16. Atlanta Braves (45–45, minus-34, LT: 20)
As of May 10, the Braves were who we thought they were. The team that lost 93 games and finished dead last in 2016 had limped to an 11–20 start this season, knocking them back into the cellar yet again.
That was then. A 34–25 run, with eight wins in their past 12 games, is now. In a division that’s been brutal to watch unless you’re a Nationals fan, Atlanta’s added an air of respectability, surging into second place. You can find multiple factors working in the Braves’ favor, from the savvy buy-low acquisition of Matt Adams from St. Louis to the emergence of hard-throwing righty Mike Foltynewicz to the unlikely ascent of surprise catching star Tyler Flowers.
Here’s one you really wouldn’t expect: R.A. Dickey. Yes, R.A. Dickey! The 42-year-old knuckleballer came to Atlanta on a one-year deal, ostensibly to eat a bunch of innings with his rubber arm. He did that, and only that, in his first 13 starts of the season, tossing five or more innings every time, three times lasting seven innings ... while posting a ghastly 5.35 ERA, with 83 hits, 34 walks, and 15 homers allowed over 77 ⅓ frames.
In his five starts since then, Dickey suddenly looks like the miraculous Cy Young-winning pitcher we saw with the Mets: 33 innings, 27 strikeouts, eight walks and 25 hits allowed, and a sparkling 1.09 ERA. Though the image of the slow, floating butterfly tends to linger in people’s heads, Dickey’s often at his best when he’s getting a little extra mustard on his knuckler. Turns out he’s firing that pitch at about 78 mph during this hot streak, the most velocity we’ve seen from his knuckleball since that incredible 2012 campaign.
Now here’s something really wild: The Diamondbacks and Rockies are both starting to fall back toward the pack, the Braves sit just a half-game behind the Cubs as a darkhorse wild-card contender ... and the Cubs just made a blockbuster, go-for-it trade. A Braves team that seemed like it might need the rest of the decade to rebuild thus might steer clear of the veteran-for-prospect deals that seemed like a sure thing just a few weeks ago. Crazy things happen when you refuse to knuckle under to the pressure.