Tampa Bay Rays (2-1) Vs. Atlanta Braves (2-1)
Last played in 2018: Braves won three out of four games
*Stats from 2019 season
**The first two games will be played in Tampa Bay and the last two games will be played in Atlanta. Per MLB rules, this is documented as two separate two game series. For the sake of simplicity, this preview will be written as though it is one four game series.
Rays: The Rays walked off the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday to win their opening series of the season. It certainly was not easy as the Blue Jays showed a different offensive approach and improved pitching compared to 2019. Tampa Bay seems to be struggling to string together hits, but they came through when it mattered most and won two out of three. Their bullpen was still mostly dominant, save for one poor inning from Trevor Richards. They also won the series despite aces Charlie Morton and Blake Snell laboring through their outings. Morton unraveled in the middle innings of opening day and Snell is still ramping up his mechanics and command. The Rays will need all the help they can get against Atlanta. 2019 All-Star Austin Meadows is highly unlikely to play in this series as the Rays look to find consistent offensive production without him. There were some interesting developments to come out of the first series for Tampa Bay offensively, but they will be better suited to win low-scoring games until Meadows returns from his battle with COVID-19.
Braves: Atlanta also won two out of three games in a hard fought series with the New York Mets. Like the Rays on Sunday, the Braves won Saturday by tying the game with two outs in the ninth inning and then capitalizing on the new runner-on-second rule to pull away from New York in the tenth. The continuation of Edwin Diaz‘s 2019 struggles surely helped their cause. The Braves found their footing fully in a dominant 14-1 win over the Mets on Sunday night. The bottom four hitters in the order were the stars, showcasing the depth of Atlanta’s lineup. On Sunday night, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, Ender Inciarte, and William Contreras combined to go 9-for-19 with two home runs and eight RBI. Combine that depth with superstars Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman and it is easy to see why the Braves have one of the best lineups in the Majors. That offense, combined with a promising homegrown starting rotation, gives the Braves a great chance of repeating as National League East champions.
Key Matchups: The Braves’ lineup is really good and really deep, but they are incredibly right-handed. On any given day, seven or eight of their hitters could be right-handed including Ozzie Albies, who is a switch-hitter with far better career numbers as a righty (.740 OPS as a lefty Vs. .975 OPS as a righty). That being said, Freddie Freeman becomes the X-factor as the only legitimate left-handed hitter in the Braves lineup. He is still finding his timing at the plate after his battle with COVID-19 during summer camp. However, Freeman has been an elite first baseman for a decade and his approach at the plate is second-to-none. His combination of patience and power makes him a threat every plate appearance and getting him out will be paramount to the Rays success. The good news is that Freeman is 9-for-37 in his career against current Rays pitchers with only one extra base hit. Expect him to see lefty specialist Aaron Loup if he is up in a high-leverage situation. The Rays likely started Ryan Yarbrough and Blake Snell over the weekend in order to have righties Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos face the righty-heavy Braves lineup in the first two games in this series. Freeman will be the toughest out in this series though.
Keys to Success:
Rays: The Rays squeaked by Toronto, scoring barely enough runs to win two out of three in the series. Austin Meadows absence has given the Rays difficulties when trying to string hits together. Atlanta’s pitching staff has no discernible weakness while also not having any particular top-notch strength. Tampa bay has to be better with runners in scoring position. They went just 5-for-28 with RISP during the first series, which isn’t good enough to beat a team like the Braves. The Rays had plenty of opportunities to dominate Toronto and didn’t take advantage. Atlanta won’t be so kind.
Braves: The Braves won their series against the Mets on the backs of Marcell Ozuna, Dansby Swanson, and Ender Inciarte, hardly the biggest names on Atlanta’s roster. Their All-Stars Acuna, Albies, and Freeman went a combined 6-for-38 against New York. The Braves lineup is deep, but they will need those three to succeed against a team whose bullpen isn’t nearly as generous. Freeman especially, as the only big left-handed threat, will have to come through in high-leverage situations in order for the Braves to succeed against the Rays loaded pitching staff.
Prediction: This series figures to be highly competitive. The Rays have an elite pitching staff. Atlanta has a high-profile lineup. Both teams are still finding their timing offensively and won tight series on opening weekend anyway. These are two of the best teams in baseball and they are evenly matched. If Meadows were playing, I may have given Tampa Bay the advantage. Since he is not, it is safe to bet that we will see the two teams break even in a four game set. The Rays and Braves will split this four game series.