The Braves' three-year hold on the division is their longest since 1991-2005, when they won a record 14 consecutive division titles. The Braves have won 20 division titles, most in MLB history. They broke a tie with the Yankees.
“I was just telling Ronald (Acuna) in the clubhouse, ‘All you know is winning the division,’” said first baseman Freddie Freeman, who’s the only player remaining from the Braves' pre-rebuild days. “We’ve changed the ship real fast over the last five years. ... To three-peat is really hard. When you take a step back and see they won 14 straight division titles back in the day, that’s pretty hard to do. We’ve only done it three times. It’s pretty incredible what they accomplished.”
Tuesday’s clinching win was powered by homers from Marcell Ozuna (twice), Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Freeman. It was the Braves' third time hitting five or more homers in a game this season.
Right-hander Bryse Wilson, thrown into a spot start after Cole Hamels was shut down for the season Monday, delivered five scoreless innings in perhaps the best start of his career. It was only the 21st time a Braves starter covered five or more innings, and Max Fried has done it 10 of those times.
“It was incredible,” Wilson said. “Over the course of the season, everything that’s been going on as far as me struggling at first, putting in the work at the alternate site. I never imagined I would start the game that we clinched, so it’s been incredible.”
While the Braves were generally considered the favorites and stayed a step ahead of their division rivals for almost the entirety of the sprint, they faced their share of adversity. “It was an entire organizational team effort,” Snitker said.
Consider what worked against the Braves during the shortened season, starting with the obvious rotation woes. They lost ace Mike Soroka to a torn Achilles in his third start. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, who were supposed to comprise the middle of the rotation, were ineffective and jettisoned to Gwinnett. Felix Hernandez impressed in spring training and showed he might have something left in the tank, but he decided against playing a few days after summer camp opened.
Then there was Hamels, whose brief Braves tenure was marred by shoulder and triceps injuries. He returned last week to pitch 3-1/3 innings, giving the Braves hope he could be a postseason contributor, but the veteran reported shoulder fatigue Monday, ending his season.
Perhaps the group is stabilizing with Fried – who’s taken a tremendous step forward as a frontline starter – and youngsters Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright, who are giving the Braves reason to be optimistic.
Beyond the leaky rotation, the Braves missed Albies, their All-Star second baseman, for over a month with a bone bruise in his wrist. The dynamic Acuna missed 13 games. Even both their catchers, Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers, missed the first five games with COVID-19 scares (neither tested positive).
Outfielder Nick Markakis initially opted against playing but became the only player to rejoin his club after doing so. Exactly one month after leaving the team, Markakis hit a walk-off homer in his first start back.
“When he came back, I felt like the whole demeanor in our clubhouse changed,” d’Arnaud said. “Everybody was uplifted. It just showed how big of an influence he was in this clubhouse."
There won’t be a better story of perseverance than Freeman. When the rebooted camp opened July 3, Freeman was battling the coronavirus, experiencing a fever that spiked to 104.5. Freeman felt so ill, and so overcome with chills and aches, that he prayed for his life.
Yet weeks later, Freeman returned five days before opening day. He wasn’t back in full capacity, however, hitting .200/.333/.380 over his first 15 games. Freeman needed time to reacclimate himself. Once he did, he became possibly the NL MVP frontrunner.
Freeman entered Tuesday hitting .340/460/.624 with 11 homers, 48 RBIs and 45 runs scored. He went from fearing for his life to arguably the best player in his league. National praise hasn’t been hard to come by in recent weeks. The days of Freeman quietly producing – and patiently waiting – on rebuilding clubs feel so long ago.
“Freddie missed all of summer camp until the last week," d’Arnaud recalled. "He stepped up this whole year and I think he deserves to be the MVP of this league.”
For the first time in quite a while, the bullpen was one of the team’s greatest strengths. The Braves invested heavily into the unit since last July, adding Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Will Smith. Tyler Matzek came out of nowhere to be an important piece. Josh Tomlin was crucial yet again. Darren O’Day has been the reliable veteran. A.J. Minter recaptured his old form, while players like Luke Jackson, Grant Dayton and Jacob Webb have had their moments.
