SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale breaks down the NL wild card race as the regular season nears an end.
The Atlanta Braves’ grand rebuild came to fruition earlier than expected, as the team clinched the National League East title Saturday with a 5-3 win against the Philadelphia Phillies – the club’s first trip to the postseason since 2013.
Atlanta outlasted the Phillies, taking the division lead for good on Aug. 12. Meanwhile, the two-time defending division champion Washington Nationals suffered through a disastrous season, giving the young Braves plenty of room for error.
It has been a long process for the Braves, who started selling off their assets after a 79-83 season in 2014. Over time, Atlanta built up one of the best farm systems in baseball.
That group of prospects started paying off this season, as the Braves got enormous contributions from outfielder Ronald Acuna, 20, a front-runner for NL rookie of the year, and second baseman Ozzie Albies, 21, who played in the All-Star Game.
Some of the team’s most important pieces were acquired in those trades over the past four years, including All-Star starter Mike Foltynewicz (for Evan Gattis in January 2015), everyday players Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte (for Shelby Miller in December 2015) and lefty starter Sean Newcomb (for Andrelton Simmons in November 2015).
During the Braves’ clinching win on Saturday, Foltynewicz pitched six scoreless innings, Inciarte scored three runs and Acuna scored two runs, plus caught a Maikel Franco fly ball for the final out.
Atlanta lost 95 games in 2015, 93 in 2016 and 90 in 2017, finishing 25 games behind the division-winning Nationals last season.
With plenty more talent in the pipeline, 2018 might just be the tip of the iceberg as the Braves appear primed for a sustained period of success.