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Starting Nine: Foundations of Braves’ run to NLCS, and what they mean regardless of opponent

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Dominant starting pitching, a lock-down bullpen, pinch-hitting magic, and Freddie Freeman’s statement game set stage for LCS return as Braves await Dodgers or Giants

MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at Milwaukee Brewers
Max Fried (above), Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson combined for a 1.77 ERA against the Brewers. That’s the third-best ERA of any Braves rotation in a Division Series.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Dodgers? Giants? Does it matter? Well, not from an optimum matchup standpoint. Like, does it even matter what happens next for a Braves team that’s risen back to the National League Championship Series after losing two of its brightest young stars and a slugger who led the league in homers and RBI a year ago?

Does it even matter after it took Atlanta 109 games to get above .500, 119 games claim first place in the NL East and 158 games to make it stick and punch a return trip to the postseason?

A team that had the third-best preseason odds of winning the World Series now standing one series from a chance to do just that isn’t surprising. But one that entered the playoffs with the third-worst certainly is.

Freddie Freeman’s go-ahead home run off Josh Hader in Game 4 of the Division Series — a defining moment for the most important player of this generation of Braves baseball — the heroics of Joc Pederson and stellar starting pitching got Atlanta back to the stage where its playoff run ended last season.

It’s something to bask in, something that felt improbable when the Braves were eight games back on June 16, and before we flip the script as the Braves await the winner of the Dodgers and Giants in the NLCS — which will open Saturday in Atlanta should the former win or in San Francisco if the latter takes that series — let’s have a parade.

No, not one of the ticker-tape variety. Instead, a celebration of the trends that led the Braves to an NLDS win, and what they mean heading into the NLCS, regardless of opponent.

1. Rotation’s dominance

Outside of the end to Charlie Morton’s Game 1 and 4 starts, the Brewers couldn’t touch Braves starters, who allowed all of four earned runs over 20 1/3 innings. That 1.77 ERA is the best of any team to play more than one game this postseason and was the sixth time the Braves had produced that many starts of four runs allowed or less in the Division Series. They’d rarely been better in the LDS, with only the holy trinity of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz besting what we just saw out of Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson. Those Hall of Famers from the run of 14 straight division titles had a 0.79 ERA in 1996 to beat the Dodgers in three games, and a 1.69 ERA in a 1998 sweep of the Cubs. The current Braves starters did equal two-thirds of that HOF trio, as Glavine and Maddux combined with John Burkett for a 1.77 ERA in a three-game series win over the Astros in 2001. The groove Morton, Fried and Anderson are in couldn’t seem bigger with the Braves set to face either the NL’s highest (Dodgers) or second highest (Giants) scoring offense.

2. Freeman’s surge

Freeman’s LDS basically mirrored his regular season: slow start, fantastic finish. He went into Game 4 hitting .125 (1-for-8) with a .542 OPS and, one RBI and zero extra-base hits, not too dissimilar from his early May average of .195 through 135 plate appearances. His double and home run Tuesday was the second time in 30 postseason games in which the first baseman had multiple extra-base hits, equaling his two two-base hits in Game 5 of the 2020 NLCS and his second three-hit game, tying the 2012 Wild Card Game. Among players with at least 70 plate appearances the past two postseasons, Freeman’s .947 OPS is bested by four players: the Rays’ Randy Arozarena (1.241), the Astros’ Jose Altuve (1.197) and Carlos Correa (1.189) and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager (1.024). Austin Riley’s been MVP-level this season and has had a strong postseason in his own right with a .905 OPS, but it’s hard to see the Braves taking the next step without Freeman hitting at a high level. In closing out the LDS, he did exactly that, a good omen to build on given his success against the likes of the Dodgers’ Max Scherzer (.838 OPS and three homers) and Giants’ Anthony DeSclafani (1.017), Logan Webb (.889), Alex Wood (.868).

3. Pinch-hit magic

Between Pederson’s two home runs off the bench in Games 1 and 3 and Eddie Rosario’s two-run single in the fourth inning of Game 4, Braves pinch-hitters accounted for six RBI in the series. That’s tied for the sixth most of any team over a playoff run, a list headlined by the champion 1995 Braves, as the collective of Mike Devereaux, Mike Mordecai, Luis Polonia and Dwight Smith drove in nine runs off the bench. That was across three rounds and we’re talking about one round so far from this year’s Braves. Pederson’s seven career postseason RBI as a sub are tied for second all-time, trailing Jim Leyritz with nine. In the 95 games that the Braves played after the trade deadline, they had just 10 RBI off the bench, 15th in MLB, and hit just .190 (21st) with a .641 OPS (18th). Through four postseason games, Atlanta reserves lead all teams with a 1.806 OPS, going 4-for-8 with the only home runs. Every other team this postseason has combined for only RBI off the bench. The depth added by general manager Alex Anthopoulos in giving manager Brian Snitker a wealth of options in the outfield is paying off in a big way in these pinch-hit roles.

