Hours after the Braves held a press conference to announce Michael Harris’ contract extension in August, Mike Soroka recalled the times years ago when he talked to his minor league teammates about how the Braves had to win a World Series somewhere between 2020 and 2022.

“Now we’re looking toward hopefully being one of the best teams in the decade,” Soroka said around 10 months after the Braves won the 2021 World Series.

That still is the goal.

“I would think if we didn’t look back and see that, I think it’d probably be disappointing,” Soroka said Saturday during the Braves Fest fan event at Truist Park. “We’d be wondering where things went wrong. So I think the expectation and the reality that there’s an incredible core here signed for a long time, and we know that there’s going to be something special. Yeah, we know that.”

With one extension after another, the Braves have built what could be a championship core. They have youth. They have talent. The contract extensions the team has handed out could look like team-friendly deals if the respective players perform.

Expectations are high – just like the Braves had hoped as they exited their rebuild a few years ago.

“I (would) get asked about repeating and (winning) the division and do the guys feel (pressure from expectations)? It’s like, no, they’ve worked hard for those (expectations),” manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s what we wanted. There were no expectations when I first got here. I said earlier on, you came to the ballpark and you hoped that you could win, and there was a time when I remember I came to the ballpark and we expected to win. And we worked really hard to get to that position, and we expect to win now.

“That’s a good thing. I’d much rather have that than the other, where we were putting out signs on the interstate to try to get players here.”

On Saturday, the Braves hosted an estimated 40,000 people – between those in Truist Park and around The Battery Atlanta – for Braves Fest. The impressive attendance figure for the free event is the latest sign of the excitement surrounding this team. For the players and coaches, the event perhaps signified baseball’s imminent return.

Months ago, this group – it won’t be identical to the 2022 edition but many familiar faces return – saw its season end prematurely. In Philadelphia, in front of a rowdy crowd, the Phillies embarrassed the Braves in back-to-back games, sending the Braves home. The Braves never imagined their season ending that way.

That day, a few players vowed to remember that feeling, let it sit with them and use it as motivation during the offseason.

Now, spring training is a few weeks away.

“I mean, watching the rest of the playoffs and just knowing we could have kind of went a little deeper, it just fuels me for this season,” Harris said.

“Especially against a division rival,” Travis d’Arnaud said of the sting. “Nobody wants to go home in our first round. I think it leaves a bitter taste in everybody’s tongue to be motivated. … I think we all got extra motivation and are ready to get this thing going.”

“You want to try to put things like that behind you, but at the same time, you got to use those, you got to learn from it,” Kyle Wright said. “... I think definitely, it just leaves a little sour taste. So when you come back in the spring, you definitely remember that, you want to try to be a little better next year.”

Each team sets out with the goal of winning a World Series. And while we love sports because they provide us with inspirational underdog stories, reality often takes over. Not every club has a realistic chance of making the postseason, let alone winning a World Series.

The Braves do.

They feature a stacked lineup that could be even better than last season because Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies are fully healthy. The Braves are armed with what should be a terrific rotation and bullpen. They lost Dansby Swanson, but they feel they have enough leaders to sustain a winning culture in their clubhouse.

The time is now for the Braves, who no longer will sneak up on opponents. No, they are a legitimate force, and everyone around the sport recognizes it.

“It’s a good problem to have, right?” Wright said. “You’d rather be getting teams’ best shot than to feel like you’re the one having to go after everyone else. So it means you’re in a good place, it means you got a good team. It’s a good feeling because you know you got a chance to win and you know you got a chance to contend for a title.”

The Braves will face stiff competition: The Phillies added superstar shortstop Trea Turner and others, while the Mets signed Justin Verlander, re-signed Brandon Nimmo and brought in others. But unlike in previous seasons, division foes will play one another only 13 times – as opposed to 19 in past years – because the new balanced schedule means each team will play the other 29 clubs at least once.

The baseball season is long. Unforeseen circumstances always arise. Teams must stay healthy, then get hot at the correct time down the stretch before battling through a grueling postseason.

The Braves packed their bags prematurely last season.

Finally, their next chance is almost here.

“You set out each year with the goal of winning the World Series, so any time you come up short, it’s going to be a motivator for the next year,” Matt Olson said. “We got a lot of the same dudes back. I think everybody is eyeing that prize.”

Acuña will not play in the World Baseball Classic

Team Venezuela will play without its most talented player in this year’s World Baseball Classic, as it appears Acuña will not be playing.

“Me personally, I’ve always wanted to represent my team and play in the Classic,” Acuña said Saturday through interpreter Franco Garcia. “But the team and the medical staff have come to the decision that that’s probably not going to happen. "

Acuña wanted to play, but the team’s medical staff, which wants the best for him, didn’t feel like it was a great idea to do so.

This is a bummer for Acuña and baseball fans, but the reasoning is sound: Acuña tore his ACL in 2021 and didn’t look like himself for most of 2022 after completing his rehab. The WBC, while a fun event, probably would put extra strain on his body that could increase his risk of injury.

Other than Miguel Cabrera, who will soon retire, Acuña is the face of Venezuelan baseball.

Strider’s new number

Spencer Strider, who wore No. 65 in his rookie season, has changed his number to ... No. 99.

“Some people don’t think numbers mean anything,” Strider said. “I don’t really think they do, but picking a new jersey number in baseball has always been something of importance.”

Growing up, Strider wore No. 28. But when he showed up at Clemson, that number was taken, so he chose No. 29. Well, he can’t wear No. 29 for the Braves because John Smoltz wore the number, and the Braves retired it. And No. 28 isn’t available for the Braves because Olson currently wears it. So Strider picked 65.

Now that he’s entering a new season, and has a new contract, he wanted to pick something fun. He went with No. 99. His favorite movie is “Major League,” and hard-throwing righty Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, played by actor Charlie Sheen, wears that number in the movie. Strider said he would also use No. 99 for his created players in the baseball video game, “MLB The Show.”

Braves Fest was a ‘cool opportunity’ for Braves players

On Saturday, some Braves players signed autographs while others read to children. Players and coaches interacted with fans, which gave them perspective on how much the team means to its fans.

“I mean, when you see them and just how excited they are to see the guys and to be back in this atmosphere and all, it speaks volumes to Braves Country,” Snitker said. “I keep saying: It’s a real deal. Braves Country’s real.”

Added Vaughn Grissom: “Sometimes you don’t realize what you do with someone’s day like that. Just seeing how people are reacting, it’s really cool. And trying to have a little interaction with everyone, I think that’s a cool opportunity for us.”

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