The season that wasn’t turned into the October that finally was.
After a two-decade absence, the Braves are back in the World Series for the first time this millennium. They eliminated the reigning champion Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, capped by a 4-2 victory in Game 6 on Saturday in front of 43,060 fans at Truist Park.
“I’m not sure I’m feeling yet, honestly,” manager Brian Snitker said after the game. “I’m kind of numb. Pretty good feeling, though. Just happy for the guys, the organization. (During the final out) I just kind of sat in my chair and them guys swamped me. There were a lot. I was just hoping I could hold it together because a lot comes at you after all the years and everything you go through. And now to be able to experience this, it’s really something cool.”
These Braves defied the odds every step of the way. It was one of their July newcomers, Eddie Rosario, who played the biggest role in getting the team into the Fall Classic. Rosario had perhaps the greatest postseason series in Braves history, collecting 14 hits. He appropriately delivered the big blow Saturday, smashing a three-run homer off Walker Buehler to put the Braves ahead for good.
It’s been a storybook journey for the 2021 Braves, whose route to avenging their NLCS ousting a year ago went nothing like they could’ve imagined in March.
Their season started in Philadelphia, where the Braves were swept. They stayed below .500 until Aug. 6. During that frustrating stretch, they lost several key contributors. Their chances at a fourth consecutive division crown seemed toast.
But that’s the charm in these Braves. No matter how bleak the situation appears, they had an answer for it.
Young ace Mike Soroka never returned as expected. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud missed several months, forcing the Braves to go on a maddening catching carousel. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna was injured then arrested on domestic-violence charges, ending his season. MVP candidate Ronald Acuna tore his ACL one day before the All-Star break. Early season star Huascar Ynoa broke his hand punching a bench. Every starter except Charlie Morton landed on the injured list.
“This whole year showed what the word resilience means from pretty much day one,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “We just kept getting back up and just kept hitting punches back. That’s just the collective whole as a unit that we have. It’s just these guys, after last year, you could just taste it. We let it get away losing the 3-1 lead (in the 2020 NLCS) and we came back and we had to deal with the questions and we took that down real fast and I think that’s just the group we have and that’s the character we have.”
The recurring thought for months: Sometimes it’s just not your year. Yet it turned out, after years upon years of postseason failures, this was the Braves team that figured it out. This was even the one that didn’t blow the 3-1 lead, separating itself from recent Atlanta sports history.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos executed one of the greatest trade deadlines in MLB history. In July, he reshaped his roster with outfielders Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Rosario and Adam Duvall. It didn’t just save his team’s season; it helped turn a middling team into a pennant winner.
The Braves went 34-18 across August and September. They surged past the fading Mets and perpetually mediocre Phillies to win their fourth consecutive NL East crown. Their 88 wins were tied for the fewest in franchise history for a division winner.
That didn’t matter. As Anthopoulos stressed at the trade deadline, you just have to get into the tournament and anything can happen.
“I’m going to go with yes,” Freeman said when asked if it’s safe it’s one of the greatest trade deadlines in MLB history. “It’s two different teams, really, from the first half to the second half, if you really look at it. And then it took I think it was around a month (until Rosario debuted). So we just had little weapons waiting in the wings all over the place and then we unleashed them and here we are sitting in the World Series.”
As Freeman suggested, this was better than an 88-win team after the trades. The Braves faced the 95-win Brewers in their Division Series. They dropped Game 1 – giving them their necessary adversity – then won three straight, including a thriller in Game 4, to advance.
Meanwhile, the 107-win Giants and 106-win Dodgers squared off on the other end of the bracket. The Dodgers prevailed, setting up an NLCS rematch from a year ago, when the Braves blew a 3-1 lead to Los Angeles at the neutral Texas site then. The Dodgers went on to win their first title since 1988.
These Braves proved they’re better than the team before them. They had home-field advantage, a benefit awarded to division winners - which the Dodgers weren’t - and won the first two games on walk-off hits.
That sent them to Los Angeles, a house of horrors over the past decade. The theme continued in Game 3, when the Braves blew a 5-2 lead late and saw a team “dead in the water,” according to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, suddenly find life. It appeared they could be in danger of doing what Atlanta teams often do.
