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Atlanta Braves' elite infield play continues powering second-half surge

John Bazemore/AP Photo

Freddie Freeman stepped up to the plate in the top of the fourth inning, runners at first and second with one out, the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins tied at 2.

This is the quintessential Freeman situation. He entered Monday's game hitting .337 with runners in scoring position in 2021. He hit .423 last season (and slugged a ridiculous .885). He hit .358 in 2019. When Freeman steps up to the plate with a runner on second base, there is a likelihood something good is about to happen. With first base occupied, you also can't really pitch around him, as so often happens to Freeman if there is only a runner on second.

You certainly do not want to fall behind 3-1 in the count, as Marlins pitcher Paul Campbell did, and you most certainly do not want to throw a 3-1 cookie down the middle. Freeman unloaded with a 110 mph laser to right-center for a three-run homer, a drive with an expected batting average of .980, which makes you wonder how the 2% chance of an out would come into play. Perhaps if Ken Griffey Jr. were standing on top of the wall with a fishing net.

The Braves went on to rout the Marlins 12-2, as Freeman and Ozzie Albies, with three hits apiece, led the 14-hit onslaught. The Braves improved to 11-3 in August, and with the Mets fading fast, the National League East is morphing into a two-team race between Atlanta and Philadelphia -- and the Braves are finally starting to resemble the team many expected to see back in spring training. With Ronald Acuna Jr. out for the season, Atlanta's power-hitting infield is leading the way. Freeman has those 26 home runs, third baseman Austin Riley has 25, shortstop Dansby Swanson has 24 and Albies has 22. In those 14 August games, the four infielders have combined to hit .320 with 15 home runs, 48 RBIs and 49 runs. Swanson has been the hottest, hitting .379 with four home runs and 15 RBIs.

My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft mentioned on the ESPN Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast that all four players have a chance to hit 30 home runs. Only 14 teams have ever had four players hit 30 home runs in the same season and, as you as might expect, none of them had four infielders do it. This group is on track to be one of the great power-hitting infields of all time.

ESPN Stats & Information's Jared Berson informed that only one team has even had all four primary infielders reach 25 home runs, which will be a shoo-in for the Braves' four sluggers. The 2008 Marlins -- no, you never would have guessed them -- saw shortstop Hanley Ramirez hit 33 homers, first baseman Mike Jacobs and second baseman Dan Uggla hit 32, and third baseman Jorge Cantu hit 29. Eight of Cantu's home runs actually came as a first baseman, so the season totals for the Marlins by position were 40 at first base, 33 at second base, 34 at shortstop and 23 at third base -- 130 from the four positions.

With 99 home runs from the infield, the Braves have a chance at Houston's record; they're on pace for 135. More importantly, they are now 1½ games up on the Phillies.

Even when Acuna was healthy, the Braves had scuffled. They lost their first four games and spent the first four months trying to get over .500. They reached .500 at 4-4, 12-12, 17-17, 24-24, 29-29 and 44-44, only to lose all six games that would have given them a winning record. Game No. 88, in fact, was when Acuna went down. It appeared it might just be one of those seasons, with too many injuries and too many extra-inning losses.

Finally, on Aug. 3, the Braves beat the Cardinals 7-4 to reach 54-54 -- by scoring three runs in the top of the eighth. They beat the Cardinals the next night 8-4, scoring six runs in the eighth inning with two outs. (Austin Riley hit a tying home run, and the St. Louis bullpen allowed a hit, hit a batter and then walked five in a row.) Those two games got the Braves going.

Or maybe things turned around on July 30, when general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired outfielders Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall on trade-deadline day to help patch a group missing Acuna and Marcell Ozuna. The Braves beat the Brewers on July 31, with Soler going 3-for-4 and Swanson hitting two home runs. Soler has hit a solid .250/.373/.464 since joining the Braves, while Duvall has slugged five home runs with 11 RBIs in 12 games.

The lineup now resembles the Braves' powerhouse 2020 lineup that averaged 5.80 runs per game, second in the majors to the Dodgers (by one run) and the best in franchise history since the 1890s.

Of course, hitting is only half the game. But the pitching has been much better during this 12-3 run (including that July 31 win), with a 3.35 ERA. Reliever Richard Rodriguez, another deadline acquisition, has been a huge boost to the bullpen with nine scoreless innings. Tyler Matzek, a dominant bullpen arm in 2020, also has been much sharper of late, allowing just one hit with 11 strikeouts in 6⅔ innings during this stretch.

Monday's starter, Touki Toussaint, also looms as a big key in these final weeks. The Braves have churned through 11 starters, but Toussaint has brought some stability to the back end of the rotation since his recall from the minors on July 20. He had one bad blowup start, but he has allowed two earned runs or fewer in his five other starts.

The Braves also will get a boost on Tuesday, when Huascar Ynoa rejoins the rotation. The 23-year-old right-hander had been so impressive early in the season, with a 3.02 ERA through eight starts, before breaking his right hand punching the dugout bench in frustration. He talked with reporters on Monday and said he returns a wiser individual. He will not be on a limited pitch count, having built up his arm during his rehab assignment.

Suddenly, the preseason co-favorites in the division look the strongest they have all season. As Jeff Passan broke down in this piece, the Phillies do have perhaps the easiest remaining schedule of any playoff contender, so the Braves are hardly a lock to win their fourth straight division title. However, the Braves are frankly the better team, with a plus-82 run differential as compared to the Phillies' minus-18. With the slugging foursome leading the way, I'm picking the Braves to keep on rolling to the division crown.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story.