Braves’ big chance:
Atlanta has reached the playoffs ahead of schedule but plays with a confidence that could be dangerous for foes.
❚ Final stats, Pages 12-14
Don’t say the Braves shouldn’t be here, back atop the National League East, back playing October baseball for the first time since 2013. Don’t say they didn’t expect to be here, because this is what their sometimes painful rebuilding project was all about.
Maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. Maybe the kids weren’t supposed to grow up so quickly and the veterans weren’t supposed to contribute as much as they did.
You can’t always predict how it’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen. You have to be ready if the opportunity is there, if the division race opens up and the wins start coming and you find yourself with a chance to win in 2018 instead of still building for sometime down the road.
The Braves were ready. As the postseason begins and they face the Dodgers in an NL Division Series, they still are.
They should be here. They believe it. And they believe this breakthrough season can still break through a few more ceilings.
“We said that in spring: Why not?” veteran reliever Peter Moylan said a few days after the Braves clinched the National League East title. “We’re here now. Why can’t we go further?”
Feel free to come up with reasons they can’t, but just remember that a Braves run through October won’t be any more improbable than their run from April through September. Remember that the Braves team that went worst to first 27 years ago, beginning a run atop the NL East that ran for more than a decade, went all the way to the World Series before losing to the Twins.
This Braves team didn’t go worst to first, because they actually finished third in the East a year ago. But it was an unimpressive third place, and a third consecutive 90-loss season.
They weren’t worst last year but they are first this year, and 90 losses in 2017 turned into just as many wins in 2018. They took over first place for good in the middle of August, and when it came time to clinch, they did it by sweeping the Phillies, the only team that still had a shot at catching them.
They did it with a steady first baseman named Freddie Freeman who has been a Brave since 2010, and with a stunningly good 20-year-old outfielder named Ronald Acuna Jr. who didn’t make his debut in the big leagues until April 25 and didn’t become the everyday leadoff hitter until after the All-Star break.
They did it with a starting pitcher named Anibal Sanchez who was released in spring training by the Twins, and another starting pitcher named Kevin Gausman who was acquired on the cheap because he had a 4.43 ERA at the time with the Orioles.
They did it with three 20year-old pitchers starting and winning games over the course of the season.
No other team even used a 20-year-old starting pitcher.
Brian Snitker is the perfect manager for this group, a 62year-old Braves organization lifer who shaves his head but can still describe his team’s style as “hair on fire.”
Snitker wasn’t supposed to be here, either. He lost his job as the major league third-base coach in a 2013 shake-up, became interim manager when the Braves fired Fredi Gonzalez in 2016 and might well have been replaced if not for an international signing scandal that caused a front office change last fall.
Now he’s the likely National League Manager of the Year, not afraid to admit his young players might be a tad nervous when the playoffs begin but certain they’ll handle it the way they handled other challenges during the season.
“Hair on fire, not being careful,” he said. “Enjoy the experience.”
The Braves can enter the postseason the same way they entered the season, believing they can win but without the feeling it will be disaster if they lose. Only two players in their everyday lineup are over 30 (catcher Kurt Suzuki and right fielder Nick Markakis), while Acuna is one of four regulars who are 24 or under (second baseman Ozzie Albies, shortstop Dansby Swanson and third baseman Johan Camargo are the others).
They’re not afraid of youth or inexperience, as shown by those three 20-year-olds who started games (Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Bryse Wilson). When closer Arodys Vizcaino missed much of the second half with a right shoulder injury, Snitker handed ninth-inning responsibilities to 24-year-old A.J. Minter, who is in his first full season in the big leagues. When others faltered in the eighth inning, he turned to 25year-old Chad Sobotka, who didn’t make his big-league debut until Aug. 10.
When the Braves headed into their rebuilding process after the 2014 season, trading Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, all within 22 months, the plan was to acquire plenty of young pitching in return. Some deals worked — Mike Foltynewicz, acquired from the Astros in a deal for Evan Gattis — has developed into the team’s ace. Left-hander Sean Newcomb, acquired in the deal that sent Simmons to the Angels, won 12 games this season but struggled in the final month.
Some players could still work out. Even after bringing players such as Acuna and Albies to the big leagues, the Braves had enough good players on the way that MLB.com ranked their minor league system as the second most talented in the game at the beginning of August.
“With all the talent they have here, it’s hard to say they’re not going to (go on a long run of success),” Markakis said.
No matter what happens in October, that run began with the division title of 2018.
No matter where the next few days or few weeks take them, this will always be seen by the Braves as a fun year and a successful one.
As they look ahead, though, they’d rather put off looking at 2019, 2020 and beyond. They’d rather look at 2018, because if a “why not?” attitude brought them a division title, why not ask if it can bring them something more in the month to come?
“We like our position,” Markakis said. “We like our chances. Anything can happen.”
The 2018 Braves have already proved that.
Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies and left fielder Ronald Acuna Jr., right, celebrate after defeating the Phillies at SunTrust Park in Atlanta on Sept. 21.