For fans of the Atlanta Braves, and in fact Atlanta sports in general, it has been a long and agonising wait for sporting success. 26 years to be precise. Since the Braves won their last World Series in 1995, fans in the ATL have had precious little to get excited about. There were a few near misses. The Braves reached the World Series again in 1996 and 1999, losing to the New York Yankees on both occasions. The Falcons reached the Superbowl in 1997, losing to the Denver Broncos, and again in 2017, losing in overtime to the New England Patriots after holding a 28-3 lead. If you were to extend the greater Atlanta area to include Athens, the Georgia Bulldogs lost the 2018 National Championship game to Alabama, again in overtime.
So when the Braves again found themselves up 3-1 in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, as they had been 12 months earlier and lost Game 7, they were determined to win out and kill the narrative that Atlanta sports teams were either cursed or choke on the biggest stage. After taking out the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS, the Braves found themselves back in the World Series for the first time in 22 years. The narrative seemed different this time around. Underdogs throughout the playoffs, the team seemed to thrive on being underestimated, yet draw on the fervorous support of their home city to march relentlessly towards glory. Truist Park was a fortress and the Championship that was to come was a true team effort, with vital contributions from every single player at some point during a memorable October.
Funnily enough, the Braves’ World Series opponents, the Houston Astros, were in the midst of trying to right some historical wrongs of their own. Their 2017 championship is forever tainted with revelations of cheating – banging trash cans to relay signs to their hitters. Since the revelations were made public, the Astros have found themselves almost universally hated, on a tour of shame. For them, a World Series won fairly would exorcise some of those demons, although outside of Houston it was hard to find anyone not rooting for the Braves.
By having won more regular season games, Houston were designated the higher seed for the series and had the luxury of starting the series in their own ballpark. Yet the Braves, who went 5-14 against the American League in the regular season, were fastest out of the blocks taking Game 1 by a score of 6-2. The home fans were silenced. What made the win all the more remarkable was that the Braves’ starter, Charlie Morton, was hit on the leg by a comebacker, fractured his fibula in the process and still went on to record 3 more outs before having to leave the game. Yet a leadoff home run from Jorge Soler and a dominant performance by the Braves’ bats and bullpen made sure that they would take the lead in the 7 game series.
Game 2 didn’t go the Braves’ way. The Astros, perhaps somewhat fortunately, got to Max Fried early and a 7-2 defeat followed. But going back to Atlanta with the series tied at 1-1, the Braves felt the happier. They were 5-0 at Truist Park in the postseason going into the World Series and a vocal, partisan crowd was expected at every game to try and keep up that record.
Game 3 was a tight affair, won 2-0 thanks to Austin Riley’s RBI double and Travis d’Arnaud’s second home run in as many games. Ian Anderson pitched five hitless innings and the bullpen continued its chokehold over the potent Astros offense in the two-hit shutout. With Morton out for the rest of the series, Game 4 was the first of two bullpen games for the Braves and proved another close affair. The Astros took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning and looked set to tie the series again. Yet the Braves would not be denied. Riley drove home Eddie Rosario to halve the deficit and one inning later the Braves went back-to-back through Dansby Swanson and a pinch hit shot from Jorge Soler to send the crowd into raptures and take the Braves to the brink of the title with a 3-1 series lead.
The city of Atlanta was daring to dream. 7-0 at home in the postseason and the chance to bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy if they could do it just once more. Game 5 had a party atmosphere and when Adam Duvall hit a Grand Slam in the first inning to put the Braves 4-0 up, it seemed like the dreams were going to come true. But the Astros are a quality team and, facing defeat, finally broke down the Braves’ bullpen to come back and win 9-5, taking the series back to Houston with the Braves holding a 3-2 edge.
Having been so close to victory, but thrown it away, the usual suspects began to talk about Atlanta choking with victory in sight. The ‘Tomahawk Choke’ read one meme. If they were going to win the Series, Atlanta was going to have to win another game on the road. Game 6 was going to be Max Fried’s turn again and having seen Fried give up 6 runs in Game 2, doubts were starting to creep in. Yet Fried is one of the most resilient characters to ever wear a baseball uniform. He knew what he needed to do and was prepared to leave everything he had on that field. Fried was magnificent and turned in 6 scoreless innings, giving up four hits and no walks on just 74 pitches. He did his part and just needed the offense to do theirs – and that offense delivered!
In the top of the third inning, with the game scoreless, Ozzie Albies led off with a single, but two quick outs from Astros starter Luis Garcia made it look like it was going to stay that way. Eddie Rosario then drew a walk. Astros fans now debate whether Garcia should have been pulled at that point, but history is full of ‘should haves’ and what history will record is Jorge Soler’s third home run of the series, a three-run shot that cleared the faux train tracks on the left field wall and exited the stadium. Silence fell on Minute Maid Park. Could the Astros come back twice in a row? If there was any lingering hope, it was doused two innings later when Swanson hit his second home run of the series to make it 5-0 on the night. There was no way the Braves were going to surrender this lead. When Freddie Freeman hit a solo shot in the seventh inning to make it 7-0 it was all over, made official 9 Astros outs later. Braves closer Will Smith induced a ground ball from Yuli Gurriel, Swanson fielded it cleanly, fired it across the diamond to Freeman and the Braves were the World Champions!
Scenes of pure joy followed as the Braves players and coaches poured onto the field, jumping around and embracing each other. Back at Truist Park were similar scenes as the fans had packed in to watch the game on the big screen. It was hard to believe it. After so long in the sporting wilderness, the city of Atlanta finally had a champion again.
9th November 2021