Bradley’s Buzz: The Braves’ surprising - though not shocking - loss

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

The Dodgers, Braves and Mets were 313-173 over the regular season. They were 3-8 in the playoffs. The National League champ will be San Diego, which finished 22 games out of first place, or Philadelphia, which finished third in the East. We can’t call these unintended consequences – MLB knew exactly what it was doing when it added a sixth wild card – and we needn’t get carried away in our rush to judgment.

The Dodgers, Braves and Mets were not houses built on shifting sand. They weren’t destined to fold at the approach of the first brisk wind. The Dodgers were among the best teams ever. They outscored opponents by 334 runs. (Together, the Braves and Mets outscored opponents by 346 runs.) The Dodgers were eliminated seven hours after the Braves had been eliminated, neither having forced even a Game 5. The Mets were gone six days earlier.

MLB introduced its first wild cards in the 1995 playoffs. By 1997, a wild card – the Marlins, who’d finished nine games behind the Braves but beat them in the NLCS – won the World Series. Come 2002, both Series qualifiers were wild cards. Come 2003, the wild-card Marlins won it all again. By then, we’d taken to calling the postseason a crapshoot. Between 2006 and 2014, the Cardinals and Giants won the Series five times. Not once did either have the best record over a full season.

The temptation is great to label the Dodgers, Braves and Mets as choking chumps. The Mets might qualify; they won 101 games but blew a 10-1/2 game division lead. The Dodgers and Braves do not. Each was tied 1-1 in its NLDS series. Each lost Games 3 and 4 on the road. The Braves never led over their two games in Philadelphia, losing by an aggregate 17-4. The Dodgers wasted a 3-0 lead in their Game 4.

Baseball isn’t football. The stronger team doesn’t win 90% of the time. Entering the playoffs, FanGraphs afforded none of the four 100-game winners – the Astros are the other – even a 20% chance of winning the World Series. The added tier of games rendered an unpredictable month less predictable. Was it better to keep playing than have a Round 1 bye? So it would seem, but two series aren’t conclusive proof.

I picked the Braves to beat the Phillies in four. Why wouldn’t you pick the team that won 14 more games than its opponent? Was I shocked? No. This is October baseball. Nothing is shocking. To suggest this reversal proves the Braves are intrinsically flawed is to ignore a glaring truth: They won the 2021 World Series with a record not dissimilar to Philadelphia’s.

Yes, they allowed Freddie Freeman to leave, but Freeman’s Dodgers fell in an even bigger upset. L.A. finished 22 games ahead of San Diego; the Dodgers were 14-5 against the Padres. Didn’t matter.

The Braves were undone by their starting pitching. Max Fried wasn’t himself in Game 1, the same Fried who hadn’t yielded a run in Houston on that glorious night of Nov. 2, 2021. Was Fried feeling the effects of a lingering flu? Maybe. Did he tell his manager he was too weak to go? No.

The Braves chose Spencer Strider to start Game 3 in Citizens Bank Park. That was a mild surprise, at least to me. Strider is a rookie; he was coming off an oblique issue. Charlie Morton is 38 and has a postseason pedigree. The Braves picked Strider over Morton because the younger man has electric stuff. Strider was gone in the third inning. The next day, after taking a liner off his elbow, Morton was likewise gone in the third.

Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley went 3-for-31 with 12 strikeouts. Their outfield contrived to play a ball off the wall into an inside-the-park home run by catcher J.T. Realmuto. Only Matt Olson and Travis d’Arnaud, who had four of the Braves’ five homers and 10 of their 13 RBIs, did much hitting. Michael Harris was 1-for-14. Eddie Rosario, the 2021 NLCS MVP, was 0-for-8.

If this happens over a four-game series in June, you shrug and say, “Who do they play next?” In October, there is no next. The Phillies weren’t better than the Braves – weren’t even close – over 162 games. The Phillies were better than the Braves – and not just by a little – over four games.

It’s disappointing, sure. These Braves were good enough to win the World Series. So were the Dodgers, who’ve made the playoffs 10 years running, prevailing only in COVID-shortened 2020. Sometimes you win it all when maybe you shouldn’t, which is why the Braves’ triumph of 2021 set off such glee. Sometimes you don’t when you should. As they say in baseball, that’s baseball.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and collated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Bradley’s Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’d be obliged if you’d give it a try.

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