DENVER — If the Braves are successful in their bid for a fifth straight National League East title, they’ll likely recognize that road trip as the stretch where they turned things around.
Ronald Acuña Jr. matched his career high with four hits, Matt Olson hit a three-run homer and Charlie Morton again impressed with his grit as he helped the Braves complete a four-game sweep with a victory of 8-7 over the Rockies at Coors Field Sunday afternoon. The defending World Series champions return home with a season-best five-game winning streak and their first winning record (28-27) since going 2-1 on April 9.
“Any sweep you get is good,” Olson said. “Coming here and having the guys pitch like they’ve been doing this whole series and having it be a four-game sweep is good.”
The Braves won a home series against the Marlins and then lost the first two games of this seven-game road trip to Arizona. They suffered their ugliest loss of the season on Tuesday, when they made several base-running errors, pitched for the wrong bases, lost a late lead and fell 10½ games behind the first-place Mets.
But instead of floundering, they built that five-game winning streak and held within 8 1/2 games of the Mets (37-19). In 55 games last year, the Braves were 26-29 and four games out of first place in the NL East race.
“We played two of our least important games [in Arizona]”, said manager Brian Snitker. “The guys have refocused and played as they can.
Here are five reasons to be encouraged as the Braves return home:
1. Upcoming schedule
The Braves’ next 12 games are against the A’s, Pirates, Nationals and Cubs. Each of these clubs has a losing record and Pittsburgh is the only member of this group to not have at least 10 games under .500.
Meanwhile, the Mets will spend their next four series playing against the Padres, Angels, Brewers and Marlins. San Diego and Milwaukee both hold at least 10 games above .500.
2. Get healthy
With Acuña strong enough to play right field in each of the last three games of this series, the Braves were reminded how much stronger their outfield defense is when he’s not on the bench or as a than DH. It was the first time he played in the outfield on three straight days since returning from a torn right ACL on April 28.
Acuña started Sunday’s four-hit game with three singles and capped it with a 441-foot homer in the eighth against Robert Stephenson. The 24-year-old outfielder has hit multiple hits in three of his last four games, and he’s hit .357 with two home runs and a .984 OPS in his last 19 games.
“I think it’s good, because we saw that I could play three games in the outfield,” Acuña said. “And we saw that it was improving and we saw what I was capable of doing.”
3. Olson warms up
Olson entered May 24 hitting .244 with a .787 OPS. The left-handed slugger has since hit .288 with three homers and a .958 OPS. He homered in a four-hit game at Arizona and hit the three-run homer in the second inning of Sunday’s win.
Long after hitting the 441-foot shot, the longest of his seven homers this year, Olson finished the game diving to touch first base just before Sam Hilliard reached for the sack. A replay review backed up the call to provide a fitting end to this thrilling series, which included two more matches.
“I didn’t know if he was going to beat Kenley [Jansen] to the bag,” Olson explained. “So I thought I had a better chance of getting there myself. I’m glad I didn’t take knees or anything. It could have been really bad.
Olson appears to be settling in just in time to welcome the A’s to Atlanta on Tuesday. The 28-year-old first baseman played his entire career with the Oakland organization before being acquired by the Braves in March.
As for Morton, he himself has not become dominant again. But he rebounded from Sunday’s 41-pitch, three-run first inning and then retired seven of eight batters faced after his right thumb was pinned by Randal Grichuk’s return in third. His ability to get through five helped a bullpen that had covered seven innings on Saturday.
“Guys are in a good place,” Morton said. “We’re just trying to start here and maintain one.”
5. Rejuvenated slugger?
When Adam Duvall created some confidence with his two-run homer in the 11th inning of Saturday night’s win, there was hope that it could be the end of his early season struggles. The veteran outfielder, who homered 38 last year, responded with a triple and a double on Sunday. He’s just hitting .199 with a .566 OPS, but his new season may have started in the last 48 hours.