Last year, the Braves’ run to the National League East title capped an unexpected surge that vaulted the franchise out of its dark days. This year’s division championship validates the organization’s return to prominence.
It also carries two important distinctions from 2018: This one was an expected. Not by the experts, whose preseason forecasts ignored the Braves in favor of paper champions, but by the players and coaches inside the clubhouse.
The other biggest difference? This was a step. The Braves aren’t fazed by an underdog story any longer. They tasted October last year. They dabbled on the biggest stage. They knocked on the door of baseball’s grand stage. Now, as manager Brian Snitker worded it, they plan to kick that door in.
Step one was completed Friday night, when players and coaches celebrated in similar fashion to last season. Mike Foltynewicz cruised through eight scoreless innings – he pitched brilliantly in the clincher a year ago too – and the Braves defeated the Giants 6-0 to secure a second consecutive NL East title in front of their fans at SunTrust Park.
“I’m so happy for those guys in there,” Snitker said. “These years are so long. It just takes so much out of you to get here and wait for that last out to be made. It’s like, ‘God, I’ve been waiting for that last out since February.’ But I’m proud of the way the guys came through again. The injuries starting out, the injuries towards the end to some key guys, and how everyone stepped up and kept playing the game. They just came playing the game in front of them. It’s a pretty special group in there.”
When discussing young players establishing themselves, Snitker always invokes a variation of “they have to do it across several seasons” to prove they belong. What makes great players great isn’t the peaks; it’s the consistency.
Snitker’s Braves are comparable. Becoming a model franchise isn’t about a year or two of dominance – nobody knows that better than the Braves, who produced one of the greatest runs in sports history with 14 straight division titles – it’s about repeated success. The organization is on its way to becoming the model again.
In many eyes, this team was supposed to regress. The 2019 Braves were young, took advantage of a weaker division and arrived sooner than they should have. Yet rather than drop back to earth, the 2019 Braves have emerged as the greatest threat to the two-time NL champion Dodgers.
“We weren’t supposed to do it this year,” Snitker said. “When we were talking in March, most people picked us to finish fourth. But we said back then, that’s why we play the games.”
Cue first baseman Freddie Freeman’s response when asked if the team was aware of the gloomy preseason predictions: “We all knew that, but here we are spraying champagne. So who cares?”
Credit should first go to the Braves’ infrastructure, which has helped them extract the most out of nearly every journeyman veteran or 20-year-old up-and-comer. General manager Alex Anthopoulos and Snitker have built a roster featuring everything you’d want: Power, speed, defense, fire-throwing arms, crafty arms, experience, youth, versatility and team-friendly contracts.
It’s baseball nirvana. And that’s without much of this season going according to plan.
Expected-ace Foltynewicz was demoted to the minors, enduring the year from hell before his resurrection peaked with Friday’s showing. A.J. Minter, Arodys Vizcaino, Jesse Biddle and Dan Winkler were among the bullpen pieces who veered off course.
There were injuries – Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson among them. The team’s continuously growing depth prevailed, from Francisco Cervelli showing out in New York to Rafael Ortega’s grand slam against Los Angeles.
“We’ve got a really special team,” Freeman said. “We knew we had a special team in spring training. Then the front office gets Dallas Keuchel in June, the relievers in July, the waivers in August. Everybody’s helped win this division. And I think we have a real good chance of winning this thing.”
The pitching was up and down. The bullpen was initially thought to be an issue before players found the roles. The swift transactions Freeman mentioned didn’t hurt either: Anthopoulos added All-Star Shane Greene, wily veteran Mark Melancon and command artist Chris Martin at the trade deadline. That remedied much of the problem.
Every bullpen undergoes changes throughout a season, but the Braves’ was completely overhauled outside of one person. Luke Jackson, whose name made fans cringe after opening day, became a pivotal contributor to that group. Who would’ve expected that?
Rotation-wise, the Braves have reason to be encouraged. Mike Soroka, 22, was an All-Star in his first full season in the majors. Max Fried made major strides across his first full season as a starter. Foltynewicz revived himself. Julio Teheran turned in a production season. Keuchel wound up worth the $13 million.
Offensively, these Braves set records. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is more productive than anticipated when he signed a one-year, $23 million deal in the winter. Anthopoulos bet on his former MVP acquisition as a difference maker. He was right.
“It’s been special, man,” Donaldson said. “It’s hard to put into words. They come to play every day and they have fun doing it. We have that belief we’re going to win every day, and when we don’t, the next day we expect to win it. It’s been pretty special.”
Ronald Acuna surpassed expectations, chasing the fifth 40-40 season of all-time. His fingerprints were all over Friday’s clinching win. Acuna doubled, homered (his 41st) and scored three runs. He’s had many a game with similar impact.
Freeman has the team he’s waited for, quietly lasting through forgettable seasons, administration changes and promises of brighter days ahead with a suburban ballpark. He’s had the best season of his career, both in individual production and team achievements, with more to come.
Let’s not forget catcher Brian McCann. The beloved Brave valiantly returned home, believing the organization was ready to compete for banners. He slapped a two-run homer Friday – with his family sitting first row – to truly come full circle.
“I can’t describe it,” he said. “This is why I wanted to come back. I really wanted to do this. We’re a really talented team, top to bottom, all phases. We’ve got all phases covered here. We’re a really good baseball team.
“We’re ready. We’ve got it all covered. We’ve got the guys who want the big moment. When you start getting into the postseason, you need guys who, when the lights shine the brightest, they show up. This team has a bunch of those guys.”
McCann’s homer was Freeman’s favorite part of the clinching game. It likewise meant a lot to Snitker, who’s known McCann since he was a minor leaguer.
“That was awesome,” he said. “I’m so glad we got to experience that. I’m so glad I got to experience that with him. We go way, way back. He’s such a special player, special friend, special person. I’m really glad he was back there when that last out was made.”
Now the Braves can shift their attention to the postseason, an extravaganza in which they’ll likely participate more often than not over the next decade. Their unique blend, from the human-analytic balance in the front office to the boss-family dynamic between staff and players to the youth-experience mix all around, should keep them in the playoff conversation for quite some time.
When Josh Tomlin – that’s another unheralded contributor – registered the final out Friday, it began a new streak for these Braves. It reminded why this organization is aptly compared to the one of 1990s glory. In fact, the Braves notched consecutive division titles for the first time since that run.
Most importantly, it set them up to avenge their ousting last October. This time isn’t about getting there. It’s about winning it.
“We knocked on the door last year,” Snitker said, repeating (in less colorful terms) what he told his team moments earlier. “I’m hoping we kick it in this year. I know we went in (last year) hoping we could win the series. I think we’re going to go into the division series this year expecting to win.”
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