4. Lock-down back of the bullpen

No doubt Luke Jackson and Tyler Matzek could use a few days off, with both throwing in every game of the LDS and combining for 7 2/3 scoreless innings with nine strikeouts. Add in three appearances and three saves from Will Smith, and the back end of the Braves rotation has been lights-out, giving the Braves a 1.23 bullpen ERA, whose only blemish has been Huascar Ynoa’s hanging slider that Rowdy Tellez hammered for a two-run blast in Game 4. Unless the starters can continue to work deep into games, the Braves are likely going to have to use more relievers at some point in the LCS, with Jesse Chavez (two games) and Ynoa and A.J. Minter (one game apiece) the only other arms to see any time. But it’s hard to argue with the roll Atlanta’s workhorses have been on since the All-Star break. The Braves have posted a 3.17 ERA in the eighth inning-on, fourth behind the Dodgers (2.64), Giants (2.73) and Rangers (2.84).

5. Austin Riley’s coming out party rages on

The Austin Riley Breakout Party is indeed stretching into October. After hitting .178 (8 for 45) last postseason with a .489 OPS and one extra-base hit, equaled that in one XBH within 15 ABs, connecting on a solo home run off Brandon Woodruff in Game 2 en route to slashing .333/.375/.533, a .908 OPS for those who don’t want to do math. There were only two Braves who had an OPS over .804 over 13 or more at-bats in the round: Freeman (1.086) and Riley. With Ozzie Albies (.588), Travis d’Arnaud (.500), Jorge Soler (.413), and Dansby Swanson (.467) largely struggling and Pederson (1.714) and Rosario (.665) doing the major damage off the bench, this offense needed Riley to be every bit the 1A to Freeman and needs it to continue into the LCS.

6. Snitker pulling the right levers when it mattered most

As a manger is sure to during the postseason, Snitker’s every move is being put under 10X magnification. Why pull Morton late in Game 1? That ended up backfiring as he looked shaky in the sixth, then gave up the home run to Tellez in the seventh. Why pinch-hit Orlando Arcia — he off the worst wRC+ on the team’s postseason roster — with a game on the line? Not every machination paid off, and it doesn’t take a master of strategy to bring Pederson to the plate in October with the game on the line. But Snitker did put Joctober in the right position in back-to-back games, and with Jorge Soler out for Game 4 after a positive COVID test he started Guillermo Heredia, which paved the way for the manager to pinch hit for his pinch hitter (Arcia) when Rosario came up big off the bench in the clincher.

7. Left-handers getting it done

The Braves scored 12 runs against the Brewers, and all but two of them were driven in from the left side of the plate, with Pederson (five), Freeman and Rosario with two each and the switch-hitting Ozzie Albies with one as a left-hander. That’s bested by just the two teams who will play for the American League crown in the Astros and Red Sox with 14 RBI each. It’s big after the Braves were 19th in MLB in RBI out of lefties during the regular season and it’s a big for what lies ahead. They just faced a Milwaukee pitching staff that had the second lowest regular-season ERA vs. lefties, and they’ll either get the team that’s No. 1 (the Giants at 2.94) or third (Dodgers at 3.11) in that category.

8. Not even that bitter enemy replay can get in their way

The Braves and the fanbase have had a tortured relationship with replay, with such glaring moments during the regular season like Exhibit A featuring Travis d’Arnaud and the Phillies’ Alec Bohm and Exhibit B with Freeman against the Yankees among them. The most egregious played itself out in Game 4 with Adam Duvall “popping out” after what was ruled a catch by Milwaukee’s Luis Urias ... but clearly wasn’t ... but clearly “was” because it wasn’t reviewable as a fly ball fielded by a defensive player in foul territory in the infield area. It could have been a disaster as Pederson followed with a pop up. But three batters later, Rosario rendered the controversy null and void with his two-run single. Atlanta has seemingly been the replay system’s biggest punching bag, and when it could have derailed everything, it didn’t. That’s not going to make anyone feel any better about it but think about this. If it was reviewable and was overturned, maybe the Braves have an even bigger inning, and maybe we don’t get the same setup for Freeman’s heroics. When it started to feel like the wheels were coming off after the missed call, the Braves found a way, despite a system they seemingly keep coming up on the wrong side of in key moments.

9. Talisman, thy name is pearl

The Nationals fans were infested with all things ‘Baby Shark,’ to go along with Gerardo Parra’s walkup music in the 2019 title run. The Giants channeled WWE’s Daniel Bryan’s “YES!” chant in 2014, the Cardinals had the Rally Squirrel in 2011 and the Angels the Rally Monkey in 2002. The Twins fans waved the Homer Hanky in 1987 and ‘91 (sorry about that one, Braves Country). Talismans have mattered when it comes to postseason vibes, and the Braves have (quite literally) a string of them, hanging around Joc Pederson’s neck. Atlanta fans are legitimately going into jewelry stores to buying pearls of their own (to the surprise of a jeweler in the above report from WSBTV’s Alison Mastrangelo and, of course, the team is selling them. As all those previously mentioned teams rode those good-luck charms to a World Series title. Thanks to a seriously bad b****, the Braves have that kind of mojo that doesn’t show up in the box score working for them.