Braves win fourth consecutive NL East title. This one might be most impressive

September 30, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Braves right fielder Jorge Soler (12) hits a solo home run in the first inning at Truist Park on Thursday, September 30, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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September 30, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Braves right fielder Jorge Soler (12) hits a solo home run in the first inning at Truist Park on Thursday, September 30, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The last three divisional triumphs, unique in their own ways, might not compare to the Braves’ path in 2021.

In 2018, the upstart Braves were a feel-good story. It was an organization that emerged from a complete teardown (and embarrassing controversy) to win a division. A year later, the Braves cemented themselves as a 97-win power, again claiming the NL East before seeing their season go down in flames with a disastrous Game 5 loss at home to the Cardinals in the NL Division Series.

In 2020, there were legitimate questions as to whether there’d be an MLB season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Braves wound up 35-25 in the shortened campaign, winning two series in the expanded postseason and earning their first NL Championship Series berth in nearly two decades.

While the Braves fell short against the eventual champion Dodgers, they held their heads high. They retained the core of their roster and expected to be right back in the mix in 2021.

This path featured multiple detours, bumps in the road and a few scares of veering off course. Through it all, the result was the same: The Braves are National League East champions for the fourth consecutive year. They secured it with a 5-3 win over the Phillies on Thursday at Truist Park.

“Not to take anything away from those other teams, but this is by far the most special title,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said during the Braves’ champagne-soaked celebration.

The Braves faced adversity over the past three years, but none could equal what they endured this time. The Braves were mired in misfortune, bad luck, injuries, self-inflicted wounds and statistical anomalies. It wasn’t until Aug. 6 that they achieved a winning record – they joined the lowly Marlins and Rangers as the only teams to never hold a winning mark until finally breaking through.

“I’m just so proud of these guys,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Where we came from, the different lineup changes, just hanging in there. To pull this thing off is unbelievable. Everything we went through, the injuries we had to overcome. Everybody has injuries, but we had some huge injuries with our team. Credit to Alex and his team for what they did at the deadline. It’s a really gratifying feeling.”

Listing the Braves’ misfortunes is a time-consuming endeavor. Some of the lowlights: Young All-Star starter Mike Soroka was first expected back in late April – he never pitched, as his final setback was re-tearing the Achilles that also ended his 2020 campaign. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna, re-signed after starring on a one-year deal, broke his fingers and then was arrested for domestic violence in May.

Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, a Silver Slugger last season, tore a ligament in his thumb that sidelined him for months. Opening-day center fielder Cristian Pache wasn’t ready for the majors, leading to a demotion. Shane Greene, signed to help stabilize the bullpen, was ineffective and dropped in August.

The Braves nonetheless treaded water earlier in the summer. They were 30-35, sitting eight games out, June 16. They closed the gap to four games by the All-Star break, but it wasn’t without cost: Superstar outfielder Ronald Acuna tore his ACL one day before the break.

With their MVP candidate gone, so seemed the Braves’ chances. Making matters worse, promising young starter Ian Anderson had shoulder discomfort and would be evaluated over the break. The Braves felt like a house of cards collapsing. To outside observers, they were a cross off. The first-place Mets, behind the momentum of new ownership, seemed ticketed for the postseason.

“When you lose the guys we lost, everyone has doubts,” first baseman Freddie Freeman admitted Thursday. “Things were piling on at the All-Star break.”

The Braves had an uphill climb even before Acuna’s injury. They hadn’t crossed .500 all year. Their lineup was a shell of its 2020 version. The team’s only hope was its division’s mediocrity, which kept the team within striking distance despite a season of Murphy’s Law.

Then came the 2021 trade deadline, which will be remembered as one of the most important in franchise history. The transactions started early, with Anthopoulos acquiring outfielder Joc Pederson from the Cubs and catcher Stephen Vogt from Arizona before the second half opened.

Anthopoulos later explained how important the timing of those moves was. He didn’t want the clubhouse to lose its inspiration with Acuna down.

“I was very concerned with what the mindset of the players was going to be during the break and coming out of the break,” Anthopoulos told The AJC. “The timing of the Pederson and the Vogt deals was important in my mind, just to show the (incumbent) players. We had an important stretch after the break, too. … We didn’t want the conversation coming out of the break to be, ‘They’ve lost Anderson. They’ve lost Acuna. Are they just going to start trading players away?’ That wasn’t the case.

“The timing of the Pederson and Vogt deals … we tried to accelerate those, tried to have them done right when we got back, as much for the mindset of the players and coaches. We were going to continue to push forward and try to win.”

Winning didn’t happen immediately. What followed was perfected mediocrity: Excluding a suspended game against the Padres that was finished last week, the Braves opened the second half by alternating 18 consecutive wins and losses. And while the record won’t stand because the suspended game’s result is backdated, it beautifully illustrated the Braves’ maddening, yet consistent, inconsistency.

On July 30, Anthopoulos refused to wave the white flag. He made four other trades, adding outfielders Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario, along with reliever Richard Rodriguez. The Braves dropped two of three to the Brewers that weekend before their season transformed.

The 18-game streak of mediocrity ended in early August, when the Braves swept then-struggled St. Louis on the road to reach .500. They defeated the Nationals in their first game back home to earn a winning record for the first time this season (56-55).

What followed was the turning point. The Braves (59-57), then 1-1/5 games back, embarked on a nine-game road trip against three horrific teams, the Nationals, Marlins and Orioles. They swept the three-city trip, taking sole possession of first place in the middle of their run and returning home with a 68-57 record.

Just like that, a season of disappointment turned into hope, perhaps even expectation, that the Braves would again make the postseason. They’ve had highs and lows since their road surge, but that sequence proved the difference maker in their season.

“That was huge because in baseball, you can look back and say, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to win against those teams,’ but you never know,” Freeman said. “The game of baseball is crazy. When you take care of business, it built our confidence going forward that we expected to win. We have a really good team.”

The Braves are 18-15 since that run, a solid yet unspectacular showing. It turned out taking care of teams they should defeat was the difference between them and the Phillies, whose postseason drought extended to 10 years following the thumping in Atlanta.

It’s a story of perseverance. A group of newcomers arrived and meshed – a testament to the Braves’ infrastructure, while the incumbents excelled. Third baseman Austin Riley, who received a healthy share of “MVP” chants Thursday, has been a star. Starters Max Fried and Charlie Morton have been brilliant, giving this team an advantage those before it couldn’t claim: dual aces atop the rotation. The once-thin lineup is stacked with power.

“I think you can stack our team up against anyone,” Freeman said. “You have to run through Charlie Morton, Max Fried, Ian Anderson, I like our chances. Our offense can put some runs on the board. I feel really confident going forward.”

Next, the Braves will face the Brewers in the NL Division Series, a meeting that should be dubbed “The Hank Aaron Series,” as those were the cities the late Hall of Famer represented in his career. The Braves will enter as underdogs, considered the best of a bad NL East bunch.

That’s just how the Braves would like it. They’ve been discounted throughout the season. It’s become part of this team’s identity. The names are much different; the mission is not. The expectation remains competing for a World Series title.

“I’ve never been part of a season that had as much adversity as this one had,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “But I feel like that’s a good characteristic for this team, to battle and fight for everything. I feel like we’ve earned every bit of what we have this year. That’s a good thing going into the postseason.”

The Braves’ latest pursuit of a title will begin Oct. 8 in Wisconsin.

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