Because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, we haven’t had a chance to get to know these Braves the way we normally would. They didn’t start playing until July. The paying public hasn’t been allowed to watch in person. They’ve got some guys who weren’t here last year. They’ve got some who weren’t on the big-league roster six weeks ago. But here they are, and all we can say is …
Man, are they good.
They’ve played five postseason games. They’ve won them all. They’ve worked two postseason series. They’ve won both. It wasn’t so long ago – last week, to be exact – that we wondered if this franchise might never win another playoff round. Now we wonder if there’s any reason these guys can’t win two more.
The fatalism that lives inside every Atlantan has been getting pummeled. We weren’t sure the Braves could hit Cincinnati’s pitching, but they hit just enough. We questioned whether they’d trip over themselves against unimposing Miami, and they barely put a foot wrong. They completed their National League Division Series sweep by winning 7-0 on Thursday in Houston, Game 3 being the easiest of the batch.
Brian Snitker is 64. He has worked 44 years for this organization, as manager since May 2016. His spring training ended March 12. His summer camp began with his best player testing positive for COVID-19. At one point in September, his rotation was missing all six of the pitchers who’d been slated as starters. Yet here this baseball lifer sits, within sight of the World Series. Does he wonder, someone asked, why this and why now?
His response: “This still just unraveling. It’s all going so fast. Sometimes I do step back and think, ‘How the hell are we doing this?’ After that 60-game season, I was more exhausted than I ever was after 162 games. This has been tough on the whole industry to get through this. But we’re down to final four. Hats off to the entire game.”
Hats off to this manager and his players, who’ve torn through two rounds looking stronger with every game. The aggregate score of their five victories is 24-5. Over 49 postseason innings, the Braves have trailed after four. The team that appeared to have run out of starting arms has seen three youngish pitchers, all making their first playoff starts, compile an ERA of 1.26. (In the 1995 World Series, MVP Tom Glavine’s ERA was 1.29.) Their bullpen’s ERA – don’t get me going on this bullpen or we’ll be here all day – is 0.44.
“With young pitchers,” Snitker said, speaking of his starters, “you’ve got to stick with them.”
The Round 2 clincher was decided early. The Marlins left two on in the first, Kyle Wright surviving his first playoff inning by striking out Brian Anderson and getting a comebacker from Garrett Cooper, both on sliders. The Braves didn’t score in the second only because left fielder Corey Dickerson made a diving grab on Nick Markakis' liner, a ball StatCast assigned an XBA (expected batting average) of .880.
There was no Miami reprieve in the third. Ronald Acuna drew a leadoff walk off Sixto Sanchez, whose fastball was touching 100 mph. Freddie Freeman singled to left. Marcell Ozuna put the Braves ahead with a single to right. Travis d’Arnaud, the series MVP, doubled off the fence in right-center. The three pitches that broke the game open were delivered at 97, 98 and 95 mph. Here’s a little secret: These guys are pretty stout against good pitching.
About Wright: He was demoted to the Braves' alternate training site Aug. 20, having worked beyond the fourth inning only once in four starts. He’d walked 16 in 15 innings. His failure to launch was one of the reasons general manager Alex Anthopoulos was pilloried in many sectors – though not here, let’s note – for not moving to acquire a big-time starter at the Aug. 31 deadline. How big-time does a threesome of Wright, Ian Anderson and Max Fried look now?
After a September recall, Wright cut his walks – eight over 23 innings – and lowered his ERA from 7.20 to 5.21. Still not great, no. But his postseason ERA is, like Anderson’s, 0.00. Wright walked two in Game 3. He was touched for three hits, all singles. He struck out seven. He retired the final 10 Marlins he faced. He went six innings, his job done, handed it off to these relievers.
A word about Anthopoulos: The offseason seemed destined to be remembered for his inability to convince Josh Donaldson to re-up, but look now: The GM signed Ozuna, who led the National League in home runs and RBIs; signed d’Arnaud, the first-tier catcher the Braves have lacked since Brian McCann; and signed/re-signed (in one day) relievers Darren O’Day, Chris Martin and Will Smith. Donaldson wasn’t healthy enough to make the Twins' playoff roster. How’s that offseason look now?
But forget that. Ask instead: How might these next two weeks turn out? Either the Dodgers or Padres would mark a step up in class from the Reds and Marlins, but it’s not as if the Braves are Brand X. This team has won three consecutive division titles. It has snapped its playoff drought. (Over eight days, these Braves have won more postseason series than the 2000-19 Braves combined.)
These Braves can hit with anybody, and you can’t pitch any better than notching four shutouts in five postseason games. Maybe they won’t win the World Series, but for the first time in a very long while, we’re forced to admit: “Know what? Maybe they will.”
Three months ago, Freeman was fighting a 104.5-degree fever and praying not to die. Now this great player is closer to his sport’s ultimate prize than he has ever been. “We’re trying to live in the moment,” he said Thursday. "(In July) I was just happy to try to make opening day, and now we’re eight wins from (winning) a World Series.”
They are indeed. Man, are they good. Man, is this fun to watch.