The Braves could have given up on 2021. They didn’t
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Braves' Austin Riley, right, high fives Adam Duvall as Freddie Freeman looks on after Riley hit a two-run home run during the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Phoenix. The Braves won 6-1. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Apologies for being blunt, but the Braves could still blow this. As of Wednesday morning, they led Philadelphia by three games with 11 – maybe 12 – remaining, including Friday’s resumption of the suspended affair with San Diego. (The rainout with Colorado would be played Oct. 4, the day after the regular season is set to end, if its outcome could make a difference, playoff-wise.) The belief here remains that they won’t blow it, but we’ve said the same of other Braves teams and been wrong ... oh, at least once.
At best, the Braves are pretty good. Not so long ago, they weren’t even that. Only on Aug. 5, after Game No. 109, did this become, by definition, a winning team. Still, these Braves never quite played themselves into a hole so deep as to quash all hope. Yeah, they’re lucky to be stationed in the National League East, but a team grown accustomed to winning could have shrugged and said, “It’s not our year” and booked lavish vacations for the first full week in October.
The Braves, to their credit, never gave up on 2021. They lost Ronald Acuna and kept going. They lost Marcell Ozuna and kept going. They lost two catchers to the injury list in a single day. They kept going. They thought they might see Mike Soroka return to health in May, and then in August. They’re still waiting, but they’ve kept going. They spent more than five months trying to get a grip on this eel of a season, yet their magic number could be down to single digits by Thursday.
Said manager Brian Snitker, speaking Tuesday: “I’ve very proud of how these guys have hung in there under some adverse situations – all the talk about .500. ‘When are you going to get it going?’ ‘When’s Freddie (Freeman) going to get it going?’ We’ve been through a lot this year with all the injuries. We treaded water there for a while. We stayed relevant. We gave ourselves a chance, and then we went on a run and vaulted into first place.”
This outfield bears no resemblance to the outfield of opening day. Acuna is recovering from ACL surgery. Ozuna is in limbo. Cristian Pache isn’t on the active roster. Ender Inciarte was released. But they’ve gotten 37 homers and 103 RBIs from four men acquired in July who were deemed surplus to requirements elsewhere. General manager Alex Anthopoulos bought in bulk because, he said, “We needed a lot of players.” He found enough to make a difference.
Credit: Atlanta Braves
John Schuerholz’s July 1993 acquisition of Fred McGriff ranks among the greatest deadline deals. McGriff gave his new team 3.2 worth of WAR (wins above replacement) over 68 games. The outfield foursome of Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler has mustered a collective WAR of 2.8 since its arrival.
And it hasn’t just been the deadliners. Freeman got it going, which you figured he would. Austin Riley got it going in a way nobody figured. Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson haven’t hit for average, but nobody cares about average anymore. Each of the Braves’ infielders has at least 26 homers and 80 RBIs. There’s no Acuna and no Ozuna, but the Braves rank second in the National League in homers and OPS.
Snitker: “This has been a rough year. I am proud of how guys stayed consistent. That’s the biggest thing. The preparation, how they played, and their energy – it was very consistent. Nobody hung their heads when we lost big guys in our lineup. I don’t think anybody was looking at a woe-is-me situation. It was like, ‘We’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep playing, we’re going to keep showing up.’ They kept working. They kept being consistent in their work and how they played. They gave themselves a chance. A lot of our young players did. They stayed within themselves and allowed themselves a chance to get it off the ground.”
On its record, this is the worst Braves team of the the most-recent four. The first three won division titles. This bunch has positioned itself to finish first again, albeit in baseball’s worst division. That mightn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but go ask the Phillies, who last reached the playoffs in 2011, if they would trade places.