By Deesha Thosar
FOX Sports MLB Writer
What was supposed to be a shot in the arm became a short-lived fantasy for the Braves.
Ozzie Albies returned from a three-month stay on the injured list to play in just two games before fracturing his right pinky finger Saturday. Albies is expected to miss the rest of the regular season, or a little more than two weeks, but the Braves are not yet completely counting him out for postseason appearances.
“I hate it for him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “After everything he went through to get back here, and then to have that happen, that’s horrible. He was having fun and being the old Ozzie. He was playing ball. That’s what he loves to do.”
Albies played in just 14 innings, collected two hits and made two starts at second base prior to what his teammates called a heartbreaking moment. Following a long-awaited return to the Braves’ lineup, Albies’ head-first slide into second base in the fourth inning of the Braves’ 4-3 victory over the Phillies on Saturday was a cruel accident that forced a visit to the hospital.
Albies, now sporting a cast for the next three weeks, was able to avoid surgery. That’s just about the only positive news from the 25-year-old’s otherwise lost season. The lack of surgery means Albies might be able to contribute in the postseason.
The second baseman returned to the Braves’ lineup Friday for the first time since fracturing his left foot on June 13.
The past three months for Atlanta featured a bit of experimenting in the infield. Orlando Arcia took over the bulk of second-base duties. The front office’s other game plan to make up for Albies’ loss — “Hey, let’s pick up veteran Robinson Cano and see what happens!” — lasted less than a month before the Braves designated Cano for assignment. Then, when Arcia got hurt in August, the Braves turned to their farm system.
Enter: Vaughn Grissom. The dynamic 21-year-old rookie has been a boon for Atlanta since his major-league debut. Grissom’s first career hit was a two-run home run that put the Braves in front 5-1 in the seventh inning on Aug. 10 at Fenway Park. He never looked back.
In 32 games entering Sunday, Grissom is slashing .301/.352/.478 with five home runs, 16 RBIs and five stolen bases. His immediate impact has paired well with that of fellow rookie Michael Harris, whom the Braves signed to an eight-year, $72 million contract just over two months into his first year in the big leagues.
Despite Grissom’s bat being a necessary boost in a pennant race, he was due for a reduction in playing time with Albies’ return to the lineup. The Braves had not announced their immediate strategy on how they would handle Grissom and Albies on the active roster together, but it was expected to include some combination of at-bats as the designated hitter, some starts at second base and some starts in the outfield.
But now, with Albies down again, Grissom has the opportunity to continue to flourish in an every-day role. It’s not how anyone in that Braves clubhouse would want it, with Albies’ two All-Star nods and two Silver Slugger awards only hinting at the damage the Curacao native can do when healthy and on the field. But it’s not as if Atlanta is going back to the drawing board with its star second baseman sidelined. Grissom’s success since being called up takes away at least some of the sting from Albies’ fracture.
Grissom is a major reason the Braves are within one game of the Mets, and history has shown that general manager Alex Anthopoulos pays close attention to that sort of impression. As unfortunate as the reason he’s getting back his playing time might be, these next few weeks wrapping up the regular season and playing in his first postseason pose as a critical juncture for Grissom. If he continues to swing a hot bat, he just might see a long-term contract, too.
Albies is signed through 2025, but shortstop Dansby Swanson can become a free agent this offseason. The Braves have publicly indicated they want to keep Swanson, but then again, they said the same thing about Freddie Freeman. If Atlanta fails to meet Swanson’s asking price, and he walks away in free agency, Grissom is the immediate, in-house solution at shortstop. And he certainly has earned that promotion a little more than a month into his big-league career.
“I bet everyone around the league feels for him,” Grissom said of Albies. “But when you get to see what he actually does for the team, it says what it is at this point. It was pretty gruesome. You hate to see it.”
Francisco Lindor is one of those players around the league feeling for Albies. The Mets’ shortstop shares Albies’ agent, SportsMeter headed by David Meter, and the two have connected that way. Lindor sent Albies a text Saturday, checking in on him after that head-first slide, and the shortstop said he couldn’t imagine how frustrating this must be for the star second baseman. On a human level, Lindor felt awful for Albies. But on a competitive level, the Mets have one fewer star Braves player to worry about in a pennant race.
The Braves are still trying to snatch first place from the Mets, and Albies’ addition to the lineup was supposed to act as a stimulus in the hunt for their fifth consecutive NL East title. But even without Albies manning second base for most of the season, Atlanta owns the second-best OPS (.761) and slugging percentage (.443) in the majors. Those numbers are even more absurd when factoring in Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s scattered absences due to various maladies, including knee, groin, foot and lower body issues this season.
While the Braves are hopeful that Albies can contribute in the playoffs, he’ll be forced to wear a cast on that fractured pinky for up to three weeks. After that, it will be tough for the hitter to get meaningful reps in time to make an immediate impact — during October baseball, no less.
But if anyone can make that sort of return and become an X-factor for the defending-championship Braves, it’s a star such as Albies.
In the meantime, the Braves will try to win the division, or else settle for a wild-card series, with a roster that has managed to secure the fourth-most wins in baseball all without the fan-favorite second baseman.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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