Mark Bradley: We’re thankful for the Braves

Revisiting the highlights of an incredible season
AJC to offer official digital NFT versions of popular Atlanta Braves news pages

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

AJC to offer official digital NFT versions of popular Atlanta Braves news pages

We give thanks for the Braves. We give thanks for the team that spent four months making us throw things at the TV. We give thanks for the same team – the same but different – that left us crying happy tears in November. We give thanks for the world championship nobody saw coming and nobody will forget.

Jorge Soler was 1-for-11 in the Division Series against Milwaukee. He tested positive for COVID-19 during warmups before Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. When he led off the World Series in Houston, he was 2-for-13 in postseason with no RBIs. Soler lined Framber Valdez’s third pitch, a sinker, into the Crawford Boxes.

Soler was deployed in the suddenly tied Game 4 – Dansby Swanson had homered – as a pinch-hitter. He hit a Cristian Javier slider over the left-field fence. Soler led off Game 6 by striking out on a Luis Garcia cutter. With two aboard in the third, Soler missed another cutter. With the count 3-2, he fouled off a slider, then a fastball. He was waiting on that cutter. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he got it.

He drove it over the Crawford Boxes, over the railroad track atop the left-field wall in Minute Maid Park, over the moon.

Soler hit three World Series home runs. Each took your breath. Each gave the Braves a lead they wouldn’t lose. On Nov. 2, 2021, Soler was handed the Willie Mays trophy that goes to the World Series MVP. On July 29, he’d gone 0-for-4 as a Kansas City Royal. His batting average was .190. His team held fourth place in the American League Central.

110221 HOUSTON: The MVP Jorge Soler holds his trophy after beating the Astros in game 6 to win the World Series on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Houston.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

He was traded to the Braves on July 30. So was Eddie Rosario, MVP of the NLCS. Rosario drove home the winning run in Game 2 with a smash that glanced off Corey Seager’s glove.

(”I saw him miss it and went ‘Oh,’” said Rosario, whose postgame interviews were fall classics.) He hit two home runs in Game 4. He hit the three-run homer in the clinching Game 6 that broke a 1-1 tie. A Rosario RBI gave the Braves a lasting lead in three of their NLCS wins.

Rosario made his Braves debut Aug. 28, having spent more than a month on the disabled list. In his 19th appearance, he hit for the cycle in San Francisco. He saw five pitches that day. He swung at all of them. He missed the first. Then he went double, triple, homer, single. Of the Braves’ 88 regular-season victories, that was the biggest. They’d lost four in a row. Their lead over Philadelphia was one game. The 3-0 victory – Max Fried went nine innings – touched off a run that, not counting the completion of a suspended game, saw the Braves win 10 of 11. The last of those wins clinched the National League East.

Were there such a thing as a Division Series MVP award, Joc Pederson would have snagged it. He arrived the day after the All-Star break. He hit a home run on his second night as a Brave. His pinch-hit homer accounted for the only runs in the massive Game 3 against Milwaukee. By then, Pederson had taken to wearing pearls. We know not why. He went 1-for-15 in the World Series. Didn’t matter.

October 15, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Braves Joc Pederson blows a chewing gum bubble during a workout ahead of baseballs National League Championship Series against Los Angeles Dodgers at Truist Park on Friday, October 15.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Pederson was the first of four outfielders collected by general manager Alex Anthopoulos in the wake of Ronald Acuna’s loss to a torn ACL the day before the break. The Braves were 44-44. They wouldn’t climb above .500 for another 3-1/2 weeks. Had Acuna stayed healthy, he might have been the National League’s MVP. His WAR through 88 games was 3.6. Bryce Harper won the award with a WAR of 5.9. And still we ask: Had Acuna not been hurt, would the Braves be world champs?

Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna (center) is carried to a medical cart after trying to make a catch on an inside-the-park home run hit by Miami Marlins' Jazz Chisholm Jr. during the fifth inning Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Miami. Acuna injured his right knee on the play.

