Michael Harris II’s turn Friday followed Marcell Ozuna, Eddie Rosario in powering Braves

SAN FRANCISCO — The beauty of the Atlanta Braves’ lineup, the thing that makes it particularly lethal, is not just that it has baseball’s most dynamic leadoff man in Ronald Acuña Jr. and arguably the most powerful 3-4 combination in the middle with Austin Riley and Matt Olson.

It’s that the Braves have multiple hitters throughout the lineup, including guys in the bottom half, who would be hitting in the first three spots for many teams, including the San Francisco Giants. At least as the injury-riddled Giants are currently composed, and perhaps even when healthy. The Braves’ hitters are that good.

And lately, a couple of the relatively unsung ones, Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario, have been on resounding power surges that made it less noticeable that those Nos. 3-4 hitters have cooled a bit.

Before starting an important 10-game western road trip with a 5-1 win Friday night that was keyed by another dominant start from Spencer Strider and a big offensive night from Michael Harris II, the Braves won seven on a nine-game homestand against the Giants and both New York teams. That was despite getting no extra-base hits and one RBI in the last seven games from NL home run and RBI leader Olson, and one RBI in the last eight from Riley.

Ozuna and Rosario supplied much of the firepower to offset mild slumps from the biggest thumpers in the order. Rosario was 13-for-24 (.542) with four homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.125 slugging percentage in his past seven games before Friday, including six Braves wins, and Ozuna had a stunning .526 average with 12 extra-base hits including five home runs and 15 RBIs in his past 11 games through the homestand.

“Unbelievable,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said a few hours before Friday’s game at Oracle Park. “I mean, we wouldn’t be where we are if they hadn’t stepped up, because some other guys have been scuffling a little bit. So, it’s been huge.”

Eddie Rosario celebrates with Marcell Ozuna after hitting a two-run home run Aug. 19 against the Giants at Truist Park. (Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

Literally everyone in Atlanta’s lineup has had multiple games this season where he was the hitting star, with Harris having more of those than any No. 9 hitter in recent memory. Then again, he was the NL Rookie of the Year last season.

“Every single day, everybody knows that it could be somebody, anybody, that’s gonna pick the team up,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “So we’re all in good moods. Even if we get out, it’s like, whatever, the guy behind us is gonna pick me up. It makes hitting actually a lot less stressful and a lot easier.”

Harris had three hits Friday, including a first-inning homer, three runs, two RBIs and two stolen bases. He’s hit ninth most of the season but moved up to second with Ozzie Albies on the IL.

Albies is expected to be activated on this trip, and manager Brian Snitker said Harris will move back to the ninth spot — fine by Harris, one of the few accomplished hitters you’ll hear say he prefers batting ninth. Then again, few have a chance to do it in a lineup like this.

“I’ve started to adjust,” Harris said of hitting second. “Nine-hole has my heart, and I guess it took some adjusting to come up to the two-hole. I mean, I love hitting behind Ronnie and I guess trying to drive him in early in games, or getting on base so Austin or Olson can get me in. Same approach, same job, just try to find a way to get on base to produce runs.”

The Braves have won 11 of 14, their offense continuing to hum even when a couple of its engines sputter briefly.

What’s made Ozuna’s resurgent season — he’s hitting .263 with an .857 OPS, after a combined .222 with a .675 OPS the previous two seasons — even more impressive has been a recent reduction in strikeouts and increased walks. He had an RBI single and two walks in four plate appearances Friday, giving him eight walks with five strikeouts to go with 21 hits and 16 RBIs in his past 12 games.

“I mean, he looks as good as he did in 2020,” Seitzer said, referring to the pandemic-shortened season when Ozuna led the NL in home runs (18) and RBIs (56) in 60 games, while batting .338 with a 1.067 OPS. “After his last couple of years, I didn’t know if we’d be able to see that again. He’s been unbelievable, to say the least. Very consistent for several months. It’s not like he’s had a good month or a good couple of weeks there. Since May he’s been special.”

Indeed, Ozuna has been a torrid hitter since the beginning of May, batting .294 with a .936 OPS in 93 games, with 26 homers and 66 RBIs in 93 games.

When the Braves get pitching like they have in the past couple of weeks from starters Strider, Charlie Morton and Bryce Elder, and from their resurgent bullpen, they don’t need much offense. But they usually get it anyway, and did again Friday against one of the league’s top pitchers, Logan Webb.

Strider limited the Giants to three hits and one run with one walk and nine strikeouts in seven innings and 94 pitches. His scoreless streak ended at 20 innings when Joc Pederson hit a leadoff triple in the seventh and scored on a groundout, but the Braves had a 5-0 lead by that point.

In his past three starts, Strider has allowed a meager seven hits and one run in 21 innings, with 25 strikeouts and six walks.

His Giants counterpart, Webb, had a 2.18 ERA and no losses in five previous career starts against the Braves but has not fared nearly so well against this version of Atlanta’s stacked offense.

Webb gave up nine hits and four runs in six innings but got no decision in a 6-5 loss at Atlanta on Sunday, and Friday he was charged with six hits and five runs in 5 1/3 innings, with a season-low one strikeout. That’s 15 hits and nine runs in 11 1/3 innings during consecutive starts for Webb, an All-Star.

Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, a former Silver Slugger Award winner, was on World Series championship teams in 2012 and 2014 and some other stacked San Francisco lineups. But, he said when asked before Friday’s game, “Maybe not to the same extent of the Braves.”

Few current players have seen a lineup this good, this deep.

“When you face good lineups, it’s the depth that makes it such a challenge,” the Giants’ Alex Cobb said after giving up eight hits and four runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Braves in a 4-0 loss Aug. 18 at Truist Park. “Pretty much every lineup throughout the big leagues is going to have one or two really dangerous hitters. For the most part, if you’re able to navigate the meatier part of the order, you can work deep into a game and give your team a chance to win. But when you have a one-through-nine that’s having career years and on a hot streak, you just have to act like you’re going out every inning facing the 3-4-5 hitters. That’s sort of what it feels like. They make you work.”

The Yankees’ Clake Schmidt, after giving up nine hits and a season-high eight runs in just 2 2/3 innings in an Aug. 14 loss at Atlanta, said the Braves’ lineup was the best he’d seen.

“I faced the Rangers twice this year, Baltimore, Boston twice — all teams that are tops in baseball in offense,” he said. “They were far and above and beyond those teams. I don’t know if it’s them being hot right now or kind of a combination of all of it. They just have really good approaches and really good bat-to-ball skills. They don’t give in and kind of feed off each other, too. Once the bottom of the order gets going, the top of it feeds off of that as well.” 

Harris’ first-inning homer off Webb ended up in McCovey Cove beyond the right-field bleachers for the first run of the night, and he singled in the sixth to drive in Acuña after his leadoff triple. Before going 2-for-18 in the last four games of the homestand, Harris had blazed with a .362 average and .973 OPS over a 61-game stretch, with 27 extra-base hits and 29 RBIs in that span.

Again, that’s while batting mostly ninth.

“I think it’s kind of why Ronald has got so many RBIs,” Snitker said. “He’s hitting with a lot of guys on base, because that bottom third has been really good all year. And it’s really good to see what Marcell and Eddie have done. We’ve needed them.”

And they’ve responded. The Braves machine keeps rolling.

(Top photo of Michael Harris II rounding the bases after hitting a solo home run in the first inning Friday against the Giants: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

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