A terrific Braves team has a clunker of a day. It happens

The Braves won the 2021 World Series. They’ve since gotten better. Sometimes it happens, though not often. It has happened twice over the past 20 years. The Phillies won the 2008 World Series; the next year, they improved by one win. The Astros won the 2017 Series; the next year, they improved by two wins.

Should the Braves lose their final 13 games – they won’t but bear with me – they still would show an uptick of five wins (from 88 to 93) over last season. Should they go 7-6, they’d finish with 12 more wins than last season’s champs. This is stunning stuff.

Their 2021 winning percentage was .547; this year’s is .624. Over MLB’s playoff era, which dates to 1969, no reigning titlist has improved by that much. From 2000 to 2001, the Yankees rose from .540 to .594. From 1974 to 1975, the A’s moved from .556 to .605. From 1987 to 1988, the Twins climbed from .525 to .562.

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Caveat: This doesn’t mean the Braves will win the 2022 World Series. The teams just mentioned didn’t repeat as champs. The 1988 Twins didn’t make the playoffs. (No wild card then.) But the Braves’ rate of growth tells us two things, both of which we knew or could have guessed:

1. The Braves won a year ago with a team that was the worst of their four consecutive National League East winners – a team that, until August, was sub-.500.

2. Given the aggregation of youngish players on long-term contracts, this organization shouldn’t have peaked.

Again, we emphasize caution. When the Cubs won in 2016, a decade of dominance seemed at hand. They haven’t reached another World Series, and now they’re rebuilding. The Astros are stuck where the Braves of the ‘90s were – on a great run but only one Series title. The Dodgers are bound for an 11th postseason in succession; their one title came in COVID-shortened 2020.

The Braves have played their way back into the tournament, which really is all a team can do over the six-month regular season. They won’t sneak up on anybody in these playoffs. They should be one of four 100-game winners. FanGraphs gives four teams a better than 10% chance of winning it all, the Braves among them. (No team, not even the Dodgers, is afforded more than a 17.1% chance. The playoffs, as you’ve heard, are a crapshoot.)

ExploreBraves sloppy late in loss to Nationals

Credit these Braves for consolidating the gains of October 2021. Even without Freddie Freeman, this is a batting order without real holes. (Though Matt Olson has lately done little.) They have enough starting pitching. Recent fears about Kenley Jansen notwithstanding, this is among baseball’s best bullpens. They might have to beat the Mets and Dodgers to reach the World Series, but somebody will have to beat the Braves, too.

The Nationals, who haven’t beaten many people, beat the Braves 3-2 on Wednesday. Ahead 2-0, the home team stopped hitting. Jesse Chavez threw a 1-2 change-up that Joey Meneses hit a mile to put the Nats in front. A 12-pitch Dansby Swanson at-bat ended with him striking out into a double play. On Michael Harris’ eighth-inning single, third-base coach Ron Washington flashed a late stop sign that Austin Riley obeyed; William Contreras, alas, had nowhere to go but backward into a key out.

Said manager Brian Snitker: “As a base runner, you’ve got to focus on the guy in front of you, nowhere else. … We can control our base running.”

Ah, well. The Braves were 13-4 in September. They had won 11 of 12 against Washington. They were due a clunker.

Back to the bigger picture. Last year’s Braves won 11 postseason games without Ronald Acuña. He’s back. Harris and Spencer Strider will finish 1-2, or 2-1, in Rookie of the Year voting. Vaughn Grissom’s arrival came a year or two ahead of schedule, but he’s a keeper. Contreras played almost no role in last year’s autumnal run; he’ll be a huge part of this one. Kyle Wright worked two games, both in relief, in the 2021 postseason; he’s on the verge of his 20th win.

It wasn’t until they beat L.A. in Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS that Snitker believed last year’s Braves could go the distance. After what happened then, and what has been happening these past four months, he has a better feeling about this team.

“I have confidence in these guys,” he said. “Even when a guy’s not going great, you know there’s something really good on (the) back end. These guys have been through the wars enough. There’s not going to be any panic in them. They know what we’re capable of doing.”

They’re capable of winning it all. They did last year. This team is better than that one.