As these Braves have shown, they can’t be compared with any other club. They responded to their missed opportunity in Game 3 by walloping the Dodgers in Game 4. The Dodgers, as one would expect from the champions, didn’t go quietly. They crushed the Braves 11-2 in Game 5, forcing the series back to Atlanta.
“#KillTheNarrative,” the Braves tweeted. They embraced Atlanta sports’ track record, then backed up their words. This time, the Braves didn’t blow a 3-1 lead. They didn’t even let it reach a Game 7.
“I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” Freeman said.
Ian Anderson, who started Game 7 against the Dodgers last year, allowed one run over four innings. His offense backed him up and he won the latest biggest game in his career this time. Anderson started the team’s division-clinching win and Game 7 this season.
Rosario was named NLCS MVP. His 14 hits included three home runs, and he had nine RBIs. He homered twice in Game 4, helping the Braves gain a 3-1 series advantage. His home run Saturday was the difference in the deciding contest.
“I always knew that I could win an MVP trophy like this,” Rosario said via team interpreter Franco Garcia. “It was something I always hoped for, regardless of what anyone said or thought of me. But I want more. Also, this is obviously my greatest accomplishment of my career so far, this trophy and this award, so it’s something to definitely be proud of.”
The Dodgers’ best scoring chance was the seventh. The Dodgers had three reach against Luke Jackson, cutting their deficit to 4-2 with runners at second and third.
Enter Tyler Matzek, who struck out Albert Pujols, Steven Souza and Mookie Betts. Matzek has come through countless times during the Braves’ run - eight of his nine postseason appearances were scoreless and he’s appeared in all but one contest - but none were more crucial than Saturday.
“Both of those guys could have been co-MVPs for me,” Anthopoulos said of Rosario and Matzek. Lefty A.J. Minter, who pitched two scoreless innings in two games over the series, added: “Eddie had an unbelievable series, but in my opinion, Matzek was the MVP.”
That this Braves team, flawed, frustrated, and wounded for so much of the year, was the one to achieve what so many before it couldn’t, is a testament to baseball’s beauty and randomness. As AJC columnist Mark Bradley worded it: This isn’t the best Braves team, but it might be the right one.
No Acuna. No Ozuna. No Soroka. None of the Braves’ starting outfielders in the NLCS were on their opening-day roster. The makeshift group is now four wins from immortality.
“Going from 97 losses six years ago to doing this, it’s special,” Freeman said. “And to lose, in my opinion, the best player in the National League (Acuna) and we’re up here going to the World Series, it’s amazing what this team did.”
Braves 4, Dodgers 2 (box score)
The 2021 Braves could win the franchise’s second championship since moving to Atlanta in 1966. They’re playing for that honor for the first time since the glorified 1990s Braves made their last Fall Classic appearance in 1999. They won 10 division titles and made 12 postseason appearances between World Series berths.
This was a franchise that went 19 years without winning a postseason series before last October. Within two weeks, it could be one that’s scheduled to get fitted for rings.
Saturday’s result evoked endless emotions, be it from a mainstay like first baseman Freddie Freeman or a newcomer like Rosario, who hadn’t experienced a postseason series victory before this month. Snitker has waited longest. An over four-decade long career with the Braves has culminated with a World Series berth.
Next, the Braves will face the Astros for the championship. Troy Snitker, Brian’s son, is a hitting coach for Houston.
“The Snitkers are going to have a World Series trophy in their house here,” Brian said. “I don’t know who is going to own it, but we’re going to have one.”
Like their series against the Brewers and Dodgers, the Braves aren’t favored in the World Series. The mighty Astros are on a torrid roll, trying to capture a championship without an asterisk (their 2017 title was tainted by a cheating scandal). Houston’s offense will present quite the challenge for Braves pitching.
The Braves will embrace the underdog role yet again. Why wouldn’t they? It’s worked for them the entire season. They’ve overcome everything imaginable to reach this stage. The Astros won’t be intimidating.
Sometimes it’s just your year. As the Braves rejoiced on the field at Truist Park Saturday – an incomprehensible notion for months of the season – it illustrated the unlikeliest of realities: It really was their year.