Let’s figure out the Braves’ biggest current rivals

While kicking around story ideas during the quarantine, we’ve broached numerous subjects pertaining to the Braves. As you know, there are only so many times you can revisit an erased spring training. There are endless ways to revisit history, however, and that’s what we’re doing today.

For this exercise, I stress recent history. During the NFL draft, I started thinking about the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry. What it lacks in tradition it makes up for in intensity and physicality, from the Harbaugh Niners to the newer edition. We all know the rivalries like Yankees-Sox, Lakers-Celtics, Alabama-Auburn, Packers-Bears, etc. They are sports staples.

But most rivalries are timely. They’re fluid. People will argue that’s not a true rivalry, and they’re right to an extent, but the limited shelf life doesn’t mean the competition is worth belittling or disregarding. I speak for most people in baseball who’d welcome fresh rivalries as publicized as Red Sox-Yankees — please, let’s hear about something else.

The energy in Toronto-Texas years ago was exciting (as was Odor and Bautista’s battle royale). The Rays and Red Sox have had some heated battles. The Diamondbacks will never be the Dodgers’ main rival, but the animosity is legitimate. Even the Mariners, losers for most of their existence, had a brief spout with the Yankees in the 1990s.

Milwaukee doesn’t carry the prestige of Chicago or St. Louis, but rivalries with those clubs have recently taken off. The Astros are hated enough by everybody that there will be a team or two who goes the extra mile to display its disapproval.

Regarding our team in Atlanta, nobody will question the Mets and Phillies as the Braves’ longest-lasting rivals. Some fans remember the team’s days in the National League West and may view games against those teams differently than younger fans. Then there are the Nationals, who seem more disliked than the Expos ever were.

In 2020, here’s how I’d rank the Braves’ rivals — you probably won’t disagree with the names, but the order is debatable:

5. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Braves and Dodgers have history that dates back to Bobby Cox, Tommy Lasorda and the old NL West. You can go even further back if you choose – hey, Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer came against the boys in blue. You can even reference the Juan Uribe home run and Craig Kimbrel’s cross-armed stance.

Recently, the Dodgers have represented the hump the Braves are trying to get over. Los Angeles is the class of the National League and quite possibly the best run team in baseball. The Dodgers have won seven consecutive NL West titles, which makes Braves fans sweat — at least a little bit — that their 14-straight division crowns streak might be threatened.

Stan Kasten, who oversaw the Braves’ unprecedented success, is overseeing the Dodgers’ best replica. The Braves’ current architect, Alex Anthopoulos, spent two seasons in the Dodgers organization before coming down south. In his first season as GM, the Dodgers eliminated the upstart Braves from the postseason. Both teams are loaded with blue chippers, youth and flexibility while boasting renowned front offices. It looks like this rivalry has lots of growing room.

That said, it’s not quite there yet. Dodgers slugger Max Muncy questioned the Braves even being called a rival last summer. I think it’s fair to say, as far as non-divisional opponents go, the Braves and Dodgers have something brewing. It’s just still in the early stages. A couple more playoff meetings should fix that.

Oh, it’d also help if the Braves could actually beat the Dodgers. They’re 6-21 at Dodger Stadium since 2013. They lost both games in California in the 2018 NLDS, and they were outscored there 23-7 last season in a sweep. Maybe they figured out something in August, when they took two of three at home.

4. New York Mets

The Mets will always be included as a chief rival. The tradition is strongest here, with the Braves and Mets competing directly since 1994. The Braves and Mets fans embrace this one, and the cities enjoy the banter.

Downside: It’s been a long time since these two were simultaneously contenders. The Mets were an 86-win team last season, but the Braves won 97 and were never within striking distance. I do think it bodes well for the rivalry moving forward because both teams could be excellent in 2020 (or whenever the next season is).

But recent history doesn’t feature many notable Braves-Mets games. The Braves were rebuilding for a chunk of the 2010s. The Mets were more punchline than measuring stick.

