Exactly five years ago, the Braves celebrated their last division title before soon embarking on baseball’s latest trend: a complete teardown. One done with the promise of sustainable success, done in hope of recapturing the mystique of the 1990s and devising a roster with embraceable talents and well-renowned flair.
Mission accomplished. The Braves are National League East champions. The cupboard is stacked. The financial flexibility is existent. The standard is set. The new glory days have begun.
The Braves clinched their 18th division title with a 5-3 win over the Phillies on Saturday. They were presented the opportunity to take the division themselves and defeated the Phillies three consecutive games to end the division race.
“This means everything,” said manager Brian Snitker while fighting off tears. “You know, you kind of sit back and wonder what this is going to feel like. When I was here as the third-base coach, we won the division, the wild card. It’s great. You wonder as a manager how it’ll feel. It’s even better than I anticipated.”
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Mike Foltynewicz took his throne as the Braves ace. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh before Odubel Herrera singled. He exited with two on and one out in the eighth to a resounding SunTrust Park ovation, to which he tipped his cap. The All-Star’s growth, especially mentally, has been paramount in the team’s turnaround.
“It’s pretty special to do it with this group of guys,” Foltynewicz said. “To do it in front of the home crowd like that is something special.”
Starter Jake Arrieta, the Phillies’ high-priced free-agent acquisition, couldn’t find the strike zone until pitch No. 9. Ronald Acuna swiped second after his leadoff walk. Johan Camargo swatted one past short to score Acuna and Inciarte.
The story of the Braves’ 2018 season cannot be told without Camargo’s narrative. After exceeding hopes a year ago, he had to compete for his third-base job. An injury slotted him onto the disabled list to start the season. He backed up Ryan Flaherty and Jose Bautista until late May.
Camargo wasn’t glorified as a prospect. In a system rich with blossoming youth, his work positioned him for a starting job. He’s hit .351 (39-for-111) with 11 doubles, six homers and 60 RBIs with runners in scoring position.
But the win wasn’t meant to be easy. Jesse Biddle was unable to strand Foltynewicz’s runners, as Snitker required three relievers to narrowly escape the eighth, when a 4-0 lead had dwindled to a run.
The Phillies’ historically poor defense helped the Braves get a run back. Adam Morgan couldn’t pick up an Inciarte grounder, then threw past first to advance him. He scored on Kurt Suzuki’s two-out single.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my life,” Inciarte said. “It’s a very emotional day for everybody.”
Perhaps the jubilation is better for no one than Freddie Freeman, who’s waited patiently through endless roster changes, a managerial move, a new front office and a new stadium. He never pouted or sought a trade. He endured loss and loss, in the midst of his prime, on the premise that it’d turn sooner than later.
He had his chance in the second inning. Acuna and Inciarte reached on two-out singles. Freeman bopped one over the second-base bag, scoring both.
“One hundred percent (this feels sweeter than the other title),” Freeman said. “I came in when we were winning, gone through four straight losing seasons, three 90-loss seasons. To win the division this year, it’s hard to put into words. It’s taken every guy in this clubhouse to win games this year.”
Arrieta lasted two innings, the shortest outing of the Cy Young winner’s career. The Braves could’ve entered the Arrieta (or other starters) sweepstakes. They opted for patience.
They were rewarded a division title, with plenty of room to maneuver after the postseason. They banked on internal growth, figuring their players would show them who they were in an assessment season.
A postseason berth wasn’t supposed to be part of that assessment. But their players proving who they are, and why they belong, made it so. The kids are no longer prospects. They still don’t know the magnitude of what they’ve accomplished.
“We had three or four defining-type trips,” Snitker said. “We had the big run with all the games and doubleheaders (22 games in 20 days). We had really tough road trips right before the break. ... We passed all the tests, checked all the boxes withstanding it all.
“We had our hearts torn out against the Red Sox that day. Then went on a 6-1 road trip. They are just never down. They’re never out of a game. It’s been fun to go along on the ride with them.”
The youth was never dazed. They re-energized the veterans, Freeman, Nick Markakis. They dominated the NL East. They’re competed with the league’s best. They even won on the west coast, a rarity for about any Braves team.
“I know how much this city’s been through on a yearly basis with a lot of things,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “It’s the kind of thing where we bounce back and rise up to the occasion. We wanted to do something for this city because the city deserved it, the people deserved it, our fans deserved it.”
This season marks the second division title since the Braves won 14 consecutive, an MLB record. They did so this time in perhaps the unlikeliest of ways.
In sports, it’s difficult to find the happy medium of seasoned and inexperienced. The Braves identified the perfect mix, even if it wasn’t consciously. Snitker, an organizational staple of four decades, has now experienced the latest peak of his life’s devotion.
“I’m just so happy for the guys,” Snitker said. “They’ve just been phenomenal. How they’ve hung with it the last few years. I’m very proud of them.”
As for the remaining eight games, the Braves can gun for homefield advantage – they’re three games behind the Cubs – or opt to take it easier. For now, they’re likely to see the NL West winner, maybe the Dodgers, who defeated them in the postseason that half-decade ago.
“No one picked us to win the division this year, and I’m sure no one’s going to pick us in the playoffs,” Freeman said. “(But) that’s our goal. We’re going to try to get the most important 11 wins.”
However it unfolds, the ebullient Braves have October baseball for which to prepare. And they boast the stars, depth and enthusiasm of one poised to be a difficult out.
That’s a pretty good evaluation year.