The sports macrocosm currently is centered on Anthony Davis’ Lakers-centric request and Sunday’s football finale at Mercedes-Benz Stadium; nonetheless, we’re just a couple of weeks away from MLB teams flooding Florida and Arizona.
Baseball hasn’t started to garner momentum. Two marquee free agents could still change preseason predictions. Spring training itself isn’t the most exciting occasion, even for the diehards. Then there’s the Braves, coming off their best season in a half-decade, who aren’t quite on the radar yet. They plan to snatch your attention quickly.
They lured the city’s heart during a pleasantly surprising run to 90 wins and a National League East title. Ronald Acuna is a budding star. Freddie Freeman still ranks among the most beloved athletes in town. The fan base was rejuvenated.
A short time later, Atlanta United injected the community with hope of something more than rebuilds and blown leads. Soon it’ll be the Braves’ turn again, with declarations that last season wasn’t a peak, but a step.
Those young Braves’ magnificence crashed in a four-game National League Division Series loss to the Dodgers, but they put themselves on the grand stage. That was the ignitor needed: As you enjoyed another fall of football, they were mindful of what occurred in October. They don’t plan to fall into the once usual routine of annual first-round bounces.
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“Everyone is ready,” utilityman Charlie Culberson said. “Hopefully we’re not complacent getting to the postseason again. We’ve got bigger goals in mind.”
Manager Brian Snitker, a true day-by-day philosopher, referred to consecutive division championships as the short-term goal. You won’t catch Snit looking beyond that. His grounded mindset was crucial in last year’s uptick.
Even so, he expects a different clubhouse – it won’t be because of the roster, which presently features just two notable additions in Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann – because of experience, knowledge and emotion.
Allow him to explain:
“It’s going to be a different vibe I think. Everything we talked about the last couple years, to an extent, we experienced it. Everything we talked about doing. I talked to some of these guys when the season was over, and hopefully that feel, what we accomplished, we just scratched the surface a little bit.
“When we won the division, hopefully that feel fuels the workouts. Hopefully it fuels from Day 1 until the last out is made in the season. … We’re not going to surprise anybody. They have a better understanding of what each and every day means now. How important it is to come to the ballpark every day – you can’t take a day off. You can’t take a pitch off. It’s a total focus effort every time we’re out there.”
The Braves should be confident: They spent 115 days in first place last season. They were never more than 3-1/2 games back. No losing streak exceeded four games. Not once did they dip below .500. They had winning records in every month but July. They impressively were 23-12 in one-run games.
Feasting on divisional opponents helped. The Braves were 49-27 against the East, posting winning records against each of their floundering rivals. They were a pedestrian 41-45 versus everyone else.
The NL East is going to be a lot better, as the Braves are well-aware. That’s often a talking point for skeptics of the Braves repeating as champs. It’ll be a tougher task reaching last year’s heights, but they believe the proper motivation is in place to do so.
“The Dodgers, unfortunately, when they beat us, they knew they were supposed to win,” Culberson said. “They were the better team at the time. We just weren’t clicking last year when we got to the postseason, myself included. I didn’t do my part. Unfortunately that’s how it works out sometimes.
“They didn’t really celebrate afterwards. They just knew that was the next step for them. Hopefully we can keep that in mind going into the year. Let’s be that team. Let’s be that team that wins again and expects to go further, not just be OK with getting to the postseason.”
Some Braves might’ve run out of gas toward the end, derailing their already uphill postseason climb. The organization feels better prepared this time around. Daily fixtures Nick Markakis and Freeman will have days off. The team is improved depth-wise with Johan Camargo back in utility. The less experienced players better understand the preparation and pace necessary.
And they know what’s expected in a playoff atmosphere, something they didn’t seem to comprehend after being shut out back-to-back games in Los Angeles.
“Just the way it goes, it’s nothing like the regular season,” second baseman Ozzie Albies said. “It’s something different. It was awesome. … We know what we’ve got on the team. There’s not a lot of guys with big names, but it’s not big names that make something happen. It’s about doing it.”
Albies’ remark resembles third-base coach Ron Washington’s daily musings: “Sometimes it’s not the best team that wins; it’s the team that plays the best that wins.” Washington shared that with his players every day. It was part of the enthusiastic and authentic approach that made him so respected in the clubhouse.
“It’s so true,” Culberson said. “We laughed about it. It was almost like a joke every time he said it because you knew what was coming. And sometimes he’d mess up, and we’d all crack up and give him heck for it.”
The Braves might not match the Dodgers or Brewers on paper yet, but they believe they can reach that tier. Last season provided a glimpse. This season, they have even more to prove. That task, redeeming themselves on the national scale and etching their names among the heavy weights, begins in just two weeks.