The regular season is a wrap and the Braves will face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2019 NLDS.
While the Braves finished their series in Queens with 7-6 extra-innings loss to the Mets on Sunday, the Cardinals (91-71) pounded the Cubs 9-0 to clinch the National League Central over Milwaukee by one game. Their reward is a trip to Atlanta for Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.
“It didn’t matter to me one way or another (if we faced Cardinals or Brewers),” manager Brian Snitker said. “They’re both really good teams. They’re both playing great. It should be a great series.”
Certainly, no one will assert the Braves are firing on all cylinders entering the series. They were a mediocre 8-11, including being swept by the Mets this weekend, to close the season. The Braves did, however, accrue an overall successful campaign in which the franchise set multiple offensive records and secured a 97-65 record, its best since 2003, and the NL’s No. 2 seed.
But the Braves are entering the postseason limping. Every game since Sept. 20 was more about escaping unscathed than the result. They’d already lost their two most versatile bench contributors in Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo.
Their regulars didn’t make it to October without ailments either. Outfielder Ronald Acuna was shut down last week after suffering a left groin strain in Kansas City. He’s expected to be good for Game 1, but there’s no telling how he’ll perform when he returns.
First baseman Freddie Freeman has persisted through pain in his right elbow created by bone spurs since mid-September. Freeman has had the spurs for years, though for the pain to sharpen at this juncture is an inconvenience the Braves could ill afford.
After four days off, Freeman rejoined the team in New York. He played in all three games, leaving Sunday after two at-bats as planned. He’s hit .125 (4 for 32) in his past 11 games. Freeman has confidently said he’s OK and will be ready for Thursday without complications.
Josh Donaldson has likewise stumbled to the finish line. The Braves big bopper — who proved one of winter’s best free-agent signings — has hit .176/.275/.265 in his last nine games. He was given Sunday off.
Dansby Swanson has been up-and-down since returning from a heel injury, posting a four-hit game and four-strikeout game last week. From the Braves’ perspective, they’re just happy to have him and Nick Markakis back in the mix after both players were sidelined earlier in the month.
Even with those developments, there was a reason this was one of the greatest offenses in franchise history (its 855 runs were second most for a Braves team). The Braves boast a rich collection of sluggers and high-I.Q. hitters. They’ll need them to shake off the rust come Thursday.
Mike Soroka went five innings Sunday, allowing three runs and striking out seven. He finishes with a 2.68 ERA in his first full season (174-2/3 innings), the fifth-best result in the majors and lowest ERA for a qualifying rookie since 2003 (Jose Fernandez, 2.19).
He’ll likely start Game 3 in St. Louis, but Soroka said that decision hasn’t been made. The earliest he could go on full rest is Game 2.
“We haven’t talked about that,” he said. “I know they wanted to make sure everybody was rested going into it. I think that’ll be determined in the next day or so.”
Snitker is confident in his rotation and said the team won’t announce its plans until later in the week. “We can go some different ways next week depending on how we want to go.”
Dallas Keuchel will likely start Game 1 for the Braves. The veteran southpaw earned a 3.75 ERA over 112-2/3 innings. He’s the most playoff-tested of the Braves’ postseason rotation, appearing in 10 October games and posting a 3.31 ERA in 51-2/3 frames.
Mike Foltynewicz, who pitched four innings Saturday, is lined up to start Game 2, though the Braves haven’t announced their rotation’s order yet. Manager Brian Snitker maintained it would be opponent-driven, and the team didn’t know who it’d play until Sunday.
And while some might be worried about the Braves’ slow finish, they don’t seem to be. From the manager’s chair to the rotation to the bullpen, the Braves feel they’re made for a postseason run.
“I’m very confident in everybody, top to bottom,” catcher Brian McCann said. “We have all phases covered. We can beat you in a lot of different ways. It’ll be fun.”
Soroka added: “It doesn’t get better (than the playoffs). You play tournaments, Low-A championships, and it’s all leading to the major league playoffs. It’s everything, right? Being able to harness that adrenaline and put it to us is going to be the biggest part for us.”
The Cardinals are back in the postseason after a four-year drought, which is considered an eternity in St. Louis, where baseball is religion. It surely wasn’t a conventional route to the postseason.
St. Louis was 44-44 at the All-Star break. They appeared less armed than the Brewers and Cubs, who each won 95 games a season ago (Milwaukee secured their 96th in a tiebreaker). The Cardinals didn’t make any noise at the deadline either.
Yet here they are, one of the great historic franchises of the game, back in the postseason. They’re led by Jack Flaherty, Max Fried’s friend who’s emerged into an ace through the second half of the season.
“They’re a great team and they have been all year, especially late” Soroka said. “You’re facing a team that’s hot, a team that’s been rolling, a team that can do some damage.”
The Braves flew back to New York after Sunday’s game and will have Monday off. The team has workouts set for Tuesday and Wednesday before Game 1 on Thursday at SunTrust Park. Executives and coaches will meet multiple times in that span to finalize the NLDS roster, which doesn’t have to be announced until Thursday morning.
“We’re ready to roll and it’s going to be fun,” McCann said. “The playoff time is whoever executes the best wins the games. You have to play mistake-free baseball when October comes.”
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