Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis (right) is mobbed by Dansby Swanson and teammates after hitting a walk off 3-RBI home run to beat the Phillies 8 to 5 in a MLB baseball home opening game on Thursday, March 29, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Braves dream season: It all began with a walk-off win

The Braves captured the National League East with a remarkable season that was imagined by few. So many things went the Braves’ way that led to the first postseason trip since 2013. In a seven-part series that begins today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will look back at some of the many highlights of the wonderful journey that captured the imagination of the city.

Today: Walk it off

Maybe the Braves showed us they were contenders on Day 1.

We just didn’t know it.

It was opening day at SunTrust Park. The Braves trailed the Phillies 5-0 in the sixth inning. The offense had been unenthusiastic. Julio Teheran had been so-so. A sold-out crowd had little reason to believe they were watching the eventual National League East champs.

What came after was the 2018 Braves’ staple trait. They engineered five consecutive runs before Nick Markakis’ three-run homer gave them their first win of the year. It was the first opening day walk-off homer in Atlanta Braves history, and it came against the very team that dueled them atop the standings for the next six months.

“Yes, I guess you could (say that was the first time they showed an ‘it’ factor),” manager Brian Snitker said over the weekend. “That’s a good comparison. Even last year, this group, the core group in here, were never out of games. They kept fighting, fighting. 

“The beauty of this club is they are a bunch of baseball rats. These guys love to play baseball. You see them out there in the afternoon doing their drills and the extra things and in the cage. Nobody doesn’t like to work here. These guys all love to play baseball. That’s really refreshing.”

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Snitker had been ejected from that game, the first of two ejections in that opening series. It set the tone for another recurring theme: He sticks up for his players and his players respond with their play.

Freddie Freeman got it started for the Braves in the sixth with a two-run homer. Ozzie Albies hit a lead-off homer in the eighth, while Preston Tucker (remember him?) supplied another pair of RBIs that tied the game.

It felt improbable, even though the team had a knack for rallying late in 2017. It was the largest opening day deficit the Braves overcame since 1900.

“It’s nice to play the baseball that’s going to help us win games,” Freeman said at the time. “We’re not going to hit the ball over the fence consistently like we did tonight, we’ve got to do the little things – bunting guys over, getting in scoring position and putting pressure on the defense. And we did that tonight.”

Most shared Freeman’s assumption, but the Braves had more power in them than anyone anticipated. They’ve cranked 173 homers, seventh in the NL and 18th in the majors. They have three players who’ve exceeded 20 bombs, and nine who’ve elapsed 10. Home-run leader Ronald Acuna (26) wasn’t even on the opening day roster.

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It’s been a team-wide effort. Acuna wasn’t always Superman, and note he missed a month due to injury. Albies has dropped off since his spectacular start. Ender Inciarte hasn’t been the same hit machine. Even Freeman and Markakis endured elongated slumps.

Yet there was always a solution, a means of picking up another’s slack. The Braves are building a team stacked with depth. They want options if someone’s hurt or struggling. Not every team has a Charlie Culberson.

March 29 previewed the Braves better than anyone imagined. The comeback, contributions from stars, the non-stars with timely hits and a manager who battled for his players.

That game feels like a distant memory, but it staged one of the most memorable seasons in Braves history.

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