This was the ninth consecutive time the Braves made it to the postseason and didn’t advance. In many ways this latest loss, against the Dodgers in the NLDS, looked like the others.
The Braves watched the visitors celebrate on their home field after the clinching victory Monday at SunTrust Park. That happened three consecutive times at the Braves’ old home, Turner Field, from 2002-04. The Braves lost a five-game series in four, just like in 2005, 2010 and 2013. The Dodgers bested them in 2013, and they did it again in 2018.
Yet this loss to the Dodgers isn’t like those in important ways, and it makes all the difference.
These Braves wildly exceeded projections, whereas the specter of unmet expectations loomed over previous NLDS losses. Sam Holbrook’s bogus call and Chipper Jones’ big error ruined the 2012 wild-card loss, sending the Braves and their into the offseason feeling ornery. This time Braves supporters gave their team a standing ovation after the final loss.
Surely the cheers signaled appreciation for the Braves’ fun, unexpected run to the NL East title. But I’m guessing they also were recognition that this is just the beginning for these Braves. They may have more good, young major league talent than any other team.
Nothing is for certain because baseball can be a weird game, but chances are, those fans will cheer a postseason winner in the near future. They want more, and so do the Braves.
“The only thing that will make me happy is to win a World Series,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “We took a step in 2018 (by) winning the division. Now we have to do more.”
The Braves have a strong foundation to build on, with Freeman as the bridge. He and right-hander Julio Teheran are the only players from the 2013 playoff team still with the Braves. Teheran’s future is uncertain — he declined in status from opening-day starter to one low-stakes appearance in the NLDS — but Freeman, 28, is in the prime of his career.
Freeman has been a consistent hitter for the past six seasons. His first career postseason put the Braves ahead for good in Game 3 of the NLDS. Among Braves regulars in the series, Freeman got on base most often.
He didn’t have much help. Ronald Acuna hit a grand slam in Game 3, and Kurt Suzuki delivered a go-ahead, pinch-hit single in Game 4. Pitcher Sean Newcomb had the only other RBI in the series, via a walk in Game 3.
“We didn’t hit,” Freeman said. “Bottom line. We left too many opportunities out there. “
That’s how it went in the NLDS but, in the wider view, the Braves were a good offensive team. All the major lineup pieces except for Nick Markakis are under contract for 2019. And it’s reasonable to expect the young players around Freeman to continue to blossom.
At least three Braves players projected to be in the 2019 lineup are 25 years old or younger: Acuna (20), Ozzie Albies (21) and Dansby Swanson (24). Johan Camargo (24) could be the fourth — I think he proved himself as the everyday third baseman, but it doesn’t always seem as if the Braves feel the same way.
Acuna had a sensational rookie season. He had the highlights: the youngest to hit a homer in five consecutive games, the youngest to hit a grand slam in the postseason. Acuna also had improved plate discipline later in the season, leading to more consistent production.
Albies will need to improve his plate discipline, and his left-handed swing, to become a more reliable hitter. Swanson may never become a plus hitter, but his defense was noticeably missing when injury forced him to sit out the NLDS. Camargo made big strides as a hitter in 2018.
If one or more of those players takes a step back in 2018, it could be offset by improved pitching.
“A lot of upside and high-ceiling guys when you talk about the arms,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said.
Five of the young pitchers appeared in the NLDS: Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, Chad Sobotka and Touki Toussaint. Sobotka gave up a go-ahead homer to Manny Machado on Monday, but the other young pitchers were mostly effective.
For the Braves to be better in 2019, it will take more than just improvement from young players. They need to replace Markakis, but that shouldn’t be too hard because, after a strong first half, his production ended up being about average. They need another catcher to go along with Flowers, preferably one who can hit and control runners, and that could be harder to find.
The Braves also must decide if manager Brian Snitker returns. No surprise that, after the team’s spirited run to the NL East title, Snitker has supporters in the clubhouse.
“He did a remarkable job,” Freeman said. “It’s hard to handle 25 to 30 personalities.”
The Braves appear to have the pieces for another good team in 2019. It will take some good luck, because it always does. The Braves surprised in 2018 because their young players got good fast. But they also got rejuvenated seasons from veterans such as Charlie Culberson and Anibal Sanchez, and there’s no guarantee they can get that again.
“It was something special,” Braves pitcher Mike Foltynewicz said. “Every single person in the clubhouse got better this year. There’s a lot more to come.”
There’s good reasons to believe it. That’s what makes the ninth straight Braves postseason loss feel different than the others.