Chris Sale shines and Braves scores big early in win, but Michael Harris II goes to IL

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

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

In a sweep-avoiding 6-3 win in 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 that up with a 7-3 homestand-opening win against Tampa Bay at a sold-out Truist Park, a victory fueled by Ozuna’s three-run homer in the first inning and Riley’s 400-foot homer in the second.

“I’ve obviously been working hard to do well, and to see some results is nice, and to help the team,” said Riley, who had three hits and three RBIs after hitting .161 with two RBIs in his previous sixteen games. since returning from a side muscle strain. It was his first home run since May 3, breaking a 90-hit drought that was the longest of his career.

But even their second straight 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 midfielder will remain on the 15-day injured list.

“It’s hard,” Riley said. “What he does there in the center, and of course in our setup, you hate that. You really do. It seems like we’ve had a bit of a problem with injuries this year, but it has to be the ‘next guy up’ mentality.”

Harris had started each of the past two wins with first-inning singles. He is 6-for-18 in his past five games and has begun to feel more comfortable in the lead role since starting injured Ronald Acuña Jr. replaced at the top of the order. Now the Braves have lost another leading man, at least temporarily.

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

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

Harris’ hamstring tightened between second and third base while running on Albies’ double, and he was replaced by pinch-runner JP Martínez, who remained in the game in center field.

Despite the two wins and multi-run first innings, no one in the clubhouse is ready to say the Braves are back. Two games doesn’t justify that after the stink of the previous 41 games. The Braves went 17-24 while scoring the fewest points (138) and lowest OPS (.631) in the Majors from April 27 through Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to Baltimore.

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

He paused for a moment before discussing the current atmosphere among the Braves, who have never experienced anything like a team-wide 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 all-season record by hitting .501.

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

“It was frustrating,” Seitzer said. “The attitude of all the boys is great, every day they come in and they feel like this is the day they go. We’re tweaking, making adjustments and trying to do everything we can to keep them in a good place where they have a chance to get it working.

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

Against the backdrop, it’s easy to understand why even two wins, as wire-to-wire leads could be more important than two games in mid-June under normal circumstances. The long offensive spiral has caused a lot of fear among fans in Braves Country, as well as a lot of consternation within the Braves’ clubhouse, coaches’ room and front office, though things have never deteriorated with the team chemistry that players take so much pride in.

“No one’s pouting, there’s no finger pointing, there’s no bad vibe,” 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 improved to 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA, including a 7-0 home record in the Majors.

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, but we’re just not getting the results,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a very results-oriented competition. But everyone does their first job, everyone gets a ride, everyone does what they’re supposed to do, it just didn’t show up.

That started to change in Baltimore, Sale said. Olson later had a game-tying two-run homer in a 4-2 loss Wednesday, after which the Braves led during their series finale victory against the mighty Orioles.

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

The Braves have been saying for weeks that they would get a correction offensively, but it’s just taking longer than they expected. Riley discussed his and the team’s recent hitting struggles before Thursday’s game in Baltimore.

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

He described in Baltimore how Braves players were all talking to each other and giving feedback about their swings and what they were seeing, trying to help each other.

“Because we all want to do it right,” Riley said. “It has been a tough period to say the least. But it’s there. We just have to get it going.”

Maybe it starts now. Time will tell. But for two nights, they at least looked like the juggernaut they were in 2023, when the Braves’ modus operandi was to put heavy pressure on opposing pitchers from the opening bell. They led the Majors last season with a whopping 146 runs in the first inning and a .982 OPS in the first inning.

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

In both games, 3-hole hitter Ozuna drove in both Harris and Albies in the first inning, with a double Thursday and his three-run homer Friday bringing Ozuna’s NL-leading totals to 19 home runs and 60 RBIs.

“I don’t feel like he gets enough love in the baseball world, which he does for us every night,” Riley said of Ozuna. “He works very hard, comes every day and has the same energy. As long as we win, he’s happy with it, no matter what happens on the board. You see guys like that, for me personally, pick up everything you can learn from. He has been doing it for a while and is now doing it at a high level.”

The Braves hope they can do that together soon.

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