From reflection to World Series Champs: How the Braves shattered expectations | Bleacher report

Photo by AP / David J. Phillip

At long last, a playoff result that has not left Atlanta sports fans’ hearts completely broken. And because of what’s coming in the World Series, the team that got it done can now count themselves among the greatest in Major League Baseball history.

And besides, perhaps the most unlikely member of that club.

To be sure, the Fall Classic itself was for the most part a dominant affair for the victors. Atlanta may have been surpassed by the Houston Astros by 16-7 in its two defeats, but it combined its four wins to an 18-4 dubbing marked by not one but two shutouts.

The second, for those who missed it or just want to see it again, was a 7-0 round in Game 6 that ended when Will Smith got Yuli Gurriel to ground weakly to Dansby Swanson:

MLB @MLB

@Braves are world champions !!! pic.twitter.com/zTirZrkgUs

Of all the players who took part in the fun Tuesday at Minute Maid Park, the decisive calming moment was provided by Jorge Soler. His three-run home run by Luis Garcia in the third inning was worthy of Albert Pujols and in the end would have been enough to deliver Atlanta its first World Series championship since 1995 all alone:

MLB @MLB

SOLES HAVE LEFT THE BUILDING. pic.twitter.com/IOc5wXreRb

That bang pushed Solers home run for the series to three, each set Atlanta at the head. So let there be no doubt that he deserved to be named World Series MVP.

If you are joining us right now after waking up from a nap that began in October 2020, you may not be surprised that Atlanta has won the World Series, but confused about how the Suns got there.

For that matter, what does he do and share a dugout with Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson? Should Ronald Acuna Jr. not be somewhere in there? And what ever happened to Marcell Ozuna? By Mike Soroka? And is that Charlie Morton? If so, why does he have plaster on his leg?

Short answer: Like the baseball gods, try to exterminate Atlanta in 2021, they just could not.


Atlanta players of the game

  • LHP Max Fried: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 6 K. In the middle of a series marked by poor starting pitching, the young left-handed player turned the series’ first quality start and the first ever bet with at least six strikeouts, no steps and no runs in a World Series clincher.
  • DH Jorge Soler: 1-to-3, 1 HR, 2 R, 3 RBI. Statcast measured his explosion at 109.6 mph from bats and 446 feet. “Crushed”, in other words. Not to be overlooked, he also came home on Freddie Freeman’s RBI double in the fifth.
  • SS Dansby Swanson: 1-to-4, 1 HR, 1 R, 2 RBI. Although Atlanta ultimately needed no more than Solers home run, it was Swanson’s two-run shot in the fifth that really delivered the message to fans wrapped up in Minute Maid Park that the home team would not win this one.
  • 1B Freddie Freeman: 2-to-4, 1 2B, 1 HR, 1 R, 2 RBI. If this is to be the last time he ever fits Atlanta, what way to go out. Especially his solo homer in the seventh was the obligatory dagger.

Astro players in the game

  • LF Michael Brantley: 2-to-4. He was the only Astro with more than one hit in Game 6, not to mention their only regular who hit over 0.300 for the series.

Seriously, the Atlanta championship is historically unlikely

Although history will show that Atlanta won its first World Series title in 25 years on November 2, 2021, the decisive date for the team’s season is actually August 6.

It was that day (a Friday, if you must know) that manager Brian Snitker’s team achieved a winning record for the first time. Until now, no World Series winner had ever first crossed the .500 threshold so late in a season:

Pro Sports Outlook @PSO_Sport

Latest date for a World Series team to have a winning record for the first time during the season in MLB’s history:
1. 2021 #Braves (August 6)
2. 1914 Braves (August 3)
3. 1979 Pirates (May 30)
4. 1925 Pirates (May 27)
5. 1985 Cardinals (May 26) pic.twitter.com/zhwGuWAGSS

Even in the wake of three straight National League East titles and a trip to the National League Championship Series in 2020, it was not entirely unforeseen that Atlanta would end up having a tough season in 2021. If anything, the club’s course was during the summer justification for projection systems that had it stapled for 80-ish victories over the spring.

What neither computers nor humans could have foreseen, however, was exactly how Atlanta would get so close to total ruin.

The word “blah” can best describe Atlanta’s first months. There was just nothing to notice there as it went 38-41 through June. Yet it was not until July 10 that Atlanta really hit its nadir. That was when Acuna, who had put up MVP caliber numbers, tore the ACL in his right knee and was lost for the season.

Eric Espada / Getty Images

Atlanta was already without Ozuna, who did not play out the rest of the first season of his newly signed $ 64 million four-year deal following his arrest on charges of domestic violence in May. Travis d’Arnaud was also out of the picture due to a thumb operation. Although he was able to pitch in the spring training session, young ace Mike Soroka was not yet fully recovered from an Achilles tear, which he eventually worsened in June.

How wrong was Atlanta, after Acuna’s injury, things got worse? Very screwed. As in, about a 7 percent chance of making the playoffs screwed. It went wrong.

