|Posted by theprincipality on October 24, 2019 at 12:50 AM|
It’s been a few weeks now since the Atlanta Braves were unceremoniously dumped out of the Major League Baseball playoffs by the St Louis Cardinals, thus continuing the team’s postseason dry spell that dates back to 2001. After a period of reflection this loss ranks right up there with the most difficult to take. In part this is due to the fact that the team’s division rivals, the Washington Nationals are 2 games up in the World Series at point of writing and in part because with the team Atlanta put together this year and the quality they showed all year long, this feels like a real missed opportunity.
For the better part of six months, Atlanta has impressed not just the National League with its exciting mix of youthful enthusiasm and veteran experience, but the nation as a whole. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr both had career best years and were in the running for the NL MVP award right up to September, Josh Donaldson surprised everyone with a comeback year that made everyone think his $23m salary was a bargain, Mike Soroka established himself as a front-line starter in a year that were it not for New York’s Pete Alonso would have made him a certainty for the rookie of the year and Max Fried was second in the NL in wins with 17.
In contrast, the Cardinals had a solid, if unspectacular year. Atlanta went 4-2 against them in the regular season and on paper, should have had more than enough firepower to send them to an early exit. However, as we all know, the game is not played on paper and getting postseason wins is as much about luck and individual performances as it is about the quality shown during a 162-game regular season.
So where exactly did it all go wrong for the Braves? After 7 innings of Game 4, it seemed like the ticket to the NLCS was already punched and yet the Cardinals came back to take that game in extra innings, then, well, we don’t need to dwell on what happened in Game 5. Freddie picked the worst possible time to make an uncharacteristic error, Folty picked the worst possible time to put in his worst start for three months and Fried just ran out of steam. Regardless of what happened in Game 5, the series should have been done and dusted before it even got to that stage. The fact is that during the season, Atlanta relied heavily on the bats of Freeman and Donaldson, but in the postseason they went AWOL, along with those of Nick Markakis and Brian McCann. Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran put in some very ordinary performances and it was enough to level the playing field.
Yet it wasn’t the NLDS where the rot started. The entire second half of September was a disappointment where the Braves lost 5 games of their 9-game lead to the Nationals in just two weeks. The signs were all there that an early postseason exit was coming. Acuna, Freeman and Donaldson all had Septembers to forget and it was only the contributions of the pitchers and supporting cast such as Adam Duvall and Francisco Cervelli that allowed the Braves to clinch the division as early as they did. It was after a series win in Washington when the division was effectively won and after that point Atlanta went 4-7 to finish the year. Washington went 11-3, including a 5-game sweep of the Phillies and 3-game sweep of the Indians to finish the year.
They took that momentum into October, winning the Wild Card game, beating the top-ranked Dodgers, who had also won their division early, and then did what the Braves should have done and sweept the Cardinals to make it to the World Series. That momentum has continued in the first two games against the Astros. You cannot overvalue how important momentum is in sport. Atlanta checked out and Washington had to fight right to the end. It is no coincidence that the Wild Card-winning teams are overrepresented in the World Series compared to the 2 and 3 seeds.
Back to the Braves’ series and momentum rule would have predicted a Cardinals win. All through the season they went about their business without making too many headlines, but had to fight off the challenge of the Brewers (and the Cubs) right down to the final game of the season. They took the fighting mentality with them, whilst the Braves said things like “The adrenaline will take over in the playoffs”, trusting more to hope than form.
Nonetheless, Atlanta was not outmatched or overawed and were it not for one highly forgettable inning, things could have been so very different. Focusing on the positives, Ronald Acuna once again showcased his talent on the national stage and Dansby Swanson (and his hair) had an amazing series so as we head into the offseason there is reason to be optimistic for 2020. However, if come September we do find ourselves in first place, we need to remember that it is a 162-game season and every game is important – not least for the value of momentum.