All of a sudden, this team is looking like a contender. The Braves beat the Brewers 4-3 on Saturday for their seventh win in the last eight games and their third series win in a row over good teams. The Brewers struck for two in the first; the Braves scored one in the third and took the lead on a two run homer by (who else?) Austin Riley in the sixth; the Brewers tied it in the ninth; and Freddie crushed a Josh Hader fastball into the right field bleachers for the walkoff win.
It was a great game all the way around. The pitching heroes included: Kevin Gausman, who gave up two runs in the first, but settled down to shut them out over the next five innings; Sean Newcomb, with another excellent relief appearance (one and two thirds with no hits and no(!) walks—Newk the reliever is the bizarro version of Newk the starter—he never walks anyone); Cool Hand Luke Jackson, who gave up the tying run in the ninth on a hit batsman and a couple of choppers that bounced over the heads of Freddie and Josh, but then remained cool and struck out Braun with one out and the bases loaded, and kept the game tied by inducing a ground out by Moustakis (it may not look good in the boxscore, but it was an excellent job of pitching by Jackson); and finally Jacob Webb, who pitched a 1-2-3 tenth, and got the win when Freeman walked it off in the bottom of the inning.
Offensively, the team didn’t do anything to compare to the fireworks of the last two nights. They scored an unearned run in the third on two base error by Moustakis on a ball hit by RAJ and a sac fly by Markakis, but they still trailed in the sixth. But then Donaldson walked, and one batter later Austin Riley crushed one into the right field stands. He’s looking like he might be pretty good. But the true star of this team is Freeman. Josh Hader had pitched the ninth and looked pretty much unhittable. Freeman led off the tenth against Hader, and on the second pitch he saw he hit one almost to the Chophouse.
The last few days, we’ve been talking a lot around here about Bill James and his groundbreaking work in the 1980’s and 1990’s, which has made me think about the Braves of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The latter decade is a hell of a lot more pleasant to reminisce about than the former. Truth is, the Braves’ current context has a lot in common with the first years of each of those two decades. As we all know, last year’s team ended several years of futility and surprised everyone with 90 wins and a division title. The late 70’s and the late 80’s were if anything even more miserable than 2015-2017. So when the 1982 and 1991 clubs won the division, behind a core of young home grown players, fans were not only excited to be winning again; many of us assumed it signaled the dawn of a new era.
The difference, of course, is that the 1991 season kicked off the incredible 14 year division title stretch, while the promise of the 1982 season soon faded. By 1985 they were right back into the old familiar 96 loss territory.
We all know that the 1991-92 teams had the remarkable core of young pitchers–Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery, and don’t forget Stanton and Mercker. As to position players, Gant, Justice, Blauser, and Lemke were all up and producing, and Chipper, Javy, and Klesko were in the minors and soon to be called up. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the team was good for so long. In addition to the solid core of home grown talent, Scheuerholz was not afraid to trade prospects (for McGriff) and to spend money (for Maddux) to put the team over the top.
But back in 1982, I thought the team was headed for years of dominance. They won the division in 1982 and they were actually better in 1983 (at least as per Pythagorean), although they finished second that year to the Dodgers. Murphy and Horner were as good as any hitters in the league. Hubbard and Ramirez were a dynamic young keystone combo. And Brad Komminsk, Gerald Perry, Brett Butler, and Brook Jacoby were just coming along and looked like can’t miss hitting prospects.
Well, Komminsk did miss; Perry was never that good; Ramirez was pretty bad; and Butler and Jacoby, who did turn out to be very good major league hitters, were traded for the ghost of Len Barker. Horner could always hit, but he couldn’t stay healthy. But more than that, the real problem with the early 80’s Braves was that they didn’t develop any pitching. Craig McMurtry had one good year as a rookie in 1983, but never approached that level again. Steve Bedrosian had a good career as a reliever, but much of that after the Braves traded him away. Number one picks like Boggs, Hanna, and Dayley never developed.
By 1985 the Braves were the worst team in the league, and stayed there for five more years.
So which will it be? 1982 or 1991? Was 2018 the beginning of a dynasty, or a flash in the pan? How the hell should I know? It’s way too early to tell. But if pressed, I’d say this era has a lot more in common with 1991-92 than 1982-83. The core of young position prospects now could be as good if not better than those of the 1990’s. The key to the next several years will be the pitchers. Of course we can’t expect anything like Smoltz, Glavine, and Avery. But Soroka and Fried are already looking better than any of the 1980’s bunch, and of the other dozen blue chip pitching prospects, I still think at least a couple more will turn out to be quality big leaguers.
I choose to be optimistic. We can’t expect 1990’s-level dominance, but this team will be very good—and fun to watch!—for several years to come.
Tomorrow the Braves go for the sweep against Bud Selig’s old team. Folty gets what is probably one more chance to pitch his way out of the funk he’s in. I think he will (but it may be I’m irrationally exuberant after the past week’s action).