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Yankees-Braves Series Offers Drama in Heat of Playoff Race

A month ago, you could've written off both teams from the postseason picture. Now, they've turned around their seasons and look like legitimate contenders.

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One of the minor joys of second-half baseball is the delight of the surprisingly good matchup—one that did not particularly register when the schedule was released, neither a divisional face-off nor a geographic rivalry, but that suddenly stands out now as captivating all the same. A series like this requires some good teams and some good drama. Most of all, it requires good timing. The story lines can shift so quickly in late summer, melting under the heat of rising playoff races, that a week is all it takes for any given pairing to go from must-watch to meh. And it’s hard to imagine much better timing for a matchup like this than that of the Yankees-Braves series that started Monday.

At the beginning of the season, this interleague competition might have looked fun, but not necessarily important—easy to imagine that both teams could have a comfortable grip on a playoff spot by this point. A month ago, it might have looked like nothing at all—easy to imagine that both teams would be out of the playoff picture altogether. A few days earlier or a few days later, it would have been compelling—probably even crucial—but not dramatic. On Monday? It was perfect.

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Both teams entered the series carrying a nine-game winning streak. (That, in and of itself, was historic; the last time two teams met with such impressive streaks was 1901.) The Yankees had suddenly found their balance after a stretch of bad injuries and bad luck. The Braves had seen their deadline deals pay off as their division competition started to crumble. After taking very different journeys through the first few months of the season, New York’s and Atlanta’s playoff odds sat in roughly the same ballpark when their hot streaks took hold. Now they’ve risen on something close to twin trajectories as the wins kept piling up.

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Entering Monday, the Yankees had an 88.6% chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs; the Braves, 80.8%. Their turnarounds have been remarkably similar. Both clubs have managed to thrive despite missing major players due to injury (Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Ian Anderson for the Braves, Gleyber Torres and Corey Kluber for the Yankees, among others). Both successfully used the deadline to address their biggest problem areas, left-handed power hitting for New York, and close to an entirely new outfield for Atlanta. For the Yankees, there’s been a useful display of depth, and for the Braves, there’s been much needed improvement in the bullpen. Both have changed their fates. Now, they get to face each other.

This series is brief—just two games—but it’s well-positioned as something of a pivot point. A nine-game winning streak is a sign of force, but it’s necessarily fragile, and there’s perhaps no better way to test it than to put it up against one just like it.

On Monday, the Yankees’ streak won out. Their 5–1 victory was a sign of everything that they’ve been doing right lately. They quieted a formidable Braves lineup, their bullpen offered a smooth trip through the later innings, and though much of their recent offensive firepower has been well-distributed, last night, most of it came from an old standby, Giancarlo Stanton. (The slugger now owns the record for the hardest-hit ball at Truist Park—adding to his list—after a two-run, go-ahead double with an exit velocity of 119.2 mph.)

But Tuesday offers a pitching matchup favorable to the Braves—veteran Charlie Morton against recent Yankees acquisition Andrew Heaney—and a chance to restart their streak. For an interleague matchup, it’s remarkably close to a playoff atmosphere, with all the attendant potential for drama. And as for the historic nature of the whole thing? The last time there was a series played between two clubs with nine-game winning streaks or better, between the Phillies and Pirates in 1901, the teams split the first two games. Let’s see if history can repeat itself Tuesday.

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