NL East-leading Braves visit Marlins

MIAMI — The Atlanta Braves, who put together an incredible run of 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005 (omitting the strike-shortened 1994 season), may be on their way back to baseball glory.

The Braves (21-14), who visit the Miami Marlins (13-23) on Thursday to start a four-game series, haven’t had a winning season since 2014. In fact, they have suffered through three consecutive seasons in which they have lost at least 90 games.

This year, though, Atlanta appears to be much improved and arrives at Marlins Park in first place in the National League East. The Braves beat the Tampa Bay Rays 5-2 on Wednesday on the strength of Nick Markakis‘ three-run homer and Julio Teheran’s six scoreless innings.

Much of Atlanta’s success so far this season has been built by young players such as second baseman Ozzie Albies, a 21-year-old leadoff batter from Curacao, and left fielder Ronald Acuna, a 20-year-old rookie from Venezuela.

Acuna on Tuesday became the youngest player since 1935 to homer in a 1-0 game, adjusting to a low-and-inside breaking ball and pulling it over the left-field wall.

“He sees the ball early out of the pitcher’s hand, and that’s what good hitters do,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told the media regarding Acuna, who bats second in the lineup.

Atlanta entered Wednesday as the top-scoring team in the National League, with Acuna producing three homers, six RBIs and a .958 OPS in his first 12 games.

Albies, playing in his first full season in the majors, has supplied surprising power from his 5-foot-8, 165-pound frame. He leads the National League in runs scored (34) and doubles (13).

In addition, Albies’ 10 homers rank fourth in the National League.

But it’s not just Acuna and Albies. Atlanta entered Wednesday with six starters boasting OPS numbers north of .840, including third baseman Ryan Flaherty (.843), catcher Kurt Suzuki (.899), first baseman Freddie Freeman (.947), right fielder Markakis (.950), Albies (.909) and Acuna.

But, despite all that offense, Thursday’s scheduled starter, 26-year-old right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, has managed just a 2-2 record and a 3.65 ERA.

His walk rate is up to a career-worst 4.1 per nine innings. Foltynewicz hasn’t been able to put hitters away consistently, allowing 13 walks on two-strike counts, the second-highest total in the majors.

In his most recent start on Friday, he gave up nine hits and six runs over five innings and took the loss in a 9-4 defeat against the Giants.

Foltynewicz is 3-1 with a 4.19 ERA in eight career appearances, including seven starts, against Miami.

Foltynewicz will be opposed by Marlins left-hander Caleb Smith, who is hoping to stop Miami’s three-game losing streak.

The Marlins, who are in last place in the NL East, may have found a gem in Smith, a 26-year-old rookie who made nine major league appearances last season for the New York Yankees.

Since being traded to Miami in the offseason, Smith (2-3, 3.67) has cemented himself in the rotation by striking out 26 batters and walking just two in his past three starts.

His ERA in those three starts is 0.99.

Marlins manager Don Mattingly said Smith has improved vastly in the past couple of weeks.

“He was OK in spring training,” Mattingly said. “But we thought his stuff was good. He had proved himself at Triple A. We thought he deserved an opportunity to show what he could do, and he is throwing the ball well.”

Smith and the Marlins beat the Cincinnati Reds 6-0 in his most recent start on Saturday, when he yielded three hits and no runs over 5 2/3 innings.

“I really pounded fastballs in, and that opened everything up for me,” Smith told the media. “I’m throwing strikes. I’m letting the batters put the ball in play, and I’m letting my defense work.”

Thursday’s start will be his first career appearance against the Braves.