On Tuesday night you went to a place you have been many times before, but also somewhere you never thought you would end up in.
You remember the division titles from the last two seasons and 2013; most of you probably remember some or all of the streak on top of that. Some of you might be able to recall Dale Murphy’s Braves clinching the ‘82 division title on the final day of the regular season, and maybe one or two of you out in readerland remember where you were when Aaron and Niekro led the ‘69 Braves to the top of the NL West in the first year of divisional play.
The point is, you’ve definitely been here before. You know what it’s like to see the Braves run the gauntlet of the regular season and end up on top of the division. They’ve done it more times than any other franchise in baseball, in fact.
But did you ever imagine it would happen in 2020?
Did you conceive of a scenario where the Braves would end up winning this division again when Mike Soroka’s season ended just three innings into his third start with a devastating achilles injury? When the lineup resembled a M*A*S*H* unit for a lot of August with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies both on the IL? When Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone frequently offered opposing lineups the chance to turn the clock back to 2019 when batting practice was still allowed?
Even without the landmines the Braves have had to sidestep during the season, it looked like there wouldn’t even be a baseball season for over three months. The only thing more surprising than this Braves team winning the division title is the fact that anyone won a division title this year.
But nevertheless, here we are. The Braves will start a best-of-three series at Truist Park next Wednesday. If they hold off the Cubs for the No. 2 seed, they’ll face the third place team in the National League with the best record. If the Cubs overtake them and bump them down to the No. 3 seed, they’ll face the National League division runner-up with the worst record.
Maybe that ends up being a battle with the Reds and their three-headed monster of Trevor Bauer–Luis Castillo–Sonny Gray. It could be the Brewers and the Corbin Burns-Brandon Woodruff 1-2 punch. The Marlins and Phillies are both hanging in the race with a chance to set up an NL East showdown. Gabe Kapler’s Giants are somehow still kicking with all of their even year magic trying to will them into a playoff spot.
And yes, that team with the birds on the bat still could end up being the opponent.
Regardless of the opponent, the Braves are going to have a lot of bullets in the chamber. We won’t know until after the postseason, but they just might have the NL MVP hitting second in the form of Freddie Freeman. His protection in the lineup Marell Ozuna is knocking in runs at a pace that prorates to over 150 RBIs in a normal season. Ozzie Albies might end up snagging the cleanup spot and your favorite unsung hero Adam Duvall will be lurking in the bottom half of the lineup. Runs shouldn’t be an issue for this group, not for the team with wins by scores of 14-1, 11-10, 10-1, 11-2, 12-10, 10-3, 15-2, 11-1 and 29-9.
The bullpen is there to mix and match with. You would have to figure some combination of Tyler Matzek and Darren O’Day will provide middle relief in an attempt to bridge the game to Shane Greene, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Will Smith and Mark Melancon. I named seven relievers you would probably trust in a big postseason spot just in one sentence there. It’s a whole new world from Chad Sobotka being asked to retire Manny Machado in a one-run game.
The starting pitching is what it is, and “it” is not good enough. Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have 22 career big league starts combined, and very well might be lined up for games 2-4 of the NLDS if the Braves can survive the first round. The onus is going to be on Brian Snitker to get creative, but that’s hardly been uncommon for managers in recent years.
Joe Maddon realized he didn’t have enough relievers he could rely on in 2016, so his solution was to ride Aroldis Chapman in a way no closer has ever been in the modern era. AJ Hinch had the same issue in 2017, and he decided that using starters in long relief was the solution with Brad Peacock and Lance McCullers Jr. getting relief work. Alex Cora and Dave Martinez both decided to overcome deficient pitching depth by using superstar starting pitchers in one-inning relief spots with Chris Sale and Patrick Corbin both periodically showing up late in games.
Snitker is going to have to come up with something. It’ll be a very short postseason stay if he can’t figure out a way to cover the starting pitching holes with his surplus of talented relievers. There’s a scenario where the Braves don’t get their usual gem from Fried in game one next Wednesday, and then are immediately eliminated when two rookies can’t pull out two wins in two days to turn the series around.
There’s also a scenario where this scorching hot lineup stays scorching hot. Where the young pitchers can pull off a five and dive scenario every night and give the bullpen a chance to lock it down. Where getting to play the NLDS in a very hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park works as an advantage for the construction of this roster. And maybe they win a series. Maybe one of the other National League juggernauts trips up in a short series. Perhaps the road to the World Series that breaks favorably.
Maybe neither the first or the second scenario will come to pass, and something off the radar will happen this October. It would hardly be off brand for how the 2020 season has gone.
But the Braves are NL East champions for a third straight season. That means they have a chance, and right now that’s all they need. A chance.
Braves get Good News
In an interview, Anthopoulos reiterated the point but sounded skeptical about Fried being 100%. Time will tell.
Austin Riley sits for the 2nd straight day which isn’t tell until it is. This game might not happen anyway but that’s no good either because it means it would likely be made up on Monday. Ugh.