Three Braves takeaways: Resurgent Chris Sale, the return of Sean Murphy and more (2024)

ATLANTA — A rough weekend for the Braves in Pittsburgh began with consecutive losses to the Pirates and ended with a season-ending injury to Ronald Acuña Jr.. His second torn ACL in less than three years overshadowed a sweep-averting win Sunday and another gem from Chris Sale, who’s pitching like it’s 2018.

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The Braves have lost 14 of 25 including a series-opening 8-4 defeat Monday against the Washington Nationals and Mitchell Parker. The rookie starter limited the Braves to two hits through seven scoreless innings before they got to him and the bullpen for four runs in the eighth including a two-run homer from Adam Duvall, who has replaced Acuña in right field.

Atlanta has hit .224 while averaging under 3.5 runs in this 25-game stretch, after hitting .277 and averaging 5.7 runs during its first 26 games including 19 wins.

Charlie Morton gave up four runs in the first inning Monday and 12 hits and eight runs in 5 1/3 innings. If the six-time NL East champions are to chase down the surging Philadelphia Phillies, they’ll need more from an erratic offense and continued strong pitching from starters Sale, Max Fried (1.70 ERA in his past six) and Reynaldo López (1.75 ERA).

#Braves lose 8-4 in opener of four-game series with the Nationals, the 14th loss in the past 25 games for Atlanta. Morton gave up all the runs including four in the first inning.

— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) May 27, 2024

They can’t expect as much from 40-year-old Morton (4.29 ERA).

Here are three takeaways from the recent action:

1. Sale delivering full value

It’s not just that Sale has won seven consecutive starts, the most by a Brave since Russ Ortiz won eight in a row in 2003. It’s the way Sale is doing it. The 35-year-old is generating strikeout and ground-ball rates similar to his best years with the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox, when he had six consecutive top-five Cy Young Award finishes.

Sale has a 1.17 ERA during his winning streak, with 58 strikeouts and four walks in 46 innings. And even that doesn’t fully illustrate how good the lanky lefty has been lately, how overpowering he’s been with a repertoire that leans heavily on pinpoint control of 94-97 mph four-seamers, sinkers and devastating sliders.

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He has an 0.69 ERA in his past six starts, with one or no runs in each. In five May starts Sale led MLB qualifiers with a 0.56 ERA while posting an absurd ratio of 45 strikeouts with two walks in 32 innings.

He hasn’t been back to the World Series since winning a ring with the 2018 Red Sox and hasn’t stayed healthy for a full season since then. If the Braves have any chance of returning to the World Series for the first time since winning it in 2021, or just getting past the NLDS after consecutive losses in that round to the Phillies, they need to keep Sale healthy.

2. Sean Murphy, Austin Riley return

The Braves hope for an offensive spark from the return of catcher Sean Murphy after a two-month injured-list stint for a strained oblique and from third baseman Austin Riley, who missed 13 games with an intercostal (side) strain. Both returned on Monday.

Murphy was 1-for-4 with an RBI and an infield single, after hitting two home runs and a double in four rehab games. Riley, batting second for the second time in his MLB career, was 0-for-4 with a strikeout in his first game since he got hurt taking a swing on May 12.

Murphy also was injured taking a swing on Opening Day. His 4.9 fWAR was third-highest among MLB catchers last season when he hit 17 of his 21 homers before the break and made the All-Star team.

Chadwick Tromp had a .259 OBP, no homers and a .625 OPS backing up catcher Travis d’Arnaud while Murphy was on the IL, and the Braves for now will keep Tromp as a third catcher. Manager Brian Snitker said he could use one of his catchers to pinch hit, possibly for left-handed Jarred Kelenic against a tough lefty reliever.

Kelenic had been part of a left-field platoon with Duvall but will get a chance to play every day now with Duvall in right.

“He’s ready to do his thing,” Duvall said of Kelenic. “He’s been playing well, and we need it. There’s going to have to be guys that step up and make an impact.”

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3. Fifth-starter scramble

The Braves have used five pitchers for 10 games in the fifth-starter role, and the only one with an ERA below 4.66 or a non-losing record in those starts is AJ Smith-Shawver, who went on the IL with a strained oblique after his season debut Thursday.

Smith-Shawver got no decision in a 3-0 win at Wrigley Field when he gave up just three hits and two walks in 4 1/3 innings, but tried to pitch through tightness in his side and perhaps made the injury worse by not saying anything sooner.

The others used in the fifth spot: Bryce Elder (1-2, 6.46 ERA in five starts), Darius Vines (0-1, 4.66 in two), Allan Winans (0-1, 10.80 in one), Ray Kerr (0-1, 11.25 in one).

Ian Anderson is recovering from Tommy John surgery and is expected to begin a rehab assignment soon, and the hope is he can join the rotation around the All-Star break.

(Photo of Chris Sale: Justin Berl / Getty Images)

Three Braves takeaways: Resurgent Chris Sale, the return of Sean Murphy and more (1)Three Braves takeaways: Resurgent Chris Sale, the return of Sean Murphy and more (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

Three Braves takeaways: Resurgent Chris Sale, the return of Sean Murphy and more (2024)
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