Which means Atlanta beat expectations just by playing 44-29 in the 73 games it played after Acuna’s injury.

As they simply should, it was the club’s sitting stars who picked up the bulk of the slack. The loss of Acuna coincided with Freeman and Austin Riley turning red-hot to the tunes of a combined .947 OPS and 31 homers. Swanson and Ozzie Albies hit their own 29 homers, while Morton and Fried pushed with 2.35 ERA in 29 starts in total.

And yet, the biggest single contribution to the Atlanta season-saving race came from the high. For even though his team only went 7-9 in the first 16 games after Acuna’s injury, general manager Alex Anthopoulos still intensified his offensive with deals for Soler, Duvall, Rosario and Pederson ahead of the trade deadline of July 30.

“I was ecstatic,” Anthopoulos told MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, reminding team chairman Terry McGuirk of the green light to add the team’s payroll. “It’s an honor to the fans who came out and supported this club and put us in this position.”

The movements? Yes, they paid off. The only thing the four new outfielders did was merge into a .830 OPS and 41 homeruns.

As they hit more than any team except one team in the National League, home runs were truly a feature for Atlanta after the trade deadline came and went. The same was excellent defense, as the team’s newfound preference for shifts eventually led it to allow the league’s second-lowest stroke average on balls in play after the deadline.

It was also during this stretch that Atlanta’s famous “Night Shift” of relievers first rang in. Atlanta’s entire bullpen excelled with a 3.23 ERA after July 30, but it was a fireman of Smith, AJ Minter, Tyler Matzek and Luke Jackson who drove the bus. Together, they cut up the opposition using an ERA of 2.27 in 100 appearances in total.

Maybe there’s an alternative timeline where Atlanta’s strong end to 2021 goes to waste because the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies were simply better. But i this timeline, Snitker’s guys ran effectively unaffected in the final weeks of the season:

Sarah Langs @SlangsOnSports

The Braves’ chance to win the World Series throughout the season

incredible pic.twitter.com/ECENBQe8Dq

But even after Atlanta secured its fourth title in the NL East in a row, the writing on the wall still said a deep run after the season was unlikely. It had finished the regular season with just 88 wins and .547 winning percentage. Throughout MLB’s history, only four other clubs had ever won the World Series after falling below a .550 winning percentage in the regular season.

Looking back now, it’s still easy to spot moments when the writing on the wall was less than optimistic for Atlanta during the playoffs.

For example, after a 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 1 of the NLDS. And then when Soler was on the COVID-19 injury list before that series ended. The Los Angeles Dodgers with 106 wins proved to be a relative pushover in the NLCS, but then Atlanta’s victory in Game 1 of the World Series was undercut by Morton’s broken leg.

And yet, here is Atlanta on November 2nd. Champion in the baseball world. And the only thing it had to do to get there was … well, what it had already done.

As big as the Astros offense was in itself, the decisive homerun match lost to Atlanta in the World Series with a final score of 11-2. That made it 23 homers for Atlanta in the playoffs, most of any team. Freeman, the reigning NL MVP, produced five of them, with a further 12 from the team’s four newest outfielders.

Defensively, it was close to impossible to get a ground ball through Atlantas inside the playoffs. The foursome of Freeman, Albies, Swanson and Riley allowed only a .215 average on grounders, though with a slight increase in the World Series … all the way to .217.

As was the case with any other manager, Snitker had a hard time getting innings from his starters in the off-season. However, he was nicely rewarded for how much confidence he put in “Night Shift” and specifically in Smith, Minter and Matzek:

  • Smith: 11.0 IP, 5 H, 3 BB, 0 R, 8 K
  • Minter: 12.0 IP, 8 H, 4 BB, 4 R, 18 K.
  • Matzek: 15.2 IP, 10 H, 4 BB, 3 R, 24 K.

These numbers will live forever with the gold-plated “World Series Champions” on the Baseball Reference page for the Atlanta 2021 season. Yet they will not tell the whole story, which will inevitably be limited to fading memories and increasingly obscure pieces of text and video.

What Smith, however, wanted everyone to remember about this Atlanta team is that it was not just a collection of guys who played well together. They were a team in every sense of what the word meant:

Bob Nightengale @BNightengale

Will Smith says analytics could never understand or measure the density of their team: ‘We love each other in there.’

In 2022, this list will definitely look different. Though Morton and d’Arnaud signed contract extensions, the open market is set to call Freeman, Soler and Rosario. Especially considering how they performed down the stretch, interest in them elsewhere than Atlanta could be strong enough to lure each of them away.

For now, though, it’s a case for another day. What matters today is that the Commissioner’s trophy is in Atlanta’s hands. And that feeling, after all the team went through, could not possibly be better.

For parting words, it only seems right to use Freemans: “Everything was thrown at us and we overcame it. It’s absolutely incredible to me.”


Statistics lent by Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and MLB.com.

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