“I have to give the MVP to our bullpen,” Freeman said. “They’ve covered so many innings this year. It’s been absolutely incredible for them to be as dominant as they’ve been.”
Extrapolated over 162 games, this Braves offense might be the best in team history. And it’s needed to be considering the never-ending rotation drama. They entered the night leading MLB in slugging (.487), OPS (.835), hits (501), runs (315) and RBIs (308). They’re second in MLB with 98 homers, which would be on pace to shatter their franchise record of 249 set last season (with 289).
The Braves weren’t supposed to replicate last year’s offensive success. They lost clean-up hitter Josh Donaldson in free agency, creating a mammoth hole in their lineup. They wound up taking advantage of Ozuna’s lackluster market, signing him on a one-year deal to address their power void, just as they did with Donaldson the previous winter.
Ozuna has responded by hitting .327 with 17 homers and 49 RBIs, both of which lead the NL. His homers even average an MLB-best 425 feet. He’s been a monstrous presence in the order, producing at a pace that exceeds Donaldson’s numbers from a season ago.
No game might’ve showcased his potency better than Tuesday. Ozuna had his first career four-hit, five-RBI game. He could become the first Braves player to lead the NL in homers and RBIs since Andruw Jones did so in 2005. Over a 162-game season, Ozuna is on pace for 50 homers and 156 RBIs. He’ll join Freeman in receiving MVP votes.
“He’s been everything and more for what we needed at that spot in the lineup,” Snitker said. “He’s been so good for this club. He brings so much energy. I’ve really enjoyed our conversations and being around him this year.”
While Freeman and Ozuna have made a dangerous 1-2 punch, the Braves' offense is a complete group. D’Arnaud has been better than anticipated, hitting .331 with nine homers, showing that flash of power he displayed in Tampa Bay last year was a sign of more to come. Swanson was outstanding earlier in the season, and after a slump appears to be regrouping himself.
The Adam Duvall trade of July 2018 is paying off. Duvall is tied for the MLB lead with 15 homers, emerging as the power threat he once was in Cincinnati before a couple trying seasons in the Atlanta organization. The Braves kept faith in Duvall, and since last October, he’s returned the favor.
Duvall, a type-1 diabetic, could’ve opted out under the high-risk policy and received pay and service time. He committed to playing, and the Braves are a significantly better team because of it.
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Acuna and Albies (who’s hitting .396 in 13 games since returning from the IL) have overcome injuries and both have been extremely productive when healthy and playing. How the Braves performed in their absences is a testament to the team’s depth and firepower.
All of it led to Tuesday night, when Freeman snatched a liner for the final out, launching a subdued (and dry) celebration. The Braves high fived, embraced one another and enjoyed the moment as “Victorious” by Panic! At The Disco blared throughout an empty Truist Park. The fanfare concluded with a team photo around the 2020 pennant that will join the many others hanging beyond right field.
“It was definitely weird,” Freeman said. “We were standing around, took a picture at the banner and that was it. There are guys who have already gone home. Definitely a different year. Usually I’d be soaked in champagne. Maybe we’ll save that for a celebration down the road here.”
The Braves will turn their attention to the postseason, where they’ll attempt to win their first series since 2001 and much more. They’ll be either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed – they’re one game ahead of the Cubs for the second spot – and will host their opponent in a best-of-three series at Truist Park.
If the Braves advance, they’ll continue their postseason run in MLB’s Texas bubble. But one step at a time. And that first step, claiming another division title and continuing a streak that at least allows fans to fantasize about an eventual run comparable to the 90s, was achieved Tuesday night.
“We’re a good ballclub,” Snitker said. “We’re dangerous. We have good pieces and it’s a well-rounded club. I think they see that. What they’ve been through, the confidence they should have, they hung together to win all these games and the division. They should feel good about things and feel very optimistic about our future.”