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Starting Nine: The unforgettable and defining moments of a champion

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From Max Fried’s Game 6 gem to Freddie Freeman’s blast, walk-offs and more, snapshots from Atlanta’s title run

Division Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Atlanta Braves - Game Four
Freddie Freeman’s home run off Josh Hader in the NLDS was the first run the Brewers reliever had allowed since July 28, a span of 22 appearances.
Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images

The footage of Friday’s celebration — parade route going down Peachtree Street, meandering through The Battery ant into Truist Park — will eventually grow dated, the T-shirts will fade, but how we remember a Braves team that overcame all that this one did certainly won’t.

Atlanta figures to be contenders in 2022, 2023 and beyond with a young core, and given his stated preference to stay put, Freddie Freeman as the team’s foundation. This group may not be done, or as the last generation of stars showed us, another title isn’t guaranteed.

But free agents will move on, roles will change for some who stick around, and so will expectations. After a title decades in the making, you’ll have your own take on what made them champions, and so will the rest of Braves Country. Consider these snapshots the Starting Nine’s personal scrapbook of the defining postseason moments, position-by-position.

1A. Starting Pitcher: Max Fried’s dueling gems

Stoicism on the mound is in his arsenal, but letting his emotions run over? That’s not Max Fried’s style. Then again, he’d also never pitched in a clinch scenario in a World Series, had his ankle stepped on and then fired off the third-fastest fastball (94.8 mph) he’s thrown among the 3,807 in his career, and the fastest for a strike. Add in the 10.24 ERA he had in his two previous starts — Game 5 of the NLCS vs. the Dodgers and Game 2 of the World Series — and Fried became the sixth pitcher with six or more scoreless innings with no walks in a potential World Series clinching game. He joined Bret Saberhagen (1985), Ralph Terry (1962), Dizzy Dean (1934), Stan Coveleski (192) and Christy Mathewson (1905). That shutdown performance also came against the league’s highest-scoring offense, further elevating his effort, if that’s even possible. There’s no topping Fried in Game 6, but to be fair, based on Game Score, it was the second-best outing by a Braves pitcher in the title run. With a Game Score of 70, it trails the 75 by Fried in Game 2 of the NLDS, when he outdueled the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff, blanking Milwaukee over six innings with nine strikeouts and zero walks. A tip of the hat to Ian Anderson, who allowed one run or less in three of his postseason starts, but if anyone had their doubts, Fried firmly entrenched himself as an ace when it mattered most.

1B. Relief Pitcher: Matzek slams the door

The Night Shift was the most consistent and most dominant part of the Braves’ title run, and if we’re boiling down the work of Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter and Will Smith down to one signature inning, none carries more weight than when Matzek stepped in for Game 6 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. Runners at second and third, no outs and the Braves clinging to a 4-2 lead after an RBI double from A.J. Pollock chased Jackson. Matzek proceeded to get out of the mess by striking out Albert Pujols, Steven Souza Jr., and Mookie Betts. He got the Hall of Fame-bound Pujols to swing wildly at a slider to end his at-bat, froze Souza, and blew a 98-mph fastball past Betts before Matzek let out a scream as he jumped off the mound. For good measure, the left-hander came back out in the eighth and retired the side. Matzek pitched in all but three games this postseason with a 1.72 ERA in 15 2/3 innings with 24 strikeouts and four walks. He was absolutely nails against righties, with a .167 batting average against with 19 strikeouts and two walks, and that no more evident than what he did in slamming the door on the Dodgers.

2. Catcher: D’Arnaud’s bat comes alive

In terms of policing the base paths, it wasn’t a spectacular postseason for Travis d’Arnaud. The opposition was a perfect 18-for-18 on stolen base attempts against him, and the Dodgers in particular ran on the Braves catcher at-will, with 11 in the NLCS, including four in Game 2. He was also credited with three wild pitches, two which came in the Game 2 loss to Houston. But that same game did see D’Arnaud more than make up for it with his bat. He made some history in hitting a home run and a double, becoming the ninth catcher ever to do so in a World Series game — putting his name along with the likes of Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella and Gary Carter — and just the second since 1986. Missing 67 games this season, d’Arnaud rarely looked like the Silver Slugger of 2020, hitting 22 percent below league average after a 144 wRC+ a season ago, but what he did in Game 2 of the World Series figures to overshadow a forgettable regular season.

3. First Base: Freddie takes down the game’s best reliever

At 416 feet with a 109 mph exit velocity, Freddie Freeman’s seventh-inning home run off Houston’s Ryan Stanek was an exclamation point in the title-clinching win, and a culmination for the player who was the holdover of the days of Chipper Jones and who suffered through the 90-loss seasons amid the rebuild. “Hitting a home run in the World Series is pretty cool,” Freeman said on the field afterward ... Emotion came out in that moment.” The stage heightened it all, but if we’re talking emotions, Freeman’s best moment of the playoffs was his go-ahead bomb off Josh Hader in finishing off the Brewers in front of a packed Truist Park. The game’s best reliever, who hadn’t allowed a run since July 28 — a span of 22 appearances — and came into the postseason with a .104 batting average against in his last 21 games, Hader got taken 428 feet to left center on that go-ahead blast. The World Series homer gets amplified because it’s the World Series, but this was arguably the top moment of Freeman’s career to date, a home run he celebrated with high-fives and some sword slashing with Guillermo Heredia on his way through the dugout.

