The Braves captured the National League East with a remarkable season that was imagined by few. So many things went the Braves’ way that led to the first postseason trip since 2013. In the fourth of a seven-part series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will look back at some of the many highlights of the wonderful journey that captured the imagination of the city.
Today: The acquisitions, the unheralded heroes
The Braves’ internal development positioned their National League East title, but the outsiders’ contributions – many of which weren’t expected – cannot be overlooked.
From Preston Tucker holding fort while Ronald Acuna was in the minors to Ryan Flaherty briefly leading the league in hitting, the Braves have gotten spurts of production from their lesser-known players.
Even Jose Bautista, who played just 12 games for the Braves and is on his third NL East team of the season, supplied the go-ahead home run in Chicago on May 14.
Perhaps no addition has been bigger than Anibal Sanchez, whose on-and-off field impact has maintained a drastic effect on the division champs. He’ll be excluded from this exercise because we recently delved into his shockingly efficient season.
“It’s taken every guy in this clubhouse to win games this year,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Ryan Flaherty, Charlie Culberson, Preston Tucker, the rookies making their major-league debut this year. We wouldn’t be here without each and every guy.”
Culberson has answered every call. This season was the first time he received a consistent opportunity, and he’s taken it and run.
The Rome native has hit .287 since the All-Star break. He’s manned seven positions, including pitching an inning Aug. 17 against the Rockies.
When the Braves take the field Oct. 4 for the NLDS, they’ll largely have Culberson to thank. He’s mitigated several injuries, most recently filling in for shortstop Dansby Swanson as he missed the final week of the regular season.
On a similar note, when Johan Camargo opened the season on the disabled list, Flaherty stepped up. He hit .362 into late April, and while that seems like a small feat, it was pivotal in the Braves’ 19-11 start.
In 22 games before Acuna’s arrival, Tucker hit .254 with six doubles, three homers and 18 RBIs. He had eight RBIs in the first six games, including a three-run homer off Max Scherzer that helped the Braves take their first series against the Nationals.
Tucker hit .429 in the first eight games. Again, it seems like a minor impact from a player who’d get traded only to be flipped back to the Braves in September, but players surpassing expectations – for however long – is why the Braves are postseason bound.
“It was big,” Tucker said. “I didn’t know what to expect when I was traded to Atlanta, but obviously this front office has been unbelievable in telling you exactly what your role is going to be, what they want you to do and trying to be honest and commit to what they say they’re going to do.
“They said I had the chance to make the opening day roster as the left fielder. Obviously they said Acuna was going to come up and my role would change, which it did, but it was very interesting. It’s a long year and it feels like it was a long time ago, but it was nice to play for a division champ and help us win a couple days.”
There are also the unheralded bullpen arms. No one knew who Shane Carle was, but he produced a 0.69 ERA across the first 20 games of the season, walking just six at a time the bullpen was struggling to keep that number down.
Even Luke Jackson, who’s bounced between the majors and Triple-A, has struck out 46 hitters in 40-2/3 frames, having his own stints of success. Jesse Biddle, a former first rounder whose career tumbled because of injury, was at times its best reliever.
Most recently, the unknown Chad Sobotka was summoned and assumed a crucial role. He’s struck out 19 hitters in 13-1/3 innings, likely pitching his way onto the postseason roster.
Brad Brach and Jonny Venters came over at the trade deadline and provided reinforcements for the bullpen. Venters has allowed five earned runs in 26 games. Brach has permitted four earned runs in his 26 appearances, though his performance has dropped off lately.
Finally, there’s Kevin Gausman. Once a top-five pick by the Orioles who underachieved in Baltimore, he’s flashed the stuff of an ace with the Braves, earning his way into the postseason rotation.
He earned a 1.69 ERA across his first five starts with the Braves, and while his September hasn’t been as fortunate, the team appears to have acquired a controllable, high-upside arm at minimal cost.
“I’ve been feeling great since I came over here,” Gausman said. “I’ve really felt like I’ve been throwing the ball more consistently whenever I take the mound. I feel good. The biggest thing is I feel healthy. I’m confident and excited for Sunday (his last start of the regular season) but also what’s to come after that.”
In case you missed it:
– Braves dream season part 1: It all began with a walk-off win
– Braves dream season part 2: Early-season success made for late-season cushion
– Braves dream season part 3: Ronald Acuna arrived with a bang