After last night’s 7-2 win over the Phillies, the Braves lead is four and a half games with five left on the schedule. The magic number is 1. They haven’t clinched the division, so there was not a champagne celebration in the clubhouse after the game (that is coming in the next day or two). But we can all rejoice; you have my permission to go ahead and celebrate with your beverage of choice.
Mighty Max, our own Varsity Fried, Pontifex Maximus, was dominant once again. Perhaps not quite as sharp as his last two starts in which he gave up no runs, but we will take seven innings of two run ball (only one earned) any time. Max and Charlie Morton will match up well with any playoff opponent.
The hitters did their job, scoring seven runs without any homers. Leadoff man extraordinaire Jorge Soler reached base four times on two hits and two walks and scored twice. Austin “MVP” Riley had a bloop single and an rbi in the first, and then had the biggest hit of the night in the seventh, when, with the Braves clinging to a 3-2 lead, he scorched a double that scored two. Dansby had three hits, including a double, and drove in two with a single in the 7th to put the game out of reach. And Ozzie had two hits and scored twice.
By the way, Bryce Harper, the guy who probably deserves and will probably receive the MVP, went 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts. He, Realmuto, and McCutcheon went 0 for 12 on the night.
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After a maddening first half of bad luck, bad performance, and many injuries large and small, the 2021 regular season has worked out better than any of us had reason to expect at the midpoint. There were plenty of doomsayers in this bar–and throughout Braves country–from April through July. I prefer to season my fandom with a good dollop of hope, even when things aren’t going well. If you look back at many of my recaps during those first four months (I don’t recommend that you do that, by the way), you’ll find me reminding folks (OK, reminding myself, mainly) that “it’s a long season,” “things can turn around,” blah, blah, blah. Still, I sometimes succumbed to the doom and despair that was all around.
But the team kept plugging away, and thanks to the general ineptitude of our NL East opponents, the Braves were never totally out of the race even as they remained at or below .500 in July. Remember, they were still three games under .500 on August 1.
The run this team has made since then has been quite a ride. They won 16 of the next 18, to go from 5 back to 4.5 ahead. Despite a tough schedule over the remainder of August and September, including two west coast trips, they have maintained the lead throughout, so that they are now on the brink of winning the division and advancing to the NLDS against the Brewers.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Top of the list is Alex Anthopoulos. He steadfastly insisted that the Braves were still in it, even after Ronald’s devastating injury, and he resisted calls to trade stars like Charlie Morton for prospects. Even AA could not have expected the five July trade acquisitions to work out quite as well as they have (has anyone ever produced such a good haul at the trade deadline?), but he and his people in the front office had a clear idea who they needed and they got the job done—and without parting with any top prospects.
Brian Snitker deserves praise. He has now won four division titles in a row. The ability to keep a team focused and working hard is the most important attribute of a manager, and Snit clearly excels. All of the bad breaks along the way could have led to recriminations and clubhouse problems, but there is never a hint of that under his leadership.
Among the players, the new additions were crucial, of course, but the guys who have been around all year also stepped it up the last two months. For all the hyperbole of the MVP talk, Riley continues to improve and has been as good as anyone in the league over the second half. Despite his very slow start, Freddie’s production has likewise been MVP caliber over the second half. Fried and Morton are pitching as well as anyone over the last couple of months and Jackson and Matzek have been terrific in the pen.
I started to write about how the team is well positioned to succeed in October, but let’s slow down on that. Today, I just want to appreciate the job they have done to get to this point.
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I realize I’ve been writing as if the division is won. Of course it’s not over, but it’s kind of like leading the Super Bowl 28-3 in the third quarter. Or it’s like being up 6-0 in game 4 of the World Series with a 2 games to 1 lead. What could go wrong?
Sorry to bring those up. Truth is, the Braves would have to lose the next four, the Phillies win their remaining four, and then the Braves lose the makeup game against the Rockies just to force a tie for the division. According to Baseball Reference, there is a 99.6% chance the Braves take the division. We can safely count on taking on the Brewers starting Friday October 8.
Tonight, Ian Anderson gets his final start before the playoffs. Let’s go ahead and make it official and pop those corks tonight.