Finally. After months of what felt inevitable, the Braves are National League East champs. Finally. After months of watching the Braves dispose of teams like the Marlins, every game is about to carry heavy stakes.
The MLB postseason begins Oct. 3 for the Braves. They will host games 1 and 2, either against the Cardinals or Brewers. They’re wrapping up the regular season Sunday, just hoping nobody else is injured in the process.
So before October really gets underway, my last column of the regular season will focus on a few random thoughts and observations I have about the club.
First thought: I think much of the time, when we categorize a team’s season as a success or failure, it isn’t so black and white. An organization can make strides without it necessarily being reflected in the standings. In many cases just reaching the postseason — take last year’s Braves, for instance — makes for an admirable year. Snagging the NBA’s No. 8 seed or getting eliminated in MLB’s wild-card game can make for a feel-good story, in some cases.
But if the Braves don’t advance beyond the NLDS, this season will be considered a failure. I didn’t completely view it that way in February, but given how this team has progressed, the records it’s set, the blossoming fan enthusiasm, the clubhouse mix, last season’s experience, I cannot see a scenario in which the Braves are axed in Round 1 and the takeaway is satisfaction.
That’s not to call last year satisfying to the players, who surely didn’t want to get spanked by the Dodgers, but as an organization, 2018 was a tremendous leap forward. I always stress growth isn’t linear in sports or life. But the logical next step for this group is winning a series — and yes, context matters.
The Braves haven’t advanced to the NLCS since 2001. It’s a baffling stat in many ways, considering the franchise’s reputation. This is the best chance they’ve had to do so. Regardless of how hot the Cardinals or Brewers are, the Braves have been the second-best team in the NL almost all season. They have the stars, lauded chemistry and recent experience.
No excuses. This team needs to win a postseason series. If it doesn’t, as exciting as this season was, it yielded an all-too-familiar result.
Second, how do the Braves win a postseason series? For one, their trio of boppers has to produce. That’s … less certain than before:
Ronald Acuna was shut down with a left groin strain. He and the Braves said he’ll be “full bore” for the postseason. Reality is we can’t sit here and confidently project him to be 100 percent. He’ll have to show us first.
By the way, Acuna was hitting .233/.349/.507 across 20 games this month. He struck out 29 times in 73 at-bats. The only way to put it is bluntly: The Braves need Acuna at his best in October.
Then there’s Freddie Freeman, who’s twice left games because of recurring bone spurs in his right elbow. Freeman’s had the spurs for years and hasn’t sounded overly concerned. He knows himself better than anybody, so there’s no reason to question that.
But in the eight games between his bone-spur incidents (Sept. 13-22), Freeman hit .091/.300/.136 with one doubles and no homers. Small sample size, sure. Still enough to give you at least a little pause (maybe Freeman rakes in New York and this is much less of a thought).
The third amigo, Josh Donaldson, hasn’t had a stellar September either despite a clean bill of health. As of Wednesday, Donaldson hit .222/.367/.429 in 19 games (he’s homered four times). I’m not alone in considering Donaldson the Braves’ X-factor. You could argue he’s their most important position player next month (there’s a case for all three of these names).
Let’s put it this way: It’s far from ideal that the Braves are entering the postseason with questions surrounding their three best players. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the trio was completely fine and carried them to a series victory.
But heading into Thursday, there isn’t a more important group of players to this team. The Braves need them healthy and hitting their strides to reach their ceiling as a team.
Third and final thought: The Braves, like literally every other team, will go as far as their pitching takes them. Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried — not necessarily in that order — would be my playoff rotation. I’ll guess the Braves think the same.
Soroka appears to be lined up to go Game 3 on the road, where he’s posted a 1.35 ERA in 15 starts. I understand the logic. But you’re also removing your best starter from a potential Game 5. I don’t like using your best starter only once in a best-of-five series. But it seems the Braves will instead opt for Keuchel in Game 1 and potentially Game 5. What do I know anyway?
I want to give kudos to Foltynewicz, who looked like a non-factor at midseason yet has rallied to not only make the postseason roster, but regain a semblance of his All-Star form and become a pivotal part of the team’ success. He deserves a world of credit for that.
As for the bullpen, the three deadline acquisitions will make or break this unit. Chris Martin, Mark Melancon and Shane Greene were acquired for the postseason. The Braves were up 6-1/2 games at the deadline. They didn’t acquire these guys out of fear. They acquired them to boost their chances of winning in October.
However they opt to fill out the rest of the group, those three are the most important. The Braves need to extract the most out of each. When the back end of the bullpen is nails, the Braves are the deadliest team in the NL. Considering how the bullpens look for the other NL contenders, the Braves could well have an advantage here if the timing is right.
So there are my jumbled thoughts with the playoffs days away. The Braves have the potential to represent the NL in the World Series. They also have the potential to be ousted by the Cardinals/Brewers in the NLDS. Either way, the Braves again gave the South a reason to watch baseball during football season.
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