Wretched to regal: The Braves are again division champs

The Atlanta Braves celebrate after clinching the division against the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
The Atlanta Braves celebrate after clinching the division against the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

The wondrous part was that, at the end, it didn’t seem wondrous at all. The best team in the National League East clinched its division with eight days to spare. If you saw these Braves in three games against second-place Philadelphia this week, you’d have thought, “What’s the big deal? This club is miles ahead of that one.”

But that’s the thing. Not so long ago, the Braves weren’t ahead of anybody. A couple of months into the 2016 season, they were on pace to break the 1962 Mets’ record of 120 losses in a year. They had, however, gotten awful on purpose. They had a plan. They trusted their process.

And now, four years after the Great Rebuild began, there’s no more rebuilding. There’s a banner to be hoisted and an October to be played. The team that tanked, the team that stank, is a champion.

Freddie Freeman, the cornerstone who drove in the third and fourth runs of Saturday’s 5-3 victory, said in March that this would be a playoff team. “In our first workouts in spring training, you could tell we have talent,” he said, speaking in a clubhouse awash with all manner of beverages, more of which were being sprayed and flung than drunk. “We had the talent to do something special.”

Other close observers weren’t so sure – not about the talent, which was obvious, but about the playoff part. Said manager Brian Snitker, a baseball lifer: “We ran through 2-1/2 or three months, and I’m thinking, ‘We’re pretty good. But are we good enough to take this to the end?’ But we had some defining road trips right before the (All-Star) break. We passed every test. We checked all the boxes.”

Said Alex Anthopoulos, the general manager who inherited baseball’s top-ranked farm system from John Coppolella, banned from baseball last fall for infractions in the international talent market: “I thought we had a really talented team, and maybe we could surprise some people. And then, in May, when we brought up (20-year-old pitcher Mike) Soroka, we were starting to think we didn’t want to let this opportunity slip by.”

These Braves never spent a day below .500. Their deepest deficit in the standings was 3-1/2 games in mid-April. They nosed into first place May 2, one day after Soroka – since lost for the duration because of injury – beat Noah Snydergaard in New York. They reclaimed the top spot Aug. 12. When Makiel Franco’s fly ball settled into the glove of Ronald Acuna, who didn’t make his MLB debut until April 25, at 3:44 p.m. Saturday, the Braves’ lead was 8-1/2 games and their magic number was a nice round zero.

Said Freeman: “We had great young guys join some veteran guys, and we stepped up and won the division together.”

In Saturday’s clincher, the outrageous Acuna reached base his first two times and scored two runs before Jake Arrieta, the free agent who signed with Philly for $75 million over three years, could finish the second inning. (He was pulled after two, trailing 4-0.) Johan Camargo, who drove in the winning run in Friday’s rally from 4-1 down, drove in two more with a two-out single. The All-Star Mike Foltynewicz needed six pitches to retire the Phillies in the first; the Phillies didn’t muster a hit off him until the seventh.

Said Foltynewicz: “Coming off a bad start (Monday), I knew how big this game was.”

For all their youth, the Braves have rarely acted as if any moment was too big for them. With the East to be won, they comported themselves in a way of which their forebears of the ’90s and early 2000s would have been proud. They were hyped but not hyper. Snitker hadn’t gone home after Friday’s victory, opting to sleep in a bunk bed at SunTrust Park. When he was up and around at 9 a.m., four hours before the game, many of his players had reported for duty.

Snitker: “Most of them didn’t sleep. They were all jacked up.”

Matters got hairy in the eighth. Foltynewicz yielded a single and a walk. He exited. Jesse Biddle worked to two batters, Brad Brach to one. They retired none. By then the Braves’ lead was down to a run with two aboard. Jonny Venters replace Brach. Aaron Altherr topped a swinging bunt toward Camargo at third. For a scary moment, it appeared he touched the ball in fair territory and watched it roll foul, which would have loaded the bases. But no. Umpires adjudged, correctly, that Camargo had touched nothing.

Snitker: “He did whiff it. Thank God he did.”

Granted a reprieve, Venters retired Altherr on a liner to Acuna and induced Carlos Santana to ground out. The Braves were still ahead. Kurt Suzuki padded the lead to 5-3 with a two-out single. Then it was down to Arodys Vizcaino, just off the disabled list, and he delivered a 1-2-3 save. The champion Braves charged to the middle of the diamond and did the usual jumping-and-hugging thing and somewhere in the middle were Ender Inciate, the Gold Glove center fielder, and Charlie Culberson, the utility man who authored a half-dozen key hits this summer. They held up a sign bearing the number, “2018.”

Snitker on the enormity of, at 62, having managed a big-league club to something worth celebrating: “I’m thinking, ‘It’s really true. We really did it.’”

They really did, and they did it with style. (Snitker again: “When you watch this team play, it’s easy to get enthralled with it.”) They did it after a blurry-fast rebuild that some folks insisted would never work. They did it in 2018, a year that stands with the America’s Team 1982 and the the worst-to-first 1991 as the giddiest ride in franchise history. And if you don’t believe me … well, take a listen to John Schuerholz, the Braves’ vice-chairman who was both architect of the ’91 rise and catalyst behind the Coppolella reset.

Someone asked where, in his Hall of Fame career, this stood. “It ranks somewhere quite high in my life,” Schuerholz said. “Quite high.” And then, having said it all, he walked away.

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