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Series Preview: Atlanta Braves @ Milwaukee Brewers

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Baseball’s two most surprising division leaders face off this weekend for a four-game set

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

There might not be two division leaders in baseball more surprising this year than the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves. The Brewers have the most wins in the National League, while the Braves carry a 1.5-game lead in the NL East and are 7 games clear of the division favorite Washington Nationals.

When you win, the national attention will follow -- even if it’s a little slow to catch on. Two of this weekend’s four games will be available on national broadcasts, with Saturday’s game airing on FS1 and Sunday’s game being broadcast on TBS.

The Braves’ rebuilding project has come to a head this season, with top prospect Ronald Acuna Jr. making his debut this year and hitting .266/.321/.476 with 7 home runs and 9 doubles in 34 games as a 20-year-old. But they’ve also had plenty of unexpected performances: at 5’9”, second baseman Ozzie Albies has come out of nowhere to lead the team with 18 home runs. 34-year-old Nick Markakis is having his best season in a decade, hitting .326/.392/.498 with 10 home runs and a NL-leading 27 doubles and 108 hits. As far as not-so-unexpected performances go, likely NL All-Star starter Freddie Freeman is hitting .308/.399/.530 with 16 home runs and 21 doubles.

Overall, the Braves rank 6th in all of baseball in runs scored, but the pitching has also been better than expected, led by a slew of young arms. They rank in the top third of the league in ERA, batting average against, and strikeouts.

Probable Pitchers

Thursday - 7:10 p.m. CDT
Max Fried vs. Jhoulys Chacin

Friday - 7:10 p.m. CDT
Mike Foltynewicz vs. Freddy Peralta

Saturday - 3:10 p.m. CDT
Anibal Sanchez vs. Brent Suter

Sunday - 1:10 p.m. CDT
Sean Newcomb vs. Junior Guerra

Fried was one of the top pitching prospects in the game about 5 years ago after being drafted 7th overall by the San Diego Padres out of high school. He tore his UCL in 2014, though, and needed Tommy John surgery. That winter, he was traded to Atlanta as part of a deal that sent Justin Upton to San Diego but didn’t pitch in the Braves’ organization until 2016. He eventually worked his way back and made his Major League debut last year at the age of 23, and is now pitching in the Braves’ rotation this year after an injury to Brandon McCarthy. He’s flashing some of the ace potential that made him a top prospect before the elbow surgery, coming off a start in St. Louis in which he threw 6.2 shutout innings, allowing just 4 hits and striking out 11.

Foltynewicz has historically owned the Brewers, putting up a total ERA of 1.48 in his first four career starts against them. He’s only allowed 5 runs in his last 9 starts this year, pushing his ERA for the season all the way down to 2.02. He’ll still occasionally struggle with control, walking 40 batters in 89 innings this year, but he’s also struck out 107 for a 10.8 K/9.

Yes, Anibal Sanchez is still pitching in the major leagues. After three terrible years in Detroit, Sanchez is experiencing a bit of a rebirth this year as a 34-year-old in Atlanta this year. After a cumulative 5.67 ERA (and a 5.01 FIP) in the past three seasons with the Tigers, he’s somehow turned it around with a 2.89 ERA in 10 games (9 starts) this year. While the FIP is a less friendly 4.15, it’s still quite a turnaround for a guy who looked done last year. He’s cut down the amount of line drives he allows, increased the number of ground balls, and is inducing weak contact on a quarter of balls put into play against him this year.

Newcomb is another young pitcher who’s helped fuel the Braves’ early-season success, striking out almost a batter an inning and putting up a 125 ERA+. Like Folty, he’s also run into trouble with walks at times, giving up 45 free passes in 95.2 innings. But for the most part, he’s managed to strand those runners, escaping with a 3.10 ERA while his FIP stands at 3.82. He’s coming off a rough start against the Yankees in which he gave up 5 runs in 2.2 innings, walking 5 batters and giving up 2 home runs.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs