A great Braves season ends on a bitter note

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Despite the outcome of the NLCS, Braves manager Brian Snitker remains positive about the experience gained and the future of the club.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Everyone will remember the Braves losing Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the Dodgers. They’ll recall how the Braves once led the best-of-seven series 3-1 and gave back two leads in the final game. They’ll think back to Cody Bellinger’s solo home run off Chris Martin that put the Dodgers ahead for good Sunday night in Arlington, Texas.

Those things shouldn’t crowd out what we shouldn’t forget about the 2020 Braves. They won a third straight NL East title despite their pitching rotation falling apart. They pushed the heavily favored and pitching-rich Dodgers to the brink.

The Braves just couldn’t finish.

Bellinger’s home run in the seventh inning sent the Dodgers to a 4-3 victory. They are going to the World Series for the third time in four years and are looking for their first win there since 1988. The Dodgers will face the AL champion Rays.

The Braves thrived all year on late-game rallies. They didn’t come close to generating one in their final game. After Bellinger’s homer, the Braves went down in order in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

Season’s over for the Braves. It was a great run despite the way it ended.

“I don’t think we exceeded expectations," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It’s kind of what we expected out of ourselves is to get to this point. We came up short, but I think everyone on this team can lay their head on the pillow and know they gave everything they had.”

The Braves had three chances to win one game and return to the World Series for the first time since 1999. They led 2-1 after five innings in Game 5 but lost 7-3. The Dodgers scored three runs in the first inning of Game 6 and didn’t need to score again as the Braves left eight runners on base, including not scoring after once loading the bases with no outs.

In Game 7, the Braves led 2-0 after Dansby Swanson’s homer to lead off the second. The Dodgers scored two runs in the third to tie it. The Braves went back ahead by a run on Austin Riley’s RBI single off Tony Gonsolin in the fourth. The lead might have been more if not for a Braves baserunning blunder.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker addresses the rundown in the fourth inning of Game 7 of the NLCS.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Blake Treinen replaced Gonsolin to face Nick Markakis with inherited baserunners Riley and Swanson. Markakis hit a sharp grounder to third baseman Justin Turner. Swanson broke for home and was stuck. While the Dodgers were running him down Riley started for third, stopped, and then started again.

Turner tagged out Swanson before home, then turned and threw out Riley at third. The Braves should have had, at worst, runners at first and second with one out. Instead, they had two outs and Markakis at first. Then Cristian Pache grounded out to end the inning.

The Braves will always regret scoring just one run in that inning. They still had the lead, though. It held until the sixth inning. Dodgers utility man Kike Hernandez, who bats from the right side, pinch hit for lefty hitter Joc Pederson to face left-hander A.J. Minter.

Hernandez fouled off three straight pitches with two strikes. He pulled the eighth pitch of the at-bat into the stands to tie the game again. Chris Taylor followed with a double and the Dodgers were primed for a big inning.

Mookie Betts flied out to center and Taylor moved to third. He tried to score when Corey Seager hit a ground ball through the middle. But ball hit the mound and popped into the air to second baseman Ozzie Albies, who threw out Taylor at the plate.

Martin replaced Minter and got Turner to end the inning. He struck out Max Muncy and Will Smith in the seventh. Then Bellinger got him on a 2-2 sinker that caught the fat part of the plate.

The Braves were that close to the World Series.

“We heard it all year that the Dodgers are the best team in baseball,” Freeman said. “We took them to Game 7 and gave them everything they can handle. They just made the right plays at the right time."

The Braves had a chance because their pitchers performed much better than could reasonably be expected. Kyle Wright had a blow-up start in Game 3 of the NLCS and bullpen game fell apart late in Game 5. Otherwise, the Braves got enough good pitching to nearly make it to the World Series. That’s remarkable for a team that at one point this season lost its entire rotation to injuries and ineffectiveness.

ExplorePhotos from Game 7

In Game 7 of the NLCS, Braves rookie Ian Anderson allowed two runs in three innings before giving way.

“He was off a little bit,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s OK. He’s had an unbelievable year and an unbelievable postseason.”

Technically, two rookie pitchers started a deciding postseason game for the first time in MLB history. Really, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts always planned to use Dustin May as the opener. A shaky beginning meant May’s night would be even shorter than expected.

May’s first eight pitches were called balls. Ronald Acuna and Freeman took their bases. No. 3 hitter Marcell Ozuna struck a well-placed single to score Acuna. For the fourth time in the series, the Braves scored first.

Gonsolin replaced May for the second inning. The Braves touched Gonsolin for five runs in 4 ½ innings in their Game 1 victory. They got Gonsolin for two runs in two-plus innings in Game 7 to lead 3-2. It wasn’t enough.

The Braves will head to the offseason feeling like they should have beat the mighty Dodgers. But they also know that young pitchers Anderson, Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson can be part of a deeper rotation for 2020. It will include No. 1 starter Mike Soroka once he recovers from his season-ending Achilles injury.

The Braves are set with the main pieces of their lineup, with one big exception. Ozuna signed for one season. He ended up being a great lineup replacement for Josh Donaldson. Ozuna was great in the NLCS, too, save for a baserunning mistake in Game 5.

Catcher Travis d’Arnaud is under contract for next season. So are the key pitchers in the bullpen. Young stars Acuna and Albies will be around for a while. Both players signed contracts extensions in April 2019. Their contracts remain well-below market in 2021: $5 million for Acuna, $3 million for Albies.

Underpaying them means the Braves theoretically can splurge elsewhere. They won’t need much. If Ozuna leaves they’ll need another big bat in the lineup. After the Cole Hamels signing flopped this year, the Braves will need to do better for a veteran starting pitcher to join their young arms in 2021.

Everything else is in place for the Braves to make another run next season and beyond.

“We’ve got so many guys returning that you just know we’ve gotten over that hump and we are ready to roll now for a lot of years,” Freeman said.

The Braves had a great year despite some bad injury luck. They made the Dodgers work hard to return to the World Series. The memories of how this Braves season ended shouldn’t crowd out all the good things that happened on the way there.

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