Braves haven't been fazed by unexpected early success

CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Cubs are paying attention, the breakthrough season the young Atlanta Braves are enjoying must be looking very familiar.

The Braves made the best of a one-day pit stop in Chicago on Monday, knocking off the Cubs 6-5 in a tight, exciting game on an overcast afternoon at Wrigley Field. It was a makeup of a game washed out April 15, in the midst of the deluge of weather maladies that plagued the first month of the season.

Since then, the Braves have managed to get both younger and older, as if that were possible. The old part comes in the form of 37-year-old third baseman Jose Bautista, whose three-run shot off Cubs starter Jose Quintana in the fifth inning gave Atlanta a lead it never relinquished. It was Bautista's 333rd career homer and his second since joining the Braves on May 4. Bautista had homered in 29 big league parks during his long career, but never at Wrigley. Make it 30.

"Well, I was aware that I had never hit one here," Bautista said. "So I'm glad I got that off the list. Any time you can do something positive for the team, especially if it's a game-winning hit, you're going to enjoy it. I'm glad I got it done."

The game, which ended about an hour before Wrigley Field was hit with a torrent of rain, was a precursor to another series against Chicago -- both teams headed for the airports afterward to catch flights to Atlanta. The Cubs and Braves will square off in a three-game set beginning Tuesday. For Atlanta, in many ways this week marks one of those measuring-stick kind of tests a coming-of-age team needs to pass in order to be labeled as bona fide.

If the Braves are extra amped up about the coming matchup against the powerful Cubs, they won't admit it. They are too busy talking like a team that expected to be doing what it is doing all along.

"We're trying to carry it day in, day out," said catcher Tyler Flowers, who homered, singled and walked three times during Monday's victory. "Routine. Having a plan. Going out there with a plan and execute. Honestly, we've done a good job of that. It's a nice mix of youth and veterans in here. I think a lot of the veterans are doing a good job showing the younger guys how to go about it day in, day out. It's not about one good road trip."

When that originally scheduled game on April 15 was called off, Atlanta already was off to a solid 8-6 start and sterling second-year second baseman Ozzie Albies in particular had been turning heads all across the league. Albies shined that weekend as the Cubs and Braves split a pair, going 5-for-10 and leading off the insane April 14 game with a home run off Chicago starter Quintana.

Albies played a little deja vu ball Monday, once again touching up Quintana to start the game. It was a homer that had all sorts of meaning, even beyond possibly giving Quintana the heebie-jeebies the next time he sees Albies in the on-deck circle to start a game. Two of Albies' four career leadoff homers have come off the struggling Cubs lefty. The blast moved Albies into a tie for the big league lead with 13 homers. Reaching that mark in Atlanta's 40th game allowed Albies to tie the mark for the fewest games a second-sacker has needed to hit 13 homers.

Remember how we said the Braves have gotten both younger and older since that first series in Chicago?

Well, the 21-year-old Albies was the youngest player in the big leagues when he went deep off Quintana in that series. Now he's just third, since he was joined by even younger teammates Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mike Soroka, both 20. Before the game, Acuna and Soroka gawked around at the Friendly Confines like the excited kids they are. The Braves have added that youth and still gone 17-9 since the April series in Chicago.

Also new to the cause is pitcher Luiz Gohara, recently returned from injury. At 21, he is the fifth-youngest player in the bigs. And more Baby Braves could be on the way, such as third baseman Austin Riley, who hit three homers and knocked in eight runs for Triple-A Gwinnett on Sunday.

For Riley to earn another promotion, he'll have to displace the late-arriving Bautista, who might just be getting his bearings. Bautista has been around too long to be giddy, but you can tell he has enjoyed dropping into the middle of the Braves' breakthrough campaign.

"It's definitely winning baseball," Bautista said. "These guys have a lot of good things going on right now. We have to just keep it going, hope for good health and keep it going."

With the win, the Braves capped a 6-1 road trip and will return to SunTrust Park with the best record in the National League. Increasingly, this looks like a team that is not going to be fazed by an unexpected early arrival in the land of contenders.

"We need every win," Flowers said. "I think if we lost, we might look at it differently, but the mindset is whoever you are playing that day, away, home, tough travel, whatever it is, go out there and compete."

The note on which the Braves and Cubs head south could have rung very differently. The Cubs loaded the bases in the ninth against hard-throwing lefty A.J. Minter, who then hit Ian Happ with a pitch to force in a run that trimmed the Atlanta lead to one. Worse, it brought former NL MVP Kris Bryant to the plate and the fans at Wrigley to a state of euphoria. You might call it a snippet of playoff atmosphere.

"It's funny," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "I was sitting there in the dugout and I said to [hitting coach Kevin] Seitzer, 'This is fun.' We took it right to the end, for sure. That was a good team win, for sure."

Though he had been plagued with wildness through his outing, Minter jumped ahead of Bryant and escaped with the save when Bryant's sharp liner to left was aimed directly at left fielder Acuna.

"Cheese" was how Flowers described Minter's stuff. It's a compliment. "Maybe too much a little bit, a couple of them were kind of backing up. But he brought it right back in. His demeanor out there when he's struggling and not hitting spots, he's the same guy on the mound. The same confidence. That's why I think one day he's going to be in that [closing] role full time."

Now the Braves return to Atlanta as the team of the moment, much as the Cubs were during their breakthrough season of 2015. (And even more so in their title season of 2016.) That 2015 club was the first chance Cubs fans got to enjoy Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Carl Edwards, among others. With little near-term expectation but already considered a team on the rise, the Cubs rose faster than anyone thought they could, and ended up in the National League Championship Series.

It's early -- still two weeks before Memorial Day. But this season is starting to feel a little like that one for Atlanta.

"You know what?" Minter asked. "This is the most fun a lot of us have had. It's definitely fun in this group, playing for each other instead of trying to fight for spots. We all have each other's back and we're having a good time."

Could these Braves be on a similar path to those Cubs? Atlanta can convince a lot of observers of that over the next three days. Monday's victory at the National League's oldest park certainly didn't hurt, and now they will try to carry their momentum over to the league's newest park.

"Any time you go on the road, you just never know what is going to happen," Snitker said. "You don't know what might start spiraling or whatever. This is a real positive road trip for the guys. They should feel good going home because they've played some really good baseball and won some really tough games."