Braves’ big chance:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Danny Kno­bler Kno­bler re­ported from New York.

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 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.

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