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The Braves are way ahead of schedule but they’re here now, and they’re scary

Ozzie Albies is among the young players propelling the Braves ahead of schedule. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — Around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, Atlanta Braves Manager Brian Snitker instructed a lieutenant to post the following on the digital message board in the team’s clubhouse at SunTrust Park: “Clubhouse opens: 3 p.m. Report time: 5:30.” The idea, noble and generous, was to cut the Braves’ exhausted players — who had spent some 15 hours at the stadium Monday, playing a day-night, rain-delayed doubleheader — a small break from baseball’s daily grind.

There would be another game starting in about 18 hours, but Snitker’s message was clear: Take your time getting here. And don’t even try to show up early.

But when Snitker himself arrived at the park Tuesday around 3 p.m. for that night’s 7:35 game, expecting to find the place empty, he was greeted instead by the usual cacophony and bustle of a baseball clubhouse: music playing, players flitting about in workout clothes, the indoor batting cages popping with the sounds of early BP.

“I think almost everyone was already there,” Snitker said, with a tone somewhere between bewilderment and pride. “I should’ve known that would happen. They were beating down the doors to get in.”

Nationals vs. Braves series preview: A fight for first place

The anecdote reveals two essential truths about the surprising Braves, who open a four-game series against the Washington Nationals on Thursday with first place in the National League East at stake: First, that they are impossibly young, with seemingly unlimited energy — and, for the most part, without the sort of familial ties that might make a player grateful to steal a few extra hours with the wife and kids on a Tuesday afternoon.

And second, that they simply can’t wait to get to the ballpark each day. On that count, it’s easy to see why.

On Tuesday night, they battled back from a 6-2 deficit to beat the hapless New York Mets, 7-6, on a walk-off home run by rookie third baseman Johan Camargo — one of five 25-or-younger Braves to appear in the game. And that came one day after Charlie Culberson walked off the Mets in the first game of Monday’s doubleheader with a pinch-hit homer — making it the first time the Braves had hit walk-off homers on consecutive days since 1971, when the heroes were Hank Aaron and Darrell Evans.

“It’s an amazing feeling. Every single game we’re playing is meaningful,” said 26-year-old right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, who is sporting an ERA (2.55) that is two full runs below his career mark. “We didn’t necessarily expect this. We expected to play this well, just not necessarily to be on top at this point. We’ve just been riding this wave.”

This wave has the Braves (32-23 entering Thursday) playing at a 94-win clip this year after three straight seasons of 90-plus losses and battling the Nationals — the overwhelming preseason favorites — for supremacy in the East. And there is nothing fluky about it. Their plus-56 run-differential entering Thursday ranked fifth in the majors and second in the NL, behind only the Chicago Cubs (plus-78).

“It’s not early anymore. We’re into this thing,” Snitker said. “We go out there now expecting to win. I think before, we hoped to win — and now we expect to win.”

The Braves have long been viewed within the industry as a looming monster, with a strong and maturing core — headed by first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Dansby Swanson, center fielder Ender Inciarte and right-handers Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran, all of them between 24 and 28 — that had lived through the rough years, plus a farm system that Baseball America rated as the best in the majors in both 2017 and 2018.

As those prospects began to matriculate to the big leagues — lefty Sean Newcomb last June, second baseman Ozzie Albies last August and outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (the top-rated prospect in baseball) this April — the entire sport could see a window beginning to crack open in Atlanta. The only question was when it would be flung open wide — and for most observers, including many within the organization, the answer was easy: most likely in 2019.

“The way we looked at it was, 2018 was an important year to find out about what we had going forward — which of these players were going to take steps forward and be a part of this,” said General Manager Alex Anthopoulos. “We didn’t put a timeline on winning, or making the playoffs. That’s as far as we went with it: We need to play these guys in 2018 and see what we have.”

Anthopoulos could be excused for his cautious approach to 2018; he didn’t even take over until last November, in the aftermath of an international scouting scandal that saw the Braves stripped of 12 Latin-American prospects and then-GM John Coppolella banned from baseball for life. Anthopoulos’s learning curve included not only learning about each player in the organization, but also its infrastructure. Among his first moves was to upgrade the organization’s advanced-analytics department, taking it from two employees to more than a dozen.

“Oh my God, it’s huge,” Snitker said. “The coaches are doing great job of getting info — more info than we’ve ever had before — to the players, and the players have done a great job embracing it. Now, we start a game and I feel like there’s no one more prepared. We’re not going to win them all, but there’s not ever going to be a time where we’re outprepared to start a game.”

After a 16-11 April, the Braves took the lead in the NL East following a sweep of the Mets in Queens in the first days of May, and have spent all but three days this month in first place — though their lead never grew bigger than 1 ½ games. A loss Wednesday night to the Mets dropped them a half-game behind the Nationals, who have won six straight, entering Thursday’s series opener.

“Every day,” Foltynewicz said, “we have to win a game to stay in first place. It feels like this is going to come down to the end of the season.”

Over the course of two months of splendid play, the Braves have gained a much-deserved reputation for late-inning heroics. The 10 deficits they have overcome in the eighth inning or later is the most in baseball, and the 101 runs they have scored in the seventh inning or later leads the NL. And it isn’t just one or two players responsible for the dramatics — no fewer than 14 different Braves have registered at least one game-winning RBI, which isn’t easy to do when you have only used 18 position-players.

As the calendar flips to June, the Braves are beginning to contemplate questions they never expected to ask of themselves. Such as: To what extent might they become buyers ahead of the July 31 trade deadline? While Anthopoulos would be loath to sacrifice one or more pieces of the franchise’s bright future for a chance to make the playoffs in 2018, the team’s play might just force his hand.

“Absolutely,” Snitker said when asked if he thought the front office would add veteran pieces if the team continued to perform like this. “I hope we’re in that position, and I guarantee you they feel the same way.”

Anthopoulos was less willing to deal in absolutes. Among other factors, he said, the Braves expect still more prospects to graduate to the big leagues soon, beginning with 21-year-old third baseman Austin Riley, who was promoted from Class AA to AAA three weeks ago.

“It’s still so early for those [trade] discussions. What your needs seem like in May aren’t always what your needs are in June or July,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s why you try to wait as long as you can. We may have other young players who emerge. We’ll know more about those guys by mid-July. There are no absolutes. But you always want to be in position where you have to make tough decisions.”

Even if the Braves aren’t ready to shift into go-for-it mode this summer, they might be by the winter, when some $60 million in payroll commitments come off the books just in time for the vaunted free agent class headed by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado to arrive.

That would be right around the time the Braves’ management always envisioned their young team being ready to blossom into a championship contender. But here it is, the doorstep of June, and whether it’s a lazy Tuesday after a Monday marathon, or a two-month stretch of solid baseball in April and May, one thing these Braves like to do is show up early.

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