Braves dream season: Early-season success made for late-season cushion

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 the second of a seven-part series, 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: Early-season success

The cliché is: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

But for the 2018 Braves, how it started allowed for an easier finish.

The Braves started 19-11, building a lead cushion in the National League East they wouldn’t relinquish. The team was never below .500. Even through its brief rough patches, it stayed comfortably above water.

Consider what went into the first 30 games. They won a dramatic, drawn-out series with the Phillies, whom they’d go on to defeat in seven of 12 tries in the first couple of months. Those head-to-head wins mattered when the Braves closed their rivals out last weekend.

Dropping two of three in Washington was the Braves’ only series loss through 30 games. They split two in Chicago, which included the infamous bullpen meltdown in frigid conditions. They split in Cincinnati, where after two lifeless contests, they promoted Ronald Acuna and won their next two.

BradleyWretched to regal - Braves are division champs once again

They won six of their next seven after Cincinnati, taking the series in Philadelphia and sweeping the then first-place Mets. They assumed the first place mantle themselves, and many – including general manager Alex Anthopoulos, first baseman Freddie Freeman and others – bought the team as for real.

“We just had to wait for a couple guys to get here, and man when they got here, they made a huge impact,” Freeman said. “Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies. … They got to walk into winning. And hopefully we continue that for a long time.”

Albies propelled much of that run, blasting nine homers of his 34 hits. He produced 22 extra-base hits, the franchise record for a month. Acuna, meanwhile, added a burst of his own when he hit .382 across his first eight games, helping the Braves dominate that northeastern trip.

Just as people bought in, the Braves wilted for three days. The Giants came to town and annihilated them in a sweep. The skeptics grew louder, the enthusiasm turned to doubt, perceived reality set in.

The Braves responded with a 6-1 trip to Tampa Bay and Miami and a makeup in Chicago. It was the first of many road trips they would use as bounce-back material. They sat 10 games above .500 by the time they returned home.

A signature moment of their start, really their whole season, came during that stay in Atlanta. The Braves were about to lose two of three to the Marlins, an embarrassing end to what would’ve been a 2-4 homestand.

May 20: The day the Braves showed the “it factor” to which we commonly refer. The Braves entered the bottom of the ninth down 9-4. They came away victorious in perhaps their most improbable comeback of a year that’s included many.

Three Braves walked in the frame, starting with utilityman Ryan Flaherty, who would led the league in hitting for much of April but was supplanted by free agent signing Jose Bautista. The Braves posted five singles, a sacrifice fly, received an assist on a Marlins error and won 10-9.

PhotosBraves celebrate National League East title

Smart baseball, as manager Brian Snitker would call it. Small ball, as others may coin it. The Braves don’t have to hit every other ball over the wall. If ever there was a time they showed it, that Sunday afternoon was it.

“I do enjoy those situations,” said shortstop Dansby Swanson, who delivered the walk-off hit. “If the game’s going to be on the line I’d like to be up there, and I feel like everybody else in the dugout feels the same way with themselves. It just shows a lot about who we are and what we take pride in.”

Entering June with a 34-23 record was a testament to the team’s resiliency and road success. They still hold the league’s best visitor’s mark, while their home record (43-38) is better than its made out to be.

But don’t underestimate the value of the superb start. It solidified the confidence the Braves carry through the present day. The same they exhibited Tuesday, when they overcame a three-run deficit to defeat the Mets 7-3.

Comebacks are what have made these Braves. Their pride and expectation of winning was forged through the early season’s trials.

In case you missed it ...

Braves dream season part 1It all began with a walk-off win