If you’re reading this, you probably fancy yourself as a dedicated Atlanta Braves fan. At the very least, you likely have some level of affiliation or passing interest in the team that plays its home games at SunTrust Park.
That said, you may be overjoyed to reflect on the fact that SunTrust, in only its second year of existence, will host at least two playoff games in the first week of October. This obviously means the Braves played well enough in 2018 to christen the stadium with its first postseason experience.
Be honest, how many people expected this to be the case before the season started? Coming off of the third year of a rebuild, and emerging from one of the most shameful scandals since Pete Rose was exiled from the sport, most of us would have been happy to even joke about approaching .500.
Alex Anthopoulos mainly played it safe in the off-season, to the dismay of many. His rationale – learning about the prospects on the farm system instead of rushing towards contention by trading assets he did not yet fully understand – was commendable, but at the same time perplexing. For a GM who was known for big moves, many of us looked at potential giant trades and hoped the Braves would be a part of one, if for no reason other than to wash the bad taste of the 2017 off-season out of our mouths.
Alas, there were no big trades, just a salary clearing move that sent Matt Kemp back West.
And what do you know? The Braves are 2018 NL East Champions.
As we – yes, we, this is our team and we are in this together – slide into the playoffs for the first time in half a decade, and at least 365 days before anyone thought we deserved to be here, there is obviously cause for extreme and possibly irrational celebration. It’s not so much that this glorious event happened, it’s how it happened.
This was done by a team that did not sign a major league free agent deal in the off-season, and were mocked for doing so. This was done by a team that sacrificed international bonus slot money, lesser prospects, and inevitable 40-man roster casualties to beef up their roster at the trade deadline, and were ridiculed for not dealing the aforementioned assets Anthopoulos was holding tightly.
This was done by a team that started Preston Tucker and Ryan Flaherty on Opening Day, and had Rex Brothers come out of the bullpen that same afternoon. This is a team that signed Jose Bautista off the scrap heap to play third base rather than start Johan Camargo, who wound up being one of the best stories of this improbable Braves season. Brandon McCarthy was looked at as a reliable (and allegedly healthy) option in the starting rotation. Miguel Socolovich pitched important innings against a division rival. Peter Bourjos was considered a viable bench option. Flaherty, somehow, still is.
Despite all this, here they are.
The whole of this team is astronomically greater than the sum of its parts, and ever since Nick Markakis’ Opening Day walk-off home run (and with every subsequent walk-off win), it has seemed like something is in the water. Not necessarily a team of destiny, but a team that could turn heads at the drop of a dime.
It hasn’t just been one player that took a step forward in making this happen; in reality, it has been like watching the entire team grow up together. Where would the 2018 Braves be if Mike Foltynewicz hadn’t taken a massive step forward and made the Evan Gattis trade worth it? Or if Camargo hadn’t turned into one of the steadiest third baseman in the National League? Or if Markakis hadn’t had his best season since he was in the early stages of his career with Baltimore? Or if Charlie Culberson hadn’t become one of the best bench players in all of baseball?
The ingredients for postseason magic exist. And while some might assume the Braves are destined for a one-and-done, I am not so convinced this team – which has been repeatedly compared to the 1991 Braves – does not have a deep postseason run. On the contrary, I think they could go quite deep.
This is not to play ostrich and ignore some of the Braves’ shortcomings. Just like you, I have watched the bullpen roller coaster and raised an eyebrow on multiple occasions – not just the performances of the relievers themselves, but also at Snitker’s management of them. I have watched Ozzie Albies swing at too many first pitches, as his approach completely shifted after his amazing April. I have seen Sean Newcomb’s effectiveness wane.
The good news is, even for the weaknesses the Braves have shown, every team they will face in the postseason has some sort of weakness of their own that can be exposed. There are no perfect teams.
If the NLDS started today, the Braves would have home field advantage against the Dodgers. The results at SunTrust Park were mixed during the regular season – the Braves’ 43-38 home record was passable but by no means dominant – but the playoffs are a different animal. When the Dodgers (and any other postseason rivals) come to town, it is absolutely imperative to make your presence known as a fan. Same goes for you if you’re a Braves fan in Los Angeles. Show up early. Come decked out in Braves gear from head to toe. Chop in the parking lot. High-five strangers and fellow Braves fans. Get rowdy. Get loud. And if the Braves fall behind, get louder. Show the support the team has referenced countless times during post-game and post-celebration interviews. They love us as much as we love them, and they can ride our enthusiasm to a World Series championship.
Every little moment will count – every sac fly, every scoreless inning, every time a runner goes first to third. Embrace it, and allow your blood pressure to spike until the last pitch of the Braves’ season. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Lean hard into your fandom. Who cares that you’ll be tired tomorrow? Stay up until the last out. Reach deep for some extra enthusiasm, even if it means chopping by yourself in your living room at 1:30am on a work night while the Braves are mounting a 14th inning rally in Los Angeles. Fist pump until you hurt yourself and scream joyous obscenities into a pillow to keep from waking up your entire house when Luke Jackson strikes out Joc Pederson to send the Braves to the NLCS. When Ronald Acuña hits a walk-off home run to win the World Series, grab the Braves flag off your lawn and sprint up and down your street, screaming at the top of your lungs to alert your neighbors that the Braves are world champions. They’ll be glad you did.
We have witnessed something special, and it’s not over yet. We will tell our kids of this season, of Ronald Acuña’s rookie year, of Folty’s breakout, of the year the losing stopped and the rebuild ended. Twenty years from now, another young upstart team will be compared to the 2018 Braves, and it will be considered a huge compliment.
These guys are too young to know they’re not supposed to win it all. Because of that, they could. They really could. It has crossed my mind a thousand times this season, and likely yours too. It wouldn’t seem so improbable anymore, would it?
We are no longer “a year ahead of schedule.” This is the schedule. This is just the beginning.
Chop on, Braves Country.