Before last season, the last time the Braves and Mets had winning campaigns in the same year was 2007. That’s also the last time the rivalry was hot, with the Mets fresh off ending the Braves’ 14-year division run the season prior. The matchup has also lost some luster since Chipper Jones’ retirement, given the dynamic between him and New York.

New York is the most recent divisional opponent the Braves have faced in a postseason. Atlanta bested the Mets, 4-2, in the 1999 NLCS.

3. Philadelphia Phillies

The Braves’ rivalry with the Phillies, like the Mets, is strengthened by time. They’re the two “traditional” rivals. While the enthusiasm has dwindled in the last eight years – the teams didn’t spend much time competing against one another for the division crown – it’s been revived over the past two seasons.

Philadelphia was jockeying with the Braves in 2018, when the latter finally returned to the playoffs after undergoing an extensive rebuild. The Phillies — Notorious Braves enemy Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies before the 2019 season, which added natural hostility. Harper signed a 13-year deal, meaning he'll spend the rest of his career in the NL East, where Braves fans will continue booing him every at-bat — led by madman Gabe Kapler, who's since been dismissed — wound up fading in September.

The Phillies could easily work their way back up, even to No. 1, whenever they return to prominence. Despite the 2018-19 offseason trophy, Philadelphia hasn’t had a winning season since 2011. Their futility has been bookended by 81-81 campaigns in 2012 and 2019, with a bunch of horrible in between. Still, you have to think they’ll break through in the next couple seasons, especially with new manager Joe Girardi on the bench.

2. St. Louis Cardinals

The Braves have never been fond of the Cardinals, but the 2019 NLDS catapulted St. Louis up the list. It was difficult to one-up the 2012 wild card game, in which the Braves’ elimination was decorated by the infamous infield fly call and Jones’ farewell.

Yet 2019 achieved it. And that’s why the Cardinals, for the time being, have leapfrogged the Mets and Phillies. Braves fans have more reason to “hate” them right now than the former two, though you could certainly argue for either or both of the others due to exposure and history.

After a back-and-forth series, the Cardinals finished the Braves with the unforgettable 10-run first inning to close the latest NLDS. Their manager Mike Shildt didn’t earn any good grace with Braves fans after his post-series comments went public: “The (Braves) started some s---. We finished the s---. And that’s how we roll. No one f---- with us ever.”

OK, then. Shildt was presumably referencing the occurrence between Ronald Acuna and Carlos Martinez. In Game 1, Acuna homered off Martinez and admired the shot, drawing Martinez’s ire. "I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a player,” the pitcher said. Acuna is a passionate, emotional player and it shows. The Cardinals took exception, playing “fun police,” and the Braves and their fans supported their player.

The series’ intensity persisted, with a gesture war somewhat breaking out. At the end, the Cardinals plunked Acuna in Game 5, with the Braves’ fate already decided, to get a final punch in. Braves fans hated the Cardinals so much after the sequence that many favored the Nationals in the ensuing NLCS – and that’s saying something, given Washington’s place on this list.

1. Washington Nationals

There isn’t much doubt here. Since 2012, the Braves and Nationals have won seven of the last eight NL East titles (NY, 2015). The rivalry really sparked in the earlier part of the past decade. Braves fans quickly grew to resent Bryce Harper, who was then Washington’s golden boy, especially after a 2014 incident in which he dragged his foot across the Braves’ “A” behind the batter’s box.

Both franchise’s fans enjoyed reveling in the other’s postseason failures. That is, until last October, when the wild-card Nationals won the World Series. Hours after the Braves were crushed by the Cardinals, the Nationals stunned the Dodgers in a Game 5 at Dodger Stadium. Their ensuing playoff run capped a disgusting month for Atlanta faithful.

This rivalry just keeps growing, even with Harper down I-95. It’ll be fun to see the dynamic it takes whenever baseball resumes. The Braves and Nationals are again projected as potential playoff teams, meaning each game will continue carrying postseason implications.