Credit: Lynne Sladky

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Credit: Lynne Sladky

The belief here is no, for mathematical reasons. Great as he is, Acuna is one guy. He can’t bat 15 times a game. He can’t play three outfield positions by himself. Anthopoulos had to buy in bulk – timeless quote: “We needed a lot of players” – because Cristian Pache fizzled and Marcell Ozuna was unavailable. With catcher Travis d’Arnaud also on the injured list, the Braves’ everyday eight consisted of the four excellent infielders and four mystery guests.

Adam Duvall, the fourth incoming outfielder, drove in 10 postseason runs. Together, the imports had 53 hits, 10 homers and 29 RBIs in the playoffs. Had Acuna gone on an October tear, opponents would have stopped pitching to him. Can’t pitch around an entire lineup, though.

For all of that, none of the outfielders was the Braves’ overall postseason MVP. Nor was it Freddie Freeman, who hit the clinching homer in the Division Series and who drove in the final two runs of the World Series.

It was Tyler Matzek, who worked in 13 of the 16 games, yielding four runs over 15-2/3 innings. He faced 60 batters. He struck out 24. He was credited with three wins and five holds.

In 2018, Matzek was pitching for the Texas AirHogs, an independent team. The Rockies, who made him the 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft, let him leave as a free agent in 2016. He’d lost the capacity to throw strikes. Put another way, he had the yips. He was given looks by the White Sox, Mariners and Diamondbacks, all of whom released him. Braves coach Walt Weiss, who managed Colorado from 2013 to 2016, saw his name on a minor-league report and said, “Is that the same Matzek we had?”

Mildly curious, the Braves signed him Aug. 15, 2019. They sent him to Double-A Mississippi, then to Triple-A Gwinnett. Brian Snitker first got a look at him in spring training 2020, which was halted because of COVID. When the Braves reassembled in July, Snitker asked, “What about that left-hander who was striking everybody out?” When the Braves broke camp for a second time, Matzek went with them.

We can debate forever – a fun sort of debate, as opposed to “Why did Mark Wohlers throw Jim Leyritz a slider?” – which Matzek escape was the best. In Game 2 against Milwaukee, he stranded four runners over two innings; of his four outs, three were swing-and-misses. In the clinching Game 6 against L.A., he stranded four over two innings; of his six outs, five were K’s. The swinging strikeout of the great Mookie Betts was the giddiest moment of the whole run.

The Braves won a six-game World Series in which they started five different pitchers. Only Fried, magnificent in Game 6, took two turns.

The Braves won a six-game World Series in which they started five different pitchers. Only Fried, magnificent in Game 6, took two turns. Charlie Morton started Game 1 and was gone in the third, having thrown 16 pitches after Yuri Gurriel smacked a grounder off a right leg that turned out to be broken. Ian Anderson started Game 3 and was lifted after five no-hit innings. (The complete list of starters who’ve not yielded a hit in a World Series game – Don Larsen in 1956, Anderson in 2021.) Dylan Lee, who’d never started a big-league game, lasted four batters in Game 4, which the Braves won. Tucker Davidson, who wasn’t on the roster for the first two rounds, made it into the third inning of Game 5.

The Braves won for a manager who turned 66 during the Division Series. They won for a GM who missed the final three games because he tested positive for COVID at Truist Park the morning of World Series Game 4. (Anthopoulos couldn’t believe it, so he got tested twice more. Still positive.) They won for a city and a region that waited, not patiently, 26 years for this franchise to win a second World Series. They won and the notorious agent Scott Boras didn’t like it, to which we say, “Hardy har har.”

They won with Will Smith, the closer in whom his constituency had little faith. Smith’s postseason numbers: 11 games, 11 innings, four hits, three walks, eight strikeouts, no earned runs, two wins, six saves. He faced 39 batters, six above the minimum.

The Braves who became world champions were together only three months. Those three months changed the way we view this franchise. These Braves weren’t doomed to fall at the final hurdle. Twice they lost what would have been a clinching Game 5; twice they won a Game 6 in which they never trailed.

As they say in the industry, flags fly forever. As the Mouseketeers sang on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” forever let us hold our banner high.

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