When the Braves last advanced in the postseason, they returned to Atlanta after two games in Houston and defeated the Astros in a three-game sweep. Nineteen years later, they’re finally advancing again, completing a sweep in Atlanta that will send them back to Houston.
Behind All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuna, sluggers Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall, and budding star starter Ian Anderson, the Braves defeated the Reds 5-0 on Thursday afternoon at Truist Park to complete their two-game wild-card series sweep.
“It was controlled chaos,” manager Brian Snitker said, describing the Braves' celebration. “I told them, that’s just checking a box off on what we want to get done. It was good. I’m proud of them. They’ve been on their legs a long time the past two days. That was a really good series to win when you go against (pitchers) like we just faced.”
The Braves outscored Cincinnati 6-0 in the series, which was a pitching exhibition until the home team slugged two homers en route to a four-run eighth. There wasn’t as much offense in Game 1, when Max Fried and Trevor Bauer dueled to a scoreless stalemate. The Braves won 1-0 on Freddie Freeman’s walk-off single in the 13th.
The Braves used 12 pitchers (nine different players) to hold the Reds to 13 hits, including only two Thursday, across 22 scoreless innings. The Reds were 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
“That was special to be a part of,” said Anderson, who pitched six scoreless innings. “All the credit to Max for going out there yesterday and going pitch-for-pitch with Bauer, setting the tone for us. Then our bullpen coming in and doing what they’ve done all year. You can’t speak enough about how good those guys are.
"This was about trying to keep that going today. That’s how I went into it, trying to build off what those guys do.”
It was the Braves' first postseason series victory since 2001. They had lost 10 consecutive series, tying the MLB record, and seven consecutive clinching games before ending their misery Thursday. The win moves the Braves to a National League Division Series against the Cubs or Marlins, which will be held in Houston as part of MLB’s 2020 postseason bubble.
“I told somebody the other day, ‘I really want to go to Houston. I want to go experience that. I want to go get locked into another bubble and play these games,'” Snitker said. "I think everybody wants to pack up and bring too many clothes to Houston. We’re excited.”
Acuna provided the game’s first run with a two-out RBI double in the fifth against Luis Castillo. Austin Riley, who’s been battling quadriceps tightness in the past week, scored from first.
The 22-year-old Acuna out-hit the Reds by himself, 3-2. It already was his third three-hit postseason game, tying Andruw Jones for the most in MLB history by a player before turning 23. He’s hit .333/.412/.644 in 11 postseason games.
“I’m just really happy, overcome with joy,” Acuna said via team interpreter Franco Garcia. “As a team, we set out to do what we always do, which is play our game and do our best. ... There’s a lot of chemistry in our clubhouse, for sure. There’s a lot of energy that’s contagious. Good thing for us is we try to take advantage of that and utilize it, relay it to our play on the field.”
Ozuna, who was 0-for-8 with five strikeouts in the series entering the eighth, belted a two-run homer that essentially put the game out of reach for the Reds' anemic offense. Duvall added his own two-run shot against his former team for more insurance. He was 0-for-7 with a walk and six strikeouts before the at-bat.
“We may have been a little tight there early, but it was an unbelievable breakout at the end,” Duvall said. “To finally get some runs on the board because man, there weren’t a lot of runs scored through the first 22 innings. It was good to finally break out and get our pitching staff some runs.”
On the Braves' pitching side, Anderson gave no indication his first career postseason start was only his seventh start in the big leagues. The righty allowed two hits over six scoreless innings, striking out nine and walking two. He tied Steve Avery for the most strikeouts by a Braves pitcher in his postseason debut.
Anderson also became the fourth-youngest starter to pitch six or more scoreless innings in a postseason game since 1990, older than only Madison Bumgarner (2010), Avery (1991) and Michael Wacha (2013). He outpitched Castillo, who was likewise excellent in holding the Braves to one run over 5-1/3 innings.
“His demeanor is so even-kneeled all the time,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said of Anderson. “I knew I didn’t have to worry about him. What we saw in the regular year, he continued today. He had his fastball command. He had his curveball command and his change-up command. He was able to mix up all three of those for the first pitch and even make up some fun sequences to get the Reds off-balance. He was able to execute really well today.”
Fried and Anderson became the first pair of Braves teammates with consecutive scoreless postseason starts since John Smoltz and Steve Avery achieved such in the memorable 1991 NL Championship Series against Pittsburgh. This was the first time the Braves had back-to-back postseason shutouts since games 6 and 7 of that series.
The Braves' offense didn’t play up to its expectations in the two games, though Snitker repeatedly credited Reds pitchers, especially Bauer and Castillo. The Braves' pitching, however provided reason to believe this team has enough to earn a berth in the NLCS.
The NLDS will begin Oct. 6 at Minute Maid Park. It will be a best-of-five series against the winner of the best-of-three Cubs-Marlins series, which Miami leads 1-0. Game 2 of the series was postponed Thursday because of inclement weather in Chicago, and the teams will resume play Friday.