Three times running, the rebuilt Braves have finished first. After the latest clinching – for the third consecutive year, the deed was done Sept. 22 – Marlins manager Don Mattingly deemed them “the gold standard.”
Here’s where you skeptics snort and say, “Gold? That 10-run inning last October was a lead balloon!” And you’re not wrong. The Braves have again gotten good at getting to October; they haven’t managed to linger long once there. (Last time they won a postseason series: 2001, which seems a space odyssey ago.) But still: You can’t win a World Series if you don’t qualify for the tournament. The Braves are great at qualifying. Give them that.
Said Anthopoulos: “The one thing we weren’t going to do was take short cuts to try to win the division. If the right thing was to put guys on the injured list or to hold out Travis d’Arnaud and (Tyler) Flowers at the beginning of the year to stay healthy and stay safe, even though they were cleared to play. We just didn’t take any chances. I’m proud that we went about it the right way. We put health of players first and safety first for staff, and it still worked out for us.”
This latest ride has been maybe their strangest since 1993, the year Fred McGriff showed up and the press box caught fire and the Giants were beaten because they won only 103 games. This season, such as it has been, didn’t get going until the swelter of summer. The big news on the Fourth of July was that the franchise cornerstone tested positive. By the time the much-delayed opener came around, Freddie Freeman was back but Cole Hamels had an ailing arm.
Mike Foltynewicz, the 2018 All-Star who started four of the Braves' nine postseason games the past two seasons, was designated for assignment after one start. Nobody claimed him, so he’s still a Brave, though he hasn’t been seen in two months. Sean Newcomb (lasted four starts before being demoted. Felix Hernandez, once the best pitcher in baseball, came to camp with the Braves but decided he’d rather not work in a pandemic year. Max Fried became the best pitcher in baseball but suffered back spasms. (He has returned, praise be.) Mike Soroka tore his Achilles on Aug. 3. (If all goes well, he’ll return in 2021.)
The Braves clinched in the irregular season’s 55th game. Bryse Wilson was the starting pitcher Tuesday, making him the 13th starter this team has deployed. Braves. Fried has 10 starts. Kyle Wright, with seven, is the only other Brave with more than five. Tommy Milone, acquired at the trade deadline, started three games before being shunted to the IL. Milone’s ERA was 14.90; somehow the Braves won all three of his turns. He became the first starter in the modern history of baseball to be supported by 10-run innings in two different games and qualify for the win in neither. There’s your Factoid of the Year.
Here’s your runner-up. Hamels made one start, lasting 3-/3 innings. He pronounced himself fine afterward. Then, as surely as day follows night, he felt a twinge. The Braves have shut him down. They agreed to pay him $18 million for one year’s services. After salaries were prorated, they were on the hook for a mere $6.7 million. Hamels threw 52 pitches as a Brave. He earned $128,846.15 per pitch.
For all these wobbles, the Braves won the East without strain. They took first place for keeps Aug. 16. They clinched with five games to spare. Every year we hear that the division has gotten tougher, but the Braves saw their projected rotation disappear and it mattered not. They scored tons of runs. (Twenty-nine in one game, you’ll recall.) Freeman could well win his first MVP, this after running a 104.5 degree temperature during summer camp. “Please don’t take me,” he prayed.
Fried could win the Cy Young. (He’s 7-0 with a 1.96 ERA.) Adam Duvall (16 homers) could be the comeback player of the year. Marcell Ozuna has given the Braves more than Josh Donaldson has provided the Twins. Dansby Swanson had his breakout season, or at least his breakout 55 games. Anthopoulos' winter work to bolster the bullpen came up trumps; the Braves' relievers have the third-best ERA in the majors, which is how you win a division when your starters' ERA is the second-worst.
“Chip Moore manages our minor-league assets and has been here forever,” Anthopoulos said. “Last night he said, ‘It never gets old.’ And he’s right. You never lose sight of the emotions and the pride. I’m sure a lot of people watched ‘The Last Dance.’ One of the great things was when Phil Jackson quoted Tex Winter talking about success. He said, ‘You’re only a success in that moment when you complete a successful act. After that, you’re on to the next thing. That’s why I tell my players to appreciate the journey.’ We won the division last night, and you’re a success. Now you’re on to the next thing, trying to win the playoffs.”
Given that there’s an added round and six more qualifiers than usual, this postseason figures to be fraught in a way none has ever been. This will mark the Braves' 16th postseason since the one time they got it right. Just for today, thought, let’s not dwell on the negative. Let’s salute a team that, in the year of COVID-19, had a zillion things go wrong and still got to celebrate.
Said Anthopoulos: “That’s incredible, too. If you had told me that all these things were going to happen, I’d have said, ‘Oh, boy. We’ll see you in 2021.’”
There’s life left for these Braves in 2020. Maybe it’ll work out. Maybe it won’t. But they’re on to the next thing, which is all an team can control.