3 takeaways from the Braves much-needed series win over the Cubs at Wrigley

The Braves took two from the Cubs to stop a five-game skid and hoped to turn things in their favor.

Atlanta Braves v Chicago Cubs
Atlanta Braves v Chicago Cubs / Michael Reaves/GettyImages
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After a rough start to the trip to Chicago against the Cubs on Tuesday, the Braves were able to bounce back and take the series from the Cubs thanks, in part, to some stellar pitching by the Bravos staff.

There was plenty to like from basically every hurler that took the mound and the offense, though showing life in their 9-1 game win, was relatively quiet again despite the two wins.

Here are three takeaways from the series as the Braves complete their road trip in Pittsburgh.

AJ Smith-Shawver looks fantastic in 2024 debut

The Braves fifth starter experiment continued on Thursday, as 21-year-old AJ Smith-Shawver made his 2024 debut and looked solid amidst albeit a short outing against the Cubs.

Seeing his second year of MLB action after starting the season in Triple-A, Smith-Shawver had great command of his three-pitch mix of fastball, changeup, and curveball during his 4.1 inning outing in a 3-0 win.

He threw 87 pitches, 55 for strikes, and was nearly 50% his on-average 96 MPH fastball. It resulted in a three-hit, four-strikeout, and two walk outing to start his season.

It's definitely a promising start for Smith-Shawver, though not the end all be all either.

Elder looked good in his first few outings before reverting to his post-2023 All-Star break self. Smith-Shawver himself impressed last season before a couple of rough starts saw him sent to the minors for good.

He had earned himself an opportunity to start again but unfortunately, a Grade 2 oblique strain landed him on the 15-day IL. That injury will sideline him for approximately six to eight weeks, leaving Atlanta to make another tough decision to fill the fifth spot in the rotation.

The pitching, especially the bullpen, was lights out

The Braves bullpen had a balanced series against the Cubs after being forced to pitch 4.1 innings in the series opener on Tuesday and 4.2 in the series finale on Thursday. Wednesday saw another masterpiece from Max Fried who tossed his second complete game of the 2024 season.

Fried threw just 105 pitches over nine innings and gave up two hits, two runs (one earned), fanned nine, and walked none in a game that saw him drop his ERA from 3.81 to 3.38.

Fried has been great in May with four starts over 27.1 innings, posting a 2.63 ERA. He also has a 0.91 WHIP while striking out 23 batters.

The average exit velocity against him is nearly the best it's ever been for him, as 84.1 MPH is just barely higher than his career-best in the 2020 shortened season of 83.4.

However, his K% is the second worst it's ever been at 20.4% with only his first season in 2017 being worse at 18.2%.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing though. His strikeout rate and hard-hit rate being decreased means that Fried is pitching well to contact and will go longer in games. That has been the result in 2024 thus far.

We know that he has the strikeout stuff too, but being able to pitch to contact while also being able to put a guy down when needed is only going to make him a better pitcher.

The bullpen has also been fantastic for the Braves as well. They gave up no earned runs in nine innings of work as Daysbel Hernánedez, Jesse Chavez, A.J. Minter, and Aaron Bummer threw 4.1 innings of two-hit, two-run ball in relief of the Braves 4-3 extra innings loss in the series opener. Charlie Morton threw five innings of four-hit, two-run (one earned), and eight strikeouts in his start.

Then in the finale, Dylan Lee, Pierce Johnson, Joe Jiménez, Minter, and Raisel Iglesias combined with Smith-Shawer to pitch a shutout in the 3-0 win. Only Johnson gave up a hit in his two-thirds of an inning while Iglesias was electric, fanning two to get his 12th save of the season.

It's pitching like this has allowed the Braves to keep a solid pace despite a brutal offensive showing in the last month.

Braves offense shows signs of life but is still overall disappointing

The Braves' offense looked the best it has in quite a while in their 9-2 drubbing of a win on Thursday, with Marcell Ozuna, Matt Olson, and Adam Duvall all leaving the yard whilst Olson and Michael Harris each saw multi-hit contests.

Duvall's home run opened the scoring in the game with a two-run shot in the third. Ozuna's home run was a three-run bomb that put the game out of reach and was his 15th of the season. He now has the fourth-most homers in baseball, just behind Aaron Judge. That home run was followed by Olson's solo shot in the next at-bat.

But despite some of the bright spots, Ronald Acuña Jr. continued to struggle, going 1-for-12 at the plate and Ozzie Albies wasn't much better at 2-for-11.

That has been the bugaboo for the Braves offense, the worst in the MLB over the past month, as their leadoff guys aren't getting on base, and as a result, the scoring for the Bravos is way down.

If they aren't hitting home runs, which they are doing at a significantly lower rate this year, they are struggling to score runs.

After what seems to be an anomaly of an 11.4% strikeout rate for Acuña in 2023, it's back up to 24.5% this season. In prior seasons, you lived with that simply because when he did make contact, it was good contact and produced a lot of runs.

This year, however, his barrel rate of 4.7% is the lowest it's ever been by quite a mile, with 7.9 in 2020 being his worst coming into the season. His hard-hit rate of 49.2% is also the lowest it's been since 2019 at 47.4%

It's something that I think early on in the season most Braves fans wrote off, but now the longer this slump goes the more concerning it gets. And if the Braves offense wants to get out of its slump, it'll have to start with Acuña getting out of his.

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