Braves headed for another NL East title, then anything can happen

Atlanta Braves pitcher Charlie Morton works against the Miami Marlins in the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta Braves pitcher Charlie Morton works against the Miami Marlins in the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: AP

The Braves are on track to win a fourth consecutive National League East title. That would be a great achievement for any organization under any circumstance. It would be especially sweet for the 2021 Braves. So much went wrong for them until general manager Alex Anthopoulos made much of it right with trades before the deadline.

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At the time, Anthopoulos said it’s all about making it to the postseason. Then, anything can happen. that was a tacit acknowledgement that, on paper, the Braves without Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ocuna don’t measure up to the NL’s top contenders. It also was a nod to the underdog teams that got hot in the postseason and won the World Series.

The Braves are going to win the East. Declaring that with 20 games to go doesn’t risk summoning the ghosts of 2011. That year, the Braves blew a 4½-game lead in the wild-card race over the final 15 games. The new-era Braves don’t fade so easily.

The Braves were 4½ games ahead of the Phillies before beginning a series against the Rockies on Tuesday night at Truist Park. They’ll still be on top of the division when they wrap up the regular season 20 games later. Once the Braves make the postseason then, as Anthopoulos said, we’ll see what happens.

The Braves would be playing with house money at that point. I know I’m not the only one who figured they were finished when Acuna suffered a season-ending knee injury July 10. Another East title is more than could be reasonably expected under the circumstances. If the Braves pull it off, that’s something to celebrate no matter what happens after that.

And it’s possible there’s more to come for the Braves. They haven’t been to the World Series since 1999. Making it back this year doesn’t require besting the NL’s best teams over a full season. The Braves just need to get by the NL’s second-best division winner in the best-of-five-NL Division Series — the Brewers are running away with the Central — before beating what’s likely to be a better foe in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series.

It would be a surprise if that’s not the Dodgers or Giants. The Braves would be underdogs. After all, they couldn’t beat the Dodgers in the 2020 NLCS with Acuna and Marcell Ozuna in the lineup. The Braves would have a real chance if they find some effective pitching from unexpected sources, same as they did in October.

The Braves are better now at the top of the rotation. Max Fried, the No. 1 starter for the 2020 postseason, has been good since an early-season stint on the injured list. Now he’s likely the No. 2 postseason starter behind Charlie Morton. Morton has been effective all year and has a long track record of postseason success.

Huascar Ynoa lines up as the No. 3 postseason starter. Not long ago it seemed that any future he had in the majors would be in the bullpen. Ynoa, 23, since has established that he can be a good starter. Next step is showing he can do it in October.

Right-hander Ian Anderson returned from a 48-day stay on the injured list Aug. 29. It’s crucial for the Braves that he find his form by October. The Braves have two starters they can feel good about sending out in the postseason. Ynoa or Anderson can be a third. A fourth good starter is optimal so the Braves don’t end up hoping instead of expecting to get good starts deep into the postseason.

In the 2020 NLCS, manager Brian Snitker ended up having to start Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and reliever A.J. Minter. Wilson pitched the game of his life, but Wright got roughed up. Wright is at Triple-A Gwinnett now, and the Braves traded Wilson for reliever Richard Rodriguez at the deadline.

The Braves can cobble together good starting pitching. There are more questions in the bullpen. Relief pitching ultimately let the Braves down in the NLCS against the Dodgers. It might work out better this October if Snitker can effectively manage his options.

Left-hander Will Smith keeps converting save chances, though he’s been piling up walks and home runs allowed. Late-inning relievers Tyler Matzek and Luke Jackson are steady. Rodriguez has struggled lately, but Jacob Webb has been good since returning from Gwinnett. Jesse Chavez, 38, has shown he still has something left.

Figure out the pitching, and the Braves have enough offensive punch for the postseason. That wasn’t the case before the trades. Inconsistent run-scoring was a big reason why they couldn’t get their record above break-even. The East was up for grabs. The Braves weren’t going to seize it without a deeper lineup.

Then Anthopoulos added four outfielders: Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler, and Eddie Rosario. The Braves have been the class of the East since then. Entering Tuesday, they were 25-14 after the trade deadline. The Phillies (21-20) and Mets (17-26) couldn’t keep up. In the NL, only the Dodgers (30-11) and Giants (30-12) did better.

As things stood Tuesday, the third-seeded Braves would face the Brewers in the best-of-five NLDS. The teams split their six meetings this season. If the Braves advance, chances are either the Dodgers or Giants would be their NLCS opponent. Even better for the Braves if it’s the Reds, Cardinals or Padres.

The Brewers would be slight favorites to beat the Braves because of their pitching. The Braves would be longer shots against the Dodgers or Giants. But the Braves will be in the postseason after it seemed they would never go on a run this season. Then you never know what will happen in October.


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