The Braves have won 21 division titles. No other team has won so many. Nineteen have come over the past 30 years — the 14 consecutive first-place finishes from 1991 through 2005, the standalone of 2013 and now another four in succession. They’ve won their division, be it the National League West until 1994 or the NL East ever since, so often that even rabid fans have tended to shrug and say, “Wake me when they get to the World Series.”
These Braves will play Game 1 of their NL Division Series in Milwaukee on Friday afternoon. Here’s guessing that most Atlantans will be awake.
Of those 21 title-winning teams, the 2021 edition is, going by winning percentage, the second-worst. It wasn’t until Aug. 6 and their 109th completed game — one had been suspended — that the Braves rose above .500. Of the 10 MLB teams to qualify for postseason play, they’re the only one not to win 90 games. (Toronto and Seattle won 91 and 90, respectively, and missed the playoffs.) And yet: This division title has been received with a sense of glee not found in any run to October since … oh, 1993.
Remember how the national media — and sometimes we local types — would make fun of the Braves for not selling out playoff games? In the regular season just completed, the Braves finished second to the Dodgers in home attendance. This after a shortened pandemic season in which no tickets were sold for any game at Truist Park. This in a summer when, for the longest time, the Braves weren’t an especially good team. This when the Braves had just claimed division titles in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Said Terry McGuirk, the Braves chairman who has witnessed almost all the division titles: “It’s where you are on the arc of the cycle. In ‘91 (the worst-to-first year), it was obvious we were at the very beginning of a huge upward cycle. That in itself is a wonderful excitement. I think this year there’s a sense of us being at the beginning of a cycle. If you’re at the end of a cycle, there’s way less enthusiasm. That’s what happened in the 14 straight. It probably happened when we were halfway through the 14 straight. When people see optimism and the future and nothing but bright things ahead, with all the young guys and all the opportunity we have going forward, that’s part of what makes everybody want to be part of the bandwagon.”
On Monday, McGuirk was having lunch in Vinings with CEO Derek Schiller and John Schuerholz, the Hall of Fame general manager who was the architect of those 14 consecutive titles. “Some ladies asked if we could take a picture with them,” McGuirk said.
That hadn’t happened in a while. McGuirk again: “People at the very grassroots of this town are excited and are paying attention.”
The power of the improbable is vast. These Braves lost Ronald Acuna, their most gifted player, in July to a torn ACL. Marcell Ozuna, who re-signed for $65 million over four seasons, hasn’t played since May, first because of injury and now having been placed on administrative leave as MLB investigates his arrest for domestic violence. Mike Soroka, the most promising pitcher the team has developed this century, hasn’t worked since August 2020, having torn the same Achilles tendon twice.
After spending all season gazing upward at the Mets and Phillies, the Braves had no compelling reason to believe anything would change at the trade deadline. General manager Alex Anthopoulos supplied that reason, acquiring six useful players, four of them outfielders, over the final two weeks in July.
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Credit: Hyosub Shinfirstname.lastname@example.org
Said McGuirk: “The popular lore was that we had to be a seller; at the very least, we had to stand pat — because there was no chance we had the makings of a winner. We couldn’t have disagreed more internally. It’s always relative. We were looking at the National League East. That snapshot is where Alex excelled in evaluating what it would take to be the best in the East. You can’t project a World Series or (an NL Championship Series) with a losing record at the (All-Star) break. All you can do is ask, ‘How can I get one game better than the guys I’m looking at in the East?’
“Alex had a prescient view of what it would take to add to the nucleus of what we had. You’re not going to replace Ozuna and Acuna; we suffered a loss that was palpable. Just putting somebody like them back in place immediately energized the clubhouse. You’re talking about a multi-dimensional general manager: (He has) a good idea of dollars and cents; a good idea of what talent will cost to fill your gaps, and a good sense of psyche and the energy and the people. You know the people in your clubhouse really well. All of those things go into the decision-making. You miss on anybody and you’re the Mets. You’re somebody who will never get there.”
Anthopoulos imported outfielders Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario, plus catcher Stephen Vogt and reliever Richard Rodriguez. All, as manager Brian Snitker has said, “had an immediate impact.” The Braves’ record over the first four months: 12-14, 13-12, 13-15, 14-13. Their record in August: 18-8. Ten days after climbing above .500, they were in first place.
McGuirk: “That’s the clean sweep of new guys. Clubhouses are very human. You fight all year, and you’re two or three or five games under .500, and you’re there for several months. Usually you don’t recover. Certainly you don’t recover to win a title. It’s a cumulative thing: You’re in a prizefight and you’ve taken too many punches. It’s hard to come back. It takes that kind of rejuvenation of the clubhouse and everybody to re-dedicate themselves. It was a fresh start that all of that gave us.”
The newcomers, McGuirk believes even had a trickle-up effect on the team’s 65-year-old manager. “Snit did a fabulous job. I’m in there almost every night. He comes into his office after coming out of the dugout, and he is spent. He is shot. The emotional toll is probably most telling on the manager, and what happened — besides the calm and the cool he displays all the way through — is I think he got rejuvenated.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
A season that saw the Braves fall seven games out of first place ended with them winning by 6-1/2. A team taking its division for a fourth year running should be accustomed to champagne celebrations. The Braves’ joy last week after eliminating Philadelphia had a giddy disbelief about it — said Freddie Freeman, wonder in his voice: “A whole new outfield” — that made everything seem new.
One thing that never gets old: thwarting your biggest rivals. Said McGuirk: “The expectations and the hope of the Mets’ fans and the Phillies’ were sky high this year – the (Francisco) Lindor deal and the new owner for the Mets, and the Phillies were making a lot of noise and they did their normal beating up on us early in the season. I think everybody figured they were going to win, one of the two, and this was the end of our moment. The exact opposite happened.”
Yep. Somehow it happened. And now for the playoffs.