4. Second Base: Albies, rally-starter

Ozzie Albies has built his resume as an extra-base machine with 252, the most of any second baseman since his debut in 2017. That included 77 in 2021, which trailed only Marcus Semien (86), Shohei Ohtani (80), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (78) and Bryce Harper (78) across all of baseball. That production was largely missing in the postseason, though, as Albies was limited to three doubles in 60 at-bats over the 16 games. He did put together an 11-game hitting streak between Game 2 of the NLDS and Game 2 of the World Series, but Albies didn’t have a spectacular final six games from an offensive standpoint, hitting .238 with a .598 OPS against the Astros. Of the five hits he did have in the World Series, only one was a hard-hit ball. It was a very uncharacteristic set of games for Albies, though he did end it with a two-hit game after sliding down to seventh in the batting order, and he’ll be forever remembered for giving America tacos with his stolen base in the World Series opener. But let’s boil his defining moment down to Game 2 vs. the Dodgers, with Atlanta trailing 4-2 in the eighth. Albies delivered an RBI single off Julio Urias, stole second, then scored on an Austin Riley double to tie the game.

5. Third Base: Riley walks it off

One of the season’s breakout stars — and one that figures to be well-represented when it comes to the National League MVP voting — Austin Riley had a red-hot start to the postseason with a 1.084 OPS through the first five games, including two home runs. He’d hit .239 with a .619 OPS the rest of the way, with a 39.5 percent strikeout rate, but before that rough stretch, Riley gave the Braves a walk-off win — the first of what would be two in a row — in the opening game of the NLCS, scoring Albies with a line-drive single into the left-field corner off Blake Treinen. At 24 years and 197 days, Riley became the youngest player in Braves history with a postseason game-winning hit. “You dream of that as a little kid,” he’d say.

6. Shortstop: Swanson’s interview

Where to begin? He burnt sage. He set the franchise record for home runs by a shortstop. He made the throw to Freeman for the final out in Game 6 to secure the title. But if he hadn’t done so already, local product Dansby Swanson endeared himself to the fanbase even further with his postgame interview with FOX’s Ken Rosenthal after the game-tying home run off Cristian Javier after the Braves’ win in Game 4. “I’m just so thankful to be here. I can’t say it enough. ... I love this city. I’m a die-hard Falcons fan, I’m a die-hard Hawks fan and, obviously, I’m a die-hard Braves fan. It’s just such a cool moment for this city.” For those who remember the “Welcome Home” digital billboards around metro Atlanta before Swanson made his debut in 2016, the pressure to not only succeed, but to do so as the “local boy does good” have been immense since the Braves traded for the former No. 1 pick in December 2015. On the biggest stage, this was Swanson embracing it all.

7. Left Field: Rosario rakes

Technically, you could just write “the entire postseason” for Eddie Rosario and it would suffice. His 23 hits are tied for the 10th most in any single playoffs, equaling the total of former Braves outfielder Marquis Grissom in 1996. He had a few World Series moments, including his “Super Rosario” catch on a Jose Altuve line drive, but Rosario was on another level during the LCS against the Dodgers. He hit .560 with three home runs, five extra-base hits and a 1.647 OPS that is the third highest in history for any player in a single LCS, trailing only Nelson Cruz’s 1.713 in 2011 and David Ortiz’s 1.691, also in 2011. That performance got no bigger than what he did in Game 4, when Rosario came up to bat in the ninth with a chance at the second playoff cycle ever and instead proceeded to jack his second homer of the game in going 4-for-4.

8. Center Field: Duvall’s slam

Every member of the Braves’ revamped outfield had his starring moment(s), and Adam Duvall delivered his in grand fashion, starting off Game 5 of the World Series with a grand slam off Framber Valdez. He came in absolutely struggling in the series, hitting .188 (3 for 16) with a .610 OPS, but he belted a 377-foot shot to become the third player ever to do so in the first inning in the Fall Classic — and the first since 1960 — and it was the second slam for a Braves player on the stage, following Lonnie Smith in Game 5 in 1992. As an aside, that had to be a tired storyline for the Astros, who gave up four grand slams in all in the postseason.

9. Right Field: Joctoberfest

We have to accept that pearls and a certain expletive at the end of an article will be what most remember about Joc Pederson. Granted, his biggest moments of the postseason didn’t come with his playing right field — he hit .150/.227/.452 at the plate while playing the position — and he had just one extra-base hit, a home run off his old team the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS. That being said, Pederson did see more time in right than anyone else, starting 11 times compared to eight by Duvall and five from Jorge Soler, and his contributions can’t go without inclusion. He hit a pair of pinch-hit home runs in the NLDS, becoming the fourth player with two in a single postseason series — joining Dusty Rhodes (1954), Chuck Essegian (1959) and Bernie Carbo (1975). Also, credit Pederson for setting the course for this team’s swagger after his arrival in July, but that pinch-hit magic was the left-hander living up to his playoff resume and moniker.

9A. Designated Hitter: Soler’s MVP turn

After missing the last game of the NLDS and the first four games of the NLCS with COVID, Jorge Soler put on a power display in the World Series, from the very get-go. He’s the only player to ever hit a leadoff home run — which delivered as the first batter in Game 1 — and a pinch-hit home run in the World Series, the latter the go-ahead run in Game 4. He cemented his MVP in the clincher, smashing a three-run home run that seemed to mock the estimated the 446-foot distance. Every one of his homers were of the go-ahead variety. Here’s the list of players who have hit three of those in a World Series: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Gene Tenace, Curtis Granderson, George Springer, and Soler. Whether or not he’s played his last game in a Braves uniform — he became a free agent on Wednesday — Soler made sure he’ll have years and years’ worth of long lines at future Braves alumni weekend events.