|Posted by theprincipality on November 3, 2021 at 5:00 PM|
It’s the morning after the night before. I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming and the Atlanta Braves, who did not get their first winning record until 5th August, who lost their star player and talisman to a season-ending injury on 10th July, who were unsure whether to buy or sell at the trade deadline and were given a 0.3% chance of winning the World Series at the start of August are now the champions of Major League Baseball for the first time in 26 years!
I’ve been following the Braves for 21 years. I missed the last World Series trip by a year, but caught the tail end of the 14 straight division titles. In the last two decades there has been no doubt of the class and professionalism of the entire organisation. The Braves have been a quality team in the NL East year-in and year-out, but never what you would think of as an elite team. After the dominance of the 1990s, Glavine moved on, age eventually caught up with Maddux, injury changed the role of Smoltz and the team has been living in their shadows ever since – trying to put together the pieces for postseason success, but always coming up against a team with those elite pieces, or with destiny behind them when October rolled round. Excuses, I know. We didn’t win a postseason series from 2001 to 2020. Combined with the failures of the Atlanta Falcons, the city was developing a reputation.
It was really last year that things started to change. The regular season was a bit of a lottery, with its 60 game format, but Atlanta went into October with youth and energy, surging past Cincinnati and Miami into the NLCS. The all-conquering Dodgers proved a step too far, but people started to take notice. Atlanta went into 2021 as pre-season favourites in some quarters. I had my doubts at the time. I thought that there was too much pressure on the team to succeed. I felt that adding 38 year old Charlie Morton and journeyman Drew Smyly, whilst letting go of Mark Melancon and Adam Duvall didn’t say to me that the team had taken that step forward. Resigning Marcell Ozuna had been a positive, but doubts lingered about his ability to consistently field his position.
The season started badly. A road series in Philadelphia saw us come away 0-3. Yes, it was to be a long season, but to be swept by a division rival on opening weekend had the potential to set the tone for the season. In fact April was a dismal month. We scuffed our way to 12-14 by the end of it. It seemed like everyone was in a slump. Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Ozuna and Albies were all struggling at the same time. If not for Ronald Acuna, it would have been much worse.
Things then got worse. Ozuna was arrested on domestic violence charges (and not seen since), Mike Soroka’s rehab went back to square one with another long-term injury, pitching sensation Huascar Ynoa broke his hand punching the dugout and the bullpen was blowing leads on a seemingly nightly basis. Yet the team never gave up and kept grinding out wins. They touched the .500 mark 6 times before the All-Star break, before finally becoming a winning team in August. As a fan it was frustrating because you could see how much talent there was in the lineup, but it just wasn’t clicking.
Luckily it wasn’t clicking for anyone else in the NL East. Philadelphia were going through the same up and down season as the Braves and even though the Mets were the early pacesetters, you never felt like they were going to run away with it. I felt we had a chance, if we could just be the first team to put something together. However, then came the day I lost all hope. Two games before the All-Star break, in loanDepot Park in Miami, Acuna was tracking down a routine fly-ball from Jazz Chisholm when suddenly he collapsed in a heap. Chisholm rounded the bases for what was credited as an inside-the-park home run and Acuna’s season was over with a torn ACL. We won that game, but without Acuna, I felt that we didn’t have the energy or the fire-power to even get to October, let alone win.
But it all changed in the second half. There was something about Acuna’s injury that galvanised the Braves. Freeman and Austin Riley stepped up big-time with the bat. Riley went from having his place in the team questioned to a legitimate MVP candidate, finishing with a .303 average, 33 home runs and 107 RBI. Freeman went .300 with 31 home runs, 83 RBI and led the NL with 120 runs scored. The entire infield finished with at least 25 home runs. It changed too on the mound. Max Fried rediscovered his form in the second half, leading the league with a 1.74 ERA after the break. The bullpen became more settled in their roles and Charlie Morton turned back the clock with some excellent performances down the stretch.
Yet, none of it would have been possible without replacing Acuna. With the trade deadline approaching, it was still uncertain whether the Braves would be buyers or sellers. The front office gambled and it paid off big time. For very little in return Alex Anthopoulos picked up four established outfielders in Joc Pederson from the Cubs, Eddie Rosario from Cleveland, Jorge Soler from the Royals and brought back Adam Duvall from the Marlins. Each one of those players made huge contributions down the stretch and turned the inconsistent Braves into a juggernaut heading into October.
The division was sewn up by sweeping the Phillies in Atlanta (a beautiful symmetry I thought), but with just 88 wins, many still didn’t give us a chance of even getting into the second round of the playoffs. We were the underdog every step of the way in the playoffs, but every time I just had a feeling. Underestimate us at your peril! Beating the Brewers in 4 games surprised a lot of people. Going 3-1 up against the Dodgers surprised even more. When we lost game 5 in LA so heavily it felt like the LA press assumed we were going to collapse again, as we had in 2020. So in that sense, winning the next game in Atlanta felt extra sweet. We were going to the World Series.
The past week I’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster. First came the euphoria of the first World Series I would experience as a fan, followed by the agony and ecstasy of every at-bat and every pitch through the first five games. It felt like déjà vu all over again when Houston won game 5. There was that sickening feeling of knowing we needed to go to an American League park and win a game. Knowing that if we lost the series from 3-1 we would never hear the end of it, much as the Falcons never want to see Tom Brady again. Knowing that Fried had been beaten in Houston in Game 2 and that if he were to struggle again it would all fall on Ian Anderson, whose home numbers were significantly better than his road numbers.
But in the end, this was a team that felt World Series glory was its destiny. Fried stepped up and (despite getting stepped on) turned in 6 scoreless innings. Soler put the Braves 3-0 in the third with a monster home run that cleared the train tracks and went out of the stadium. It just felt different compared to game 5. The Braves had their feet on the Astros’ necks and they weren’t going to let this go. When Swanson homered to make it 5-0 the nerves started to go away and when Freddie added the exclamation point in the 7th with a home run of his own, you knew that there was no way the Braves were going to lose this one. A new chapter in Atlanta sports was written and a team of thoroughly deserving champions will parade the trophy to a city that has been through so much and raise it up with equal joy and happiness that was evident right after the final out at Minute Maid Park.
On a personal note, following the Braves all these years has become far more than a passing interest. It has become a big part of my life. Not just with this website, but with trying to get to Atlanta as often as I can to see games in person. I was there the first week SunTrust Park (Truist Park) opened. I was there for the 2019 playoffs v St Louis. The Covid travel ban on Europeans has been agony, but it gives me so much joy to start planning a trip for the 2022 season – and to do it knowing I’ll be watching the World Champions is the cherry on top! It just feels like the culmination of over 20 years of love. I’m still (1500 words in) lost for words. Thank you Braves for an unforgettable season!