For the first time since 1999, the Atlanta Braves made it past the NLCS, and are going to the World Series. From the loss of arguably one of the greatest players in the league, to other unforeseen injuries, to last minute trades, it seems as though the Braves have been through it all this season. Many had given up on them, said they should focus on next year, and thought that there was no possible chance of them going to the postseason. But, despite all the adversity they have faced, Atlanta is once again heading to the main stage.
Many thought 2020 was going to be the year that Atlanta finally returned to the World Series. They had played well in the regular, albeit shortened season, finishing with 35 wins and 25 losses. They survived the Reds in the Wild Card round. Then, swept the Marlins in the NLDS. They then took a commanding lead in the NLCS, leading three games to one against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sound familiar? That’s because they were in that exact same position this NLCS. After winning the first two games from consecutive walk-offs, dropping game three, and then claiming game four, the Braves were right back in the spot that now haunts all Atlanta sports fans: leading in the NLCS.
Unfortunately, Game 5 did not turn out how we were all hoping. With ace, Max Fried, on the mound, and the Dodgers playing a bullpen game, it was easy for Braves’ fans to feel confident. But, Fried and our relievers struggled to find a solid rhythm, and ended up earning more runs than could be afforded. Even though the Braves still lead the series 3-2, it was difficult not to let panic sink in. Last year, even though the Braves were leading 3-1, the Dodgers came back and won three games in a row, winning them the pennant and delivering them to the World Series.
With this year’s Game 5 loss, it was many fans’ consensus that was where we were heading again. When asked about it, first baseman Freddie Freeman said, “It’s going to be the narrative it seems because every day it’s brought up. So, I don’t think we have a choice until we kill that narrative. We’re up 3-2, and we’re going home. That’s a great position to be in.”
And killing the narrative is exactly what they have done. At home, in Truist Park, the Braves won game six 4-2, winning the Championship series 4-2, and are advancing to the World Series. But what made this Championship Series different from last years? Why was Atlanta successful against the Dodgers, a team that won 18 more games in the regular season, this time around?
One reason that could be awarded most of the credit for success is the trade acquisitions. Without them it is almost certain that the Braves would not be where they are now. One trade acquisition that was a breakout star this NLCS was outfielder Eddie Rosario, who the Braves acquired from the Indians for Pablo Sandoval at the trade deadline. He joined the Braves injured, and did a rehabilitation stint in Gwinnett before being called up. The Puerto Rico native went 14-for-25 with three home runs, one double, one triple, nine RBIs, and six runs scored. One of those hits being a walk-off single in game two, and another the three-run homer that gave the Braves the lead in game six. These astonishing feats rightly earned him the NLCS MVP.
Another trade acquisition that made a big difference was outfielder Joc Pederson. He has had his own fair share of hits in this NLCS. In game two, he hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth, putting the Braves on the board and tying the game. This game ended up being a one-run game, and without this crucial hit, the Braves might not have pulled ahead. While Pederson didn’t stand out during the regular season, only slashing .238/.310/.422 with a 94 wRC+ combined between the Cubs and the Braves, his bat seems to have come alive for the postseason.
Furthermore, the players that we’ve had since the beginning of the season have really improved, and that too has made all the difference. Austin Riley is a premium example of this. In the 2020 NLCS, Riley went 4-for-28 (.143) against the Dodgers through all seven games. This year, in game one alone, he already had half that hit total. One of those hits was his walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning, the first walk-off of his career. In the top of the first in game six, he put Atlanta on the board with a double, allowing Ozzie Albies to score from second. While the third-baseman might have started off the season on shaky ground, in the second half he really came back with a vengeance, and this transformation has followed him to the postseason.
In addition to the Braves offense rallying, the starting pitching rotation and the rest of the bullpen were also a deciding factor in this series. A new face that we didn’t have last year is right-hander Charlie Morton. Morton is a very experienced postseason pitcher, having a 3.44 ERA across 70.2 innings in October, and he was very beneficial to the Braves in this series. In his start of game three, he did give up two runs, giving the Dodgers an early lead. But, after jamming Chris Taylor and ending the inning, he came back in the second with a new attitude and pitched four scoreless innings. He only earned those first two runs with three hits and five strikeouts.
Max Fried and Ian Anderson we both had in 2020, earning six runs across a combined 19.2 innings. While their starts weren’t perfect this year, they did enough. Fried had a solid start in game one, only earning two runs with eight hits and five strikeouts. Ian Anderson’s starts were a little more productive. In game two, he did give up two runs through three innings, but those were the only runs the Dodgers acquired. In game six, he made it to four innings after grappling a bit, only giving up one run. Together Fried and Anderson account for 10 runs earned across 17.2 innings.
A pitcher who really stood out from the rest was reliever Tyler Matzek. He pitched in every game but one of this series, earning only two runs with one hit and 11 strikeouts. He came in, often during high-stake situations, and really delivered. In game six he came into the game in the bottom of the seventh inning, after Luke Jackson had given up a double and a walk, cutting the Braves lead to 4-2. Matzek took the mound with two runners on second and third with no outs. He then struck out the next three batters: Albert Pujols, Steven Souza Jr., and Mookie Betts. He cleaned up the mess that Jackson created, and came back in the eighth to retire the side, setting the stage for closer Will Smith.
This year’s postseason Will Smith is different from 2020’s. Last year he only pitched 1.2 innings in the NLCS and earned three runs. This year he pitched four innings with no runs earned. In game six in the top of the ninth inning he struck out the first two batters, with the third batter hitting an infield ground out, securing the Braves’ NL pennant. This postseason he has converted four of four save opportunities. No other pitcher has more than one save in this postseason.
While these differences might seem insignificant separately, they all add up to create a team that is tenacious enough to make it to the World Series. They’ve become a team you believe in and can’t help but hope succeeds. If they keep up this steadfast pace, the Atlanta Braves could become the new world champions.