The Atlanta Braves aren’t supposed to be in the 2018 baseball playoffs.
They won fewer games (90) than any of the 10 teams who qualified for the postseason, leaned hard on a flock of kids too young to vote, and pilfered the National League East crown by fattening up on their rivals in a surprisingly weak division. They also handed out more walks than a school crossing guard.
So why are the Braves in Los Angeles awaiting the start of the National League Division Series Thursday?
They’re a team that reached their destination ahead of schedule, harvesting the fruits of a rich minor-league system almost before they were ready to be picked.
These Braves are not like the teams that won a record 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, although that streak also started without warning.
The ‘91 Braves were the first team in major-league history to vault from worst in the majors one year to World Series the next. The NL’s first worst-to-first franchise even went beyond the limit in the World Series, pushing the Minnesota Twins to the 10th inning of Game 7 before losing, 1-0, to future Hall of Famer Jack Morris.
What made the Braves so masterful that year was a defense dramatically improved by under-the-radar free agent signings: shortstop Rafael Belliard, first baseman Sid Bream, and third baseman Terry Pendleton, who parlayed a Gold Glove and batting title into an MVP award. And let’s not forget that they had a pair of powerful outfielders in David Justice and Ron Gant, a fleet leadoff man in spring training trade acquisition Otis Nixon, and four future Hall of Famers in pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, manager Bobby Cox, and general manager John Schuerholz.
In 1993, Schuerholz made the best trade of his career, landing Fred McGriff from San Diego for three minor-leagues. His booming bat, plus the pitching of newly-signed free agent Greg Maddux, enabled the Braves to close a 10-game deficit and win the division, then the NL West, on the last day of the season.
Maddux won the first of three straight Cy Young awards for the Braves in ‘93 but there was no world championship season until 1995, when the team introduced Chipper Jones, a switch-hitting third baseman who later became the second top national draft pick to reach Cooperstown (after Ken Griffey, Jr.). Maddux found his way there too and still leads all living pitchers with 355 victories.
These Braves don’t have that kind of pitching. Their patchwork rotation has one stud, a hard-throwing righthander whose name is as difficult to spell as his pitches are to hit. Beyond Mike Foltynewicz, however, are journeymen Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Gausman, erratic but hard-throwing lefty Sean Newcomb, rookie curveball specialist Touki Toussaint, and enigmatic Julio Teheran, who has a penchant for throwing too many pitches that leave the ballpark.
The bullpen is often a sore spot too, even though Aroldis Vizcaino and rookie southpaw A.J. Minter have had some success serving in the closer role.
Only when Smoltz and Craig Kimbrel (now with Boston) closed games for the Braves did opposing teams worry when games moved in the late innings.
If the 2018 Braves have any chance of defeating the Dodgers even once, they will need to revive their offense, which sputtered after the team clinched the divisional crown. Hoping for home-field advantage in the playoffs, the Braves lost four of their last five, scoring a total of two runs in those defeats, and managed to end a nine-game losing streak by Philadelphia.
On the other hand, these Braves offer the element of surprise. They don’t walk, strike out, or hit home runs very much but put the ball in play, run the bases well, and keep rivals in check with strong defensive play. The youngest man on their playoff roster, Venezuelan leftfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., is a Hank Aaron clone who led the team with 26 home runs even though he missed two months.
Like Aaron, Acuna is a 6-0, 180-pound righthanded batter who reached the majors at age 20 when a slot opened up in left field. Also like Aaron, he’ll probably make his mark in right so that the team can take advantage of his strong throwing arm.
Virtually certain to be National League Rookie of the Year after hitting a team-record eight leadoff homers, Acuna could also capture a Gold Glove for fielding excellence. So could centerfielder Ender Inciarte and rightfielder Nick Markakis, who have won them before, and any of four infielders, including Johan Camargo, Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman from third to first.
Freeman, 28, is the veteran anchor of a team so young that pundits often call them “the baby Braves.” Now fans hope they won’t go wailing into the night.
In too many previous postseasons, Atlanta has started strong but emerged like a shattered survivor of General Sherman’s march.
There was the 1969 sweep at the hands of the New York Mets in the very first NL Championship Series. After many lean years, the Braves were swept again in 1982, when rain washed out a Phil Niekro shutout before it became an official game.
Atlanta won all three home games in the ‘91 World Series but then lost Game 6 on an 11th-inning Kirby Puckett homer against Charlie Leibrandt, setting the stage for Morris vs. Smoltz in Game 7. Had the fleet Nixon, who stole a club-record 72 bases that year, not been suspended because of substance abuse in September, things might have been different.
Anxious for another chance, the Braves erased a 2-0, ninth-inning deficit against Pittsburgh in the seventh game of the 1992 Championship Series. Little-used catcher Francisco Cabrera, who had spent most of the season in the minors, delivered the two-out, two-run single that scored the tying and winning runs. But the euphoria was short-lived.
The turning point of the ‘92 World Series loss to Toronto was a ninth-inning Game 2 home run by Ed Sprague against over-the-hill closer Jeff Reardon, a late-summer trade acquisition.
In 1993, the Braves were running on fumes after a grueling six-week title fight with the Giants but held their own in the NLCS. They out-hit and out-pitched the Phillies but still managed to lose to a boisterous ballclub led by Lenny Dykstra and John Kruk.
Two years later, however, Atlanta moved into the NL East and coasted to the title, outlasting the upstart Colorado Rockies in the new Division Series, sweeping the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS, and out-pitching the Cleveland Indians in a six-game World Series that ended with a one-hit, 1-0 win shared by Glavine and Mark Wohlers.
The ‘96 team looked even stronger – until Jim Leyritz hit a Wohlers slider into oblivion, turning the tide against the National Leaguers. Atlanta rolled to victory in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, inspiring predictions of a sweep. But the Yankees won the last four games, even overcoming a 6-0 deficit to win Game 4 in extra innings.
The Braves were never the same, losing to San Diego in 1998, bowing to the Yankees in a four-game World Series a year later, and never winning a pennant since — after winning more in the ’90s than any other club. The title streak survived through 2005 but the team lacked the financial resources to compete in the free-agent field or even to retain its three star starters as their salaries rose. By the last year of the streak, Atlanta employed 18 rookies, hoping to parlay a lower payroll into a pennant. It didn’t work.
Atlanta returned to postseason play in 2010 but had to face San Francisco in the Division Series without Chipper Jones. His replacement, Brooks Conrad, proved to be a defensive disaster of historic proportions as the Giants won in four.
Even with Chipper back in 2011, the Braves blew a 10½ game wild-card lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, who eventually prevailed in the very first game to determine which wild-card hopeful would advance. A controversial infield-fly call by umpire Sam Holbrook didn’t help.
Two years later, the Dodgers destroyed the Braves, then like now champions of the NL East, in a four-game Division Series. A little payback would be nice, according to Atlanta fans who don’t want to see their hopes dashed again.
To be sure, the Braves have had a historic run since moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Aaron and Eddie Mathews, later his manager, hit a record 863 home runs as teammates. Tony Cloninger, a pitcher, became the first National Leaguer to hit two grand-slams in a game. Phil Niekro led the league in wins and losses in the same season. He and Kent Mercker pitched no-hitters. Bob Horner, Earl Williams, and David Justice were Rookies of the Year. Ron Gant collected consecutive 30/30 seasons. Pendleton and Jones won MVP trophies. The Braves won six Cy Young Awards and sent six men to the Hall of Fame in a five-year span.
Now the 2018 Braves are hoping to add to that history.