Braves offense clicking early and often this season

ATLANTA — Unlike some clubs, the Atlanta Braves were expecting runs to be a little harder to come by this season. That has not been the case thus far, however. Atlanta is suprisingly the highest scoring team in baseball at the moment, averaging over eight runs per game in the early going.

It’s a small sample size, but it certainly qualifies as a pleasant surprise.

The Braves are making this magic happen with contributions up and down the lineup. They’ve won back-to-back series to open the season and scored a major league-best 48 runs through the first six games. Atlanta is also leading MLB with a .297 team batting average. Those numbers are buoyed by two big-time, blow-out wins against the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals, but this lineup has shown the ability not only to string the hits together, but to get them when they count.

Atlanta is batting .450 in 60 at-bats with runners in scoring position as a team on the young season. No one has been more destructive to opposing pitchers than Freddie Freeman.

He’s taking his walks and also making the most of his chances to drive in runs. Freeman set a franchise record by walking 10 times through the season’s first five games, a total that leads the majors and a trend that may not change any time soon.

When he’s not busy walking, Freeman is 6-for-7 with RISP with a pair of home runs. That fine work has helped him compile a National League-best nine RBI through his team’s first half a dozen games.

Freeman’s name appears all over the NL leaderboard. In addition to leading the league in RBI and walks, he’s tops with a .621 on-base percentage and eight runs scored as well. After having an MVP-caliber season derailed by a wrist injury in 2017, it appears that Freeman is picking up right where he left off.

Unsung heroes

The Braves made a handful of moves before setting their 25-man roster for Opening Day, among those was adding veteran infielder Ryan Flaherty. He was cast off by the Phillies despite a strong spring, but his good play in March was a sign of things to come.

Flaherty, 31, is batting .435 (10-for-23) with six runs scored while serving as Atlanta’s primary third baseman thus far. Though he was added more so for his versatility, Flaherty is enjoying his first time in the NL. He began his big league career with the Orioles in 2012 and has played every position but catcher in his six years in Baltimore.

Preston Tucker came over in a December trade with the Houston Astros, had a great spring for Atlanta and parlayed that perfromance into regular playing time in left field. Much of the media and fan focus down in Orlando was on top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr., but when he was reassigned to the minors, left field became a place for Tucker to find regular at-bats for at least a couple of weeks.

He’s run with that opportunity thus far. Tucker is batting .421 (8-for-19) with a home run and five RBI. His three-run blast on Tuesday helped the Braves launch a comeback against the Nationals. Then he did it again against Max Scherzer on Wednesday, clocking a three-run homer that sent the Braves to an eventual 7-1 victory. Tucker also contributed a pair of game-tying RBI-singles against Philadelphia.

Up and down the lineup

The Braves would love to see the speedy duo of Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies get on track ahead of Freeman. They have the potential to be a dynamic force at the top of the order.

Albies broke out with a three-hit performance on Tuesday, snapping out of a 2-for-20 start to his season. Inciarte is 6-for-26 to open the year and has already collected five RBI in the first six games. He’s looking to follow up a 200-hit season in which he captured his second consecutive gold glove award.

Veteran outfielder Nick Markakis will be counted on to pick up some of the RBI chances that may quite literally be taken out of Freeman’s hands when and if opposing teams decide to pitch around the Atlanta first baseman. Markakis belted a game-winning home run on Opening Day to beat the Phillies, the first of what the club hopes will be many big hits from the 13-year pro. Markakis logged a team-high 270 at-bats with runners on-base last season. That may very well be the case if he is entrenched in the middle of the order again in 2018. Acuña’s arrival could and should change the lineup dynamic in a number of ways, however.

Further down the order, Dansby Swanson is working to erase the memories of a challenging rookie season. He stumbled out of the gate a year ago, but is hitting .318 (7-for-22) with three RBI and three runs scored through five games. Swanson collected three hits against Philadelphia on Friday and already has a trio of multi-hit performances. For comparison, he did not have a multi-hit game until April 29, 2017. That was 22 games into the season.

The early returns from the Atlanta offense are providing reasons to be encouraged from a depth perspective as well. The Braves are getting contributions from several players as they wait for Acuña’s inevitable promotion, the return of both Johan Camargo and Tyler Flowers from injury. Put it all together, and the Braves may just find a way to score runs at a greater frequency than even they’d expected.

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