Just like old times, Braves win it all with pitching

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, left, gives starting pitcher Max Fried, facing, a hug after Fried goes six scoreless innings against the Houston Astros in game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, left, gives starting pitcher Max Fried, facing, a hug after Fried goes six scoreless innings against the Houston Astros in game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

HOUSTON -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery started games for the Braves in the 1995 World Series. It was one of the best pitching staffs of all time. The Braves expected to get excellent pitching from the group and did during their run to winning the 1995 Series.

The Braves began the 2021 playoffs with starters Charlie Morton, Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa. It’s a rotation with few postseason accomplishments outside of Morton. The Braves hoped to get effective pitching from that group. Then Ynoa couldn’t pitch in the National League Championship Series because of a bad shoulder, and Morton broke his leg in the third inning of Series Game 1.

It didn’t matter. The Braves went deep into their staff and got great performances in the Series. The last great Braves era was driven by all-time great arms. The latest championship was fueled by pitchers with lesser resumes who were great when it mattered most.

Put the names Fried, Anderson and Kyle Wright alongside Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz. The current Braves pitchers probably aren’t going to end up in the Hall of Fame. They own a championship ring just like their legendary predecessors after the Braves clinched the Series with a 7-0 victory over the Astros in Game 6 on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.

“The difference is we were supposed to win it in ‘95,” Smoltz said Tuesday in his role as a Fox commentator for Game 6.

Fried’s Game 6 performance is the crowning achievement of his young career. The lefty pitched below his standards in two previous postseason starts and said he sought redemption in Game 6. Fried found it by holding the Astros scoreless over six innings with six strikeouts, four hits and no walks.

It was the fourth time in six Series games that the Astros scored two runs or less. The Dodgers scored two runs or fewer in half of six games against the Braves during the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers and Astros were the highest-scoring teams in their respective leagues. The Braves are Series champions because their pitchers held them down.

In Los Angeles, reporters peppered Dodgers manager Dave Roberts with questions about why his lineup of full of prominent hitters struggled against the seemingly modest collection of Braves pitchers. Astros manager Dusty Baker heard the same thing from Houston media. Those questions missed the mark.

The story wasn’t about what’s wrong with the good hitters who weren’t producing. The truth was that the Braves have good pitchers who performed well when it mattered most. Baker raised that point after the Braves used six relief pitchers in Game 4 to hold his team to two runs.

“They say good pitching beats good hitting, and then when you don’t hit, they say, ‘What’s wrong?’” Baker said then. “They’ve been pitching good against us. They’ve been pitching great against us.”

Braves pitchers couldn’t keep that up in Game 5. That would have been Morton’s turn if he were healthy. The Braves were so short on pitching that they sent out lefty Tucker Davidson to make his postseason debut in the World Series. He gave way after two innings. Braves lefty A.J. Minter had his first poor results of the postseason.

Braves pitchers regrouped for the next game, as they did throughout the Series. The Astros erupted for seven runs in Game 2. Two days later, the Braves held them scoreless behind five strong innings by Anderson. Houston put up nine runs in Game 5. The Braves came back to Houston and shut out the Astros again.

The Braves won 88 games this season, the Dodgers 106 and the Astros 95. But the Braves didn’t need to beat their foes over a full season or even 10 games. It was two seven-game series, winner take all.

The Braves took it from the favored Dodgers and Astros and won it all behind their pitching.

Said Braves reliever A.J. Minter: “It’s not always the best players, it’s not always the best team that wins. It’s the team that plays the best that day. We just keep that mentality going forward in the second half and the postseason.”

It can be infuriating for superior teams and their supporters when they lose the small sample of a five- or seven-game series (never mind the abomination of a one-game wild-card “series”). The flip side of that is good teams can get hot and do great things. The best ballplayers do great things over long periods. All of them can do great things in a flash of time.

That’s why I figured the Braves could make a postseason run despite missing their best hitter, Ronald Acuna, and last year’s postseason team hits leader, Marcell Ozuna. Sure enough, Braves hitters came through.

All-Stars Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley were good throughout the playoffs. Several veteran hitters had big moments: Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson. The Braves got much more hitting than expected from Cleveland castoff Eddie Rosario, but no one should be surprised that they had enough offense to be Series champions.

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman reacts after hitting a solo home run during the seventh inning against the Houston Astros in game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

The big question for the Braves always was whether they had enough pitching. Those doubts increased when shoulder inflammation shelved Ynoa for the NLCS. Morton’s injury put their pitching in crisis. The Braves answered those questions by pitching so well that the Astros produced runs only sporadically during the Series.

Braves pitchers collectively posted a 3.06 ERA over six games of the Series. They couldn’t match the ‘95 Braves staff, which had 2.67 ERA while beating Cleveland in six. But then look at the pitchers on that ‘95 Braves team.

By 1995, Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz were well into careers that would earn them induction into the Hall of Fame. Avery had had 178 regular-season starts in the majors, 19 in the playoffs and an NLCS MVP award. The best relief man for the ‘95 Braves, Mark Wohlers, had pitched important innings for them during their runs to the Series in ‘91 and ‘92.

Morton is the only current Braves pitcher who comes close to that kind of resume. He’s got a 3.35 ERA over 17 career postseason games (16 starts) and won the 2017 Series with the Astros. Fried had made only four playoff starts before this season. Anderson has been in the majors for barely a calendar year.

Wright spent most of this season at Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves summoned him for the Series when their pitching got thin. Manager Brian Snitker credited him with winning Game 4 by holding the Astros to a run over 5-2/3 innings after opener Dylan Lee faltered.

Snitker leaned heavily on his top four relief pitchers: Minter, Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and Will Smith. Smith was an All-Star closer for the Giants before signing with the Braves last year, though he’d only pitched 1-1/3 innings in the postseason. The other three relievers are relatively green.

Matzek’s career was stalled by a case of the yips. He was out of the majors for four years before making a comeback with the Braves last season. Matzek became their workhorse reliever this postseason: 13 appearances (15 2/3 innings), 1.72 ERA, no homers allowed, 24 strikeouts and four walks

Minter gave the Braves a chance in Game 3 of the 2020 NLCS with three scoreless innings against the Dodgers. He did more good work this October. Minter had surrendered just one earned run over seven appearances (11 innings) before Game 5 of the Series.

Jackson couldn’t make the postseason roster for the Braves in 2020. He made 11 playoff appearances in 2021 after a stellar regular season. Jackson couldn’t solve the Dodgers in the NLCS. He was great against Milwaukee and Houston.

“I’m so proud of our pitching staff, our bullpen guys,” Snitker said. “This is the best-hitting team in the game. Our guys, the phone rang, and they came out.”

All those players are part of a World Series-champion staff. Outsiders wondered if the Braves had enough pitching to win it all. It turns out they had plenty of it, just like old times.