These Braves shouldn’t have to carry the weight of their predecessors who faded in October. It’s easy to forget they weren’t even supposed to be here this soon. The Braves came out of nowhere to win the National League East title last year. They weren’t favored to win the division this year, but they did it again.
The Braves will decide the NL Division Series against the Cardinals on Wednesday at SunTrust Park. This Game 5 has nothing to do with old Braves teams that couldn’t get it done. This is a new Braves era.
“I say we haven't won one in a year, as far as I'm concerned,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Tuesday.
That’s the proper way to look at it. Only three current Braves players were around when the team lost to the Dodgers in the 2013 NLDS. Half the players in the Braves lineup weren’t on the 2018 postseason roster and neither were two of the starting pitchers and the top two relievers.
The Braves weren’t ready for the Dodgers last October, but that was no surprise. The 2019 Braves aren’t carrying psychological scars from postseasons past, even if it sometimes seems as if others want it to be true. Throughout this series the Braves have parried questions about bygone teams who came up short in October.
There are the eight consecutive Braves losses in a playoff series (nine if you count the 2012 wild-card game, which you shouldn’t because a one-game baseball playoff is dumb). They’ve lost seven consecutive times in the NLDS, including three times when they were the higher seed. Five of those eight series ended with the Braves watching the visitors celebrate on their field. The Braves have lost three consecutive series that went to the final game.
Game 5 of the NLDS checks all those boxes for the Braves. Those circumstances explain the angst among their fatalistic fans. The Game 4 loss in St. Louis also didn’t help matters.
The Braves left the bases loaded twice and were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals tied the score with a broken-bat double and a weak liner off Freddie Freeman’s glove, then won it in the 10th inning. Once again, bad things happened to the Braves when they were on the cusp of something good.
There’s a reason why some Braves fans have leaned into the nihilistic “Barves” nickname for their team. Expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t happen.
Surely Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, who grew up in Marietta, is familiar with this phenomenon. He rightly rejects the idea that past Braves postseasons have anything to do with this one.
“I was just a little kid when that happened,” Swanson said. “History is history. We are in the moment now. We are a completely different, new team. We are going to focus on being the best we can tomorrow.”
A worry among Braves backers is their team hasn’t been its best against the Cardinals. Offense was supposed to be a big advantage. It hasn’t worked out that way through four games in large part because the middle of the lineup is sagging at the worst possible time.
Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson and Nick Markakis are a combined 7-for-48 in the series. Each player has more strikeouts than hits. They’ve managed only three extra-base hits among them, and two of those were in Game 1.
Freeman doesn’t have a hit since he smashed a home run during a Braves comeback attempt in Game 1. He grounded into a double play and struck out three times in Game 4. Freeman has looked bad swinging and missing, but insists his struggles are unrelated to the elbow spurs that caused him to skip four games during the final week of the season.
But Snitker suspects that the elbow is bothering the slugger.
“He's the type of guy that will come out tomorrow and put everybody on their shoulders and take them for a ride,” Snitker said.
That would help, obviously, but here’s my optimistic view of Game 5: Freeman doesn’t need to do that for the Braves to win. Acuna and Ozzie Albies have been good at the top of the lineup. Unheralded hitters have carried the Braves to victory, just as they did many times during the season, and it feels as if the their offense will burst wide open if they get anything from the middle of the order.
If not, the Braves have shown they can beat the Cardinals with pitching. The series was supposed to favor the Cardinals if it came down to that. But the Braves won Games 2 and 3 behind fine starts from Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka. Foltynewicz is back for Game 5 with the knowledge that he’s already bested Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty.
The Braves have taken a tough opponent to Game 5 while not playing their best. Now they’ll have an electric home crowd for the deciding game of this hotly-contested series.
“It's been exhausting, I know, when you're a part of it,” Snitker said. “But it's been a heck of a series, both sides. I guess it's only fitting that we're going to be going out there in a winner-take-all type atmosphere tomorrow.”
That hasn’t worked out for the Braves in the past, but that legacy belongs to those teams. These Braves can put one year of mild playoff disappointment behind them by advancing to the NLCS. What a great way to start a new Braves era.
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