Braves make it clear: World Series-or-bust

Braves celebrate clinching their third consecutive National League East championship title with a 11-1 victory over the Miami Marlins Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Braves celebrated clinching their third consecutive National League East title after Tuesday’s win over the Marlins, but the fanfare was tamer for reasons beyond MLB’s health and safety protocols.

In the past two years, the Braves still had much to prove in the regular season. They celebrated wildly in 2018, when nobody expected them to emerge from a rebuild and win the division. Last season, they repeated as division champs, proving 2018 wasn’t a stroke of luck but a sign of what’s to come.

When the Braves secured the East in 2019, they spoke boldly about making a postseason run. It didn’t happen – you remember what unfolded – and the Braves were a quick out again. Now three-time postseason participants with the current core, just earning a postseason berth isn’t good enough.

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MLB disallowed champagne and traditional clinching celebrations as part of its safety protocols, which is another item on the growing list of realities that come with playing baseball in a pandemic. And while the Braves would’ve drenched their clubhouse and done all the usual celebratory rituals under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic as the past two.

The Braves will host a best-of-three wild-card round at Truist Park next week. If they win, they’ll enter MLB’s Texas bubble, where the NL’s final four will compete for the pennant. That’s where the team’s attention lies. Just being better than the Marlins, Phillies, Mets and Nationals has become the expectation. The Braves are holding themselves to the higher standards.

Since 2001, every Braves team has either missed the postseason or been relegated to nothing more than a decoration on the bracket. With such tantalizing talents and two years of experience, this should be the breakthrough.

Go back to last winter, which feels like an eternity ago, when the Braves went on a short-term veteran spending spree to supplement their core. They welcomed heightened expectations. The front office’s aggression prompted first baseman Freddie Freeman to essentially say in February that it was World Series-or-bust.

The days the Braves were building for are upon us.

“We’re dangerous,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We have good pieces, and it’s a well-rounded club. I think they see that. What they’ve been through, the confidence they should have, they hung together to win all these games and the division. They should feel good about things and feel very optimistic about our future.”

The Braves certainly don’t lack confidence. Ace Max Fried, who’s breakout season came while the rest of the rotation crumbled around him, reiterated the team’s World Series desires Tuesday. The southpaw described a playoff berth as a “first step,” adding “we know where we want to go, what we want to do and how special our team is.”

Winning the division multiple years and gaining the needed experience the Braves so often referenced in 2018 doesn’t guarantee postseason success. The Dodgers – where Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos spent a couple of seasons before joining the Braves – clinched their eighth consecutive NL West title Tuesday. They’ve been to two World Series, losing both, in that span.

The 1991-2005 Braves illustrated that well, too, winning their division a record 14 consecutive seasons but claiming only one title. They earned five NL pennants in that span. That run, propelled by multiple first-ballot Hall of Famers, showed what a crapshoot October can be.

There’s plenty reason to believe in the 2020 Braves. The offense is preposterously productive and would shatter team records in a 162-game season. This is the best Braves bullpen since the Kimbrel-Venters-O’Flaherty days, and when considering its depth, this group might be better.

If that’s enough to overcome an unpredictable rotation will be learned next week. But the Braves don’t view their starting pitching as a backbreaker.

“We know we have a good team,” said Freeman, who might win his first NL MVP award. "Our offense is completely healthy, so that’s a good thing going into the playoffs. We were dealt a couple blows yesterday with the starting pitching, losing Cole (Hamels) and (the presence of Huascar) Ynoa’s cracked nail. We still have to patch some things up before we get there.

“But our bullpen and our offense; I have to give the MVP to our bullpen. They’ve covered so many innings this year. It’s absolutely incredible for them to be as dominant as they’ve been over this stretch of games. We know we have a really, really good team. Max is completely healthy so that’s huge for us. If Kyle Wright keeps pitching like he has the last few starts, we’re in good shape here. Bryse (Wilson) was amazing tonight. We have the pieces. We just have to put it all together.”

This is the most battle-tested Braves team in quite a while. They won 187 games across the past two seasons and hold the NL’s second-best record entering Wednesday. They were star-struck in Los Angeles during their 2018 Division Series, losing to the eventual NL champs. Last season, they saw how small the margin for error is in the postseason, missing opportunities that forced a Game 5, where the Cardinals humiliated them.

Now, after overcoming endless inconveniences this season, the Braves will see how much adversity really does force growth.

“If you ask me, it’s World Series or nothing,” outfielder Ronald Acuna said via Fox Sports South. The Braves, of course, have won the NL East in each year of Acuna’s career.

That’s where the team’s mentality lies. And that’s why Tuesday’s jamboree didn’t center on what was achieved, but instead what’s on the horizon. One way or another, this celebration was going to lack the pizzazz of the past two.

“Usually I’d be soaked in champagne,” Freeman said. “Maybe we’ll save that for a celebration down the road here.”

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