Did the Braves choke? No. Will they be back? Oh, yes indeed

Atlanta Braves players including Tyler Matzek (far left), Travis d'Arnaud (center) and Max Fried (second from right) watch as the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate their 4-3 win in Game 7 of NLCS Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.(Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Atlanta Braves players including Tyler Matzek (far left), Travis d'Arnaud (center) and Max Fried (second from right) watch as the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate their 4-3 win in Game 7 of NLCS Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.(Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

This one hurts worse than most, worse maybe than any since 1996. This wasn’t a Braves’ team that fell at the first hurdle. It beat the Reds, which some weren’t sure it would. It swept the Marlins. It surged ahead of the best team in baseball 3-1 in the NLCS, which put these Braves one game from the World Series, and we all know how long it had been since the Braves had graced either event.

(Last NLCS — 2001. Lost 4-1 to Arizona. Last World Series — 1999. Swept by the Yankees.)

So this, if not new, was definitely different. These Braves looked for all the world as if they could … go … all … the … way. If they’d held two-run leads in Game 5 or Game 7, they’d have eliminated the best team on the board. No knock on Tampa Bay, but if you can handle the Dodgers, you can handle anybody. The Braves almost handled the Dodgers. Key word: “Almost.”

In the final accounting, the 2020 Braves did a couple of things we’d never seen them do, which given their October history is saying something. They’d never allowed 11 runs in a postseason first inning. (They yielded 10 last year.) And they’d never, in their Atlanta manifestation, blown a 3-1 series lead. The 1958 Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn led you-know-who 3-1 in the Fall Classic, only to fall in seven.

I know what you’re saying: “If you’re up 3-1, you have to win the series. If you don’t, you’ve choked.” That said, not winning a best-of-seven after leading 3-1 has happened 13 times. (Fourteen if you count the 2004 Yankees, who famously led the Red Sox 3-0 in the ALCS.) It happened to maybe the greatest Cardinals team ever against Detroit in 1968. It happened to another Cardinals team in 1996, when they were outscored 32-1 over Games 5-7 by … why, the Braves.

The same Braves who would then blow a 2-0 lead against the Yankees in the World Series.

That example shows us how fine the line is between clutch and choke. The ’96 Braves managed to be labeled both. Over five games spanning the NLCS and the World Series, the Braves outscored the Cards/Yanks by an aggregate 48-3. The same Braves then lost four in a row. They’ve yet to live it down.

Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but baseball is weird. Remember how the Cardinals did after scoring 10 runs in the first inning to eliminate the Braves last year? They were swept by Washington in the NLCS after scoring two runs in the first three games. Remember how the Dodgers did after scoring 11 in the first of Game 3 against the Braves? (You should. It just happened.) They lost 10-2 in Game 4.

This will sound like I’m making excuses, and maybe I am. But I cannot in good conscience lump this team with so many of its predecessors. It didn’t underachieve. On the contrary, a team working without FIVE starting pitchers on whom it was relying — Soroka, Hamels, Foltynewicz, Newcomb and King Felix – nearly played its way into the Fall Classic. We should never lose sight of that.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Despite the outcome of the NLCS, Braves manager Brian Snitker remains positive about the experience gained and the future of the club.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

As manager Brian Snitker said early Monday: “You don’t lose your entire starting rotation and get within a game of the World Series. This was nothing to hang our head about. This was an unbelievable run.”

Said Freddie Freeman: “I think everybody can lay their heads on the pillow tonight and know they didn’t leave anything in the tank.”

Yes, Game 5 turned when Marcell Ozuna left third base too soon. Yes, Game 7 might have been different had Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley not run into outs on one Nick Markakis grounder. But this is baseball. Things happen. It took the Dodgers a while to get going, but they wound up outhitting and outpitching the Braves over seven games. Given that these Dodgers led the majors in runs and ERA over the 60-game irregular season, should we have been surprised?

The difference in the series was that the Dodgers had one last arm to throw at the Braves. Julio Urias worked the final three innings of Game 7. The Braves didn’t manage a baserunner. According to Statcast, they produced only two balls that qualified as “hard hit.” The first was Freeman’s liner leading off the eight; the second was Austin Riley’s first-pitch flyball to center that ended the series.

In spring 2016, Urias was, according to Baseball America, the sport’s No. 4 prospect. That’s how deep these Dodgers are, and not by accident. They could save one of the sport’s prized talents for a vital Game 3 start and then redeploy him as a de facto closer in Game 7.

The longer the series went, the greater the chance the Dodgers' depth would tell. That’s why Game 5 marked the Braves' best closeout chance. They led 2-0 after three unbelievable innings from A.J. Minter, making his first and possibly last career start. That was the night Will Smith, catcher, hit a three-run homer off Will Smith, pitcher, on a 3-2 fastball. For all the good work Will Smith, pitcher, did this season, that was his flaw: He yielded eight home runs in 22 innings.

Game 7 was lost when Chris Martin, whom the Braves consider their best reliever, couldn’t find a put-away pitch against Cody Bellinger. With the count 2-2, Martin threw a sinker, then a cutter, then another cutter. Bellinger fouled them off. Martin’s eighth pitch to Bellinger was sinker that didn’t sink. It landed in the right-field seats. And here we think again of depth.

Bellinger had a poor regular season and hadn’t done much — he was 4-for-24 with nine strikeouts — in the NLCS. But still: He’s Cody Bellinger, the 2016 rookie of the year and 2019 National League MVP. The Dodgers are so blessed that such a talent hits sixth in their batting order.

As for Martin: Nobody drafted him. He worked loading trucks for UPS at DFW Airport and at an appliance warehouse. When a friend suggested he give baseball another try, his first stop was with the unaffiliated Grand Prairie AirHogs. In 2017 he worked for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan.

The great lesson Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos learned from two years with the Dodgers was the value of depth. That in mind, he has moved heaven and Earth to fill out this Braves roster, 1 through 40, with quality. Still, he has had three years to work. The Dodgers of Andrew Friedman have been at this a while longer, and they’re not owned by Liberty Media. They’re owned, partially, by Magic Johnson.

The Braves are getting there. Cristian Pache mightn’t have gotten an NLCS at-bat had Adam Duvall not hurt himself in Game 1. Pache, who’s 21, had RBIs in four consecutive playoff games. Ian Anderson, 22, mightn’t have made the playoff roster had Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels been healthy. Over Anderson’s first 18-1/3 innings of postseason work, three different opponents failed to score. Riley, 23, won Game 1 with a ninth-inning homer. Bryse Wilson, 22, worked six shutout innings — one hit, one walk — in Game 4. It was his eighth big-league start.

Ronald Acuna? So he didn’t have a great postseason. He’s 23. And let’s not forget: Of all the Braves' gifted young pitchers, Soroka stands first among equals. He should be back next year. He’s 23.

Freeman again: “There’s a lot of positives to take from this … We for sure changed the narrative that’s gone on the last 19 years here.”

And again: “We’ve gotten over that hump. We’re ready to roll for a lot of years now.”

Baseball can be the great deceiver. The Cubs looked destined to reign forever when they won the 2016 World Series. They haven’t been back since. As excellent as the Dodgers are, their last World Series triumph was in 1988. Not every great-looking team fulfills its manifest destiny.

The belief here is that these Braves will. Next year, maybe. Some year, surely.

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