strider, who leads the majors in strikeouts. Both could be All-Stars.

With their pitchers striking out more and their hitters striking out less, the team is thriving. A young team with virtually all of their key players signed to long-term contracts, the Braves spent less than any other club on free agency last winter but opened the season with a club-record payroll of $203,077,500, eighth in the majors according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Olson, signed last year to an eight-year, $168 million deal, will earn a club-high $21 million this season. He’s make even more if the team reaches post-season play.

“June is about the time when you’ve come through the wars and you’re becoming the team you’re going to have,” said Snitker, who has guided the Braves to five straight division titles – the longest active streak in the majors.

“It becomes real. You get into a routine, hit your stride, and stop talking about stuff like ‘it’s early.’ It’s not early anymore. We’re getting into the teeth of this thing now.”

In case opponents haven’t noticed, those teeth are sharp. Entering play Saturday, Snitker’s juggernaut had the best winning percentage (.667) in the National League and was on track for 107 wins, a franchise record.

Along the way, the Braves could also join the 2019 Twins (307) and 2019 Yankees (306) as the only teams to hit at least 300 home runs in a season.