2. The bullpen might be even better
It almost feels criminal to suggest this reliever corps is better than last season’s group, but it’s possible. There might be no greater reason for postseason optimism than this bullpen.
Vital ingredients who weren’t with the club a year ago: veterans Collin McHugh, Raisel Iglesias and closer Kenley Jansen. Jansen has endured fan criticism, and rightly so at times, but he finished the regular season strong.
Snitker has stayed committed to Jansen, just as he did Will Smith a year ago. Smith rewarded Snitker’s faith with 11 scoreless outings in the postseason. The Braves need similar ninth-inning dominance from Jansen to defend their title.
“I don’t know a closer that doesn’t (get criticized),” Snitker said. “Everyone expects these guys to be perfect. It’s not perfect. It’s the most strenuous, big inning of the game that these guys pitch. There’s a reason we give them the ball in the ninth inning. It doesn’t bother Kenley, I know that. ... He’s probably the most calm guy out there. He’s throwing the ball extremely well. He’s made adjustments, been willing to do that, he’s throwing the ball very well right now.”
3. A deeper lineup
The Braves’ offensive depth borders on preposterous. Outfielder Ronald Acuna is back this October after he missed the team’s run a year ago with a torn ACL. First baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Austin Riley give the Braves a pair of All-Star sluggers in the middle of their lineup that few clubs can match. All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson, who thrives in the spotlight, looks ready for the postseason after homering in each game last weekend in the decisive series against the Mets.
Outfielder Michael Harris, 21, could win Rookie of The Year. Harris, a DeKalb County native, has a case for team MVP. He gave the Braves a needed jolt when he was promoted from Double-A in late May, and the Braves found his immediate impact so convincing they inked him to an eight-year extension in August. Harris was the Braves’ No. 3 hitter late in the season, a nod to his offensive prowess.
The Braves’ offense is so deep they didn’t even start All-Star designated hitter William Contreras in two of the crucial games against the Mets. Expect Contreras to play a big role this month. He and d’Arnaud are perhaps MLB’s best catcher duo.
4. The bracket and homefield advantage
Matchups and a degree of luck go into every championship run. When the Braves won the NL East, they clinched the No. 2 seed. That placed them on the opposite end of the bracket from the top-seeded Dodgers, whom they’ve faced in the past two NLCS. They’d only face one of the Dodgers or Mets - the other 100-win NL teams - to reach the World Series. If the Dodgers were ousted in the NLDS, the Braves would have home-field advantage in the NLCS.
Don’t underestimate how important home-field advantage can be, especially with how Truist Park has captured an SEC-like atmosphere that’s become the envy of other major-league cities. The Braves went 7-1 at home during their World Series run. They went 55-26 at the venue this season.
“This place has been electric all year,” Snitker said. “It’s just been a crazy good year, the energy in this place, the fans. Braves Country is real, man. These people love their Braves and we love them.”
Clinching the No. 2 seed also meant the Braves avoided the wild-card round, which is part of MLB’s newly expanded postseason. The extra rest benefited the Braves as they await rookie starter Spencer Strider’s return (oblique injury). Second baseman Ozzie Albies (fractured pinkie) is also trying to come back during the playoffs.
5. A weight lifted
These Braves, unlike those before them, won’t carry the burden of past October failures. The Braves used “Kill the Narrative” as a rallying cry during their run last fall – they won’t need to this time. Even the greater Georgia sports curse was squashed when Georgia topped Alabama in the college football national championship game in January.
Before 2020, they Braves went 19 years without a postseason series victory. Since 1996, despite all their success, they were considered disappointments when it mattered most. Now, there will be no talk of curses or the irrelevant past. The Braves have the same confidence and swagger that rendered it moot a year ago. This isn’t a team trying to get over any humps; they’re embracing trying to crush whoever sits in their path.
“It’s a clubhouse full of guys who want to win,” Olson said. “From the second I’ve walked in, I can tell that’s No. 1 on the program. While it sounds great everywhere, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case for every person in the big leagues. Sometimes teams can get away from it. But when you come in and the entire team is set on the same thing, and that’s to win, it’s powerful.”