Even in a loss, Braves prove they are here to stay

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Just like the rest of Braves Country, these last three days have been unbelievably excruciating. In each one, it felt like Atlanta was just one bounce, one knock, or one out, away from clinching their spot in the Fall Classic for the first time since 1999, and doing it against the Dodgers of all teams.

As Atlanta fans, we’ve gotten used to these sorts of endings. No matter how big the stage, no matter the team, when our backs get pushed against the wall, we always seem to crumble. It’s become the staple of the cities professional sports teams for the last 20+ years, and yesterday’s soul-crushing Game 7 loss to the Dodgers will be remembered as just another “what if?” until somebody finally breaks through. However, as miserable as these last three games have been, there is reason to take a bit of pride in these Braves.

Unlike the many collapses that came before them, this one didn’t feel like the Braves “blew it.” They lost three straight competitive games against one of the best rosters ever constructed, who have won three of the last four National League pennants. They feature two former MVPs, many other All-Stars, and an elite pitching staff from top to bottom. There was a reason the Braves came into this series as severe underdogs, and they had the Dodgers on the brink of elimination not once, not twice, but three times.

Ideally, you would hope the Braves would be able to finish one of those games, and some mistakes were made — most notably, the baserunning blunder that probably cost the Braves at least one run early in Game 7. If that doesn’t happen, perhaps the result is different. However, this time, Atlanta didn’t choke; they were simply beaten by a better team, and that, I can live with.

I mean, think about it: the odds were stacked against the Braves from the beginning. They spent $18 million on a pitcher that recorded a total of ten outs and missed the postseason. They lost their best pitcher not even twenty games into the season for the year with a torn Achilles. Two of their other rotation members — Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, who the Braves were relying on heavily coming into the season — were abysmal and eventually sent to the alternate training site, where they remained for the rest of the season. Hell, the Braves started Robbie Erlin, Josh Tomlin, and Tommy Milone for a large portion of the season.

Yet, somehow, they were able to conquer what many considered the best division in baseball coming into the year. And not only were they able to win the NL East; they ran away with it, just as they have for the past two years, clinching with plenty of time to spare.

The Braves finished with the #2 seed in the National League. However, they got the short-end of the stick with their draw in the Wild Card round, matching up with the Reds, who were the hottest team in the league at the time. It would have been so typical of the Braves to succumb to the pressure, resulting in another first-round exit. But they took Bauer and the talented Luis Castillo head-on, and while their bats were quiet, two young stars emerged.

I don’t think there was a start all season where I didn’t come away impressed with Max Fried and that continued into the postseason. In his very first inning in the Wild Card round, the Reds led off with back-to-back hits, but Fried was able to hunker down and prevent a run from crossing the plate. That turned out to be the difference in the ball game too because the Braves couldn’t score a run until the 13th inning, when Freddie Freeman hit a walk-off single to break a scoreless tie.

Fried had a bit of a hiccup against the Marlins in the Divisional round, but this time, the Braves offense picked him up on the way to a Game 1 win. However, Fried’s best moments came in the NLCS, where he proved he is more than ready to lead a pitching staff. In Game 1, he went six strong innings, allowing just one run while striking out nine, leading to a win. Still, I was even more impressed with him in the game he lost (Game 6) in which he surrendered three runs in the first inning but was able to keep it together mentally and shut the Dodgers down for the next 5.2 innings, saving the bullpen, and giving the Braves the best chance to win Game 7.

However, the Braves wouldn’t have even gotten that far without the stellar performances from their highly-touted rookie, Ian Anderson, who has the makings of becoming Atlanta’s third ace in the rotation. After posting a 1.95 ERA in the regular season, Anderson continued to dazzle in the playoffs and was the Braves best pitcher, which is why he got the ball in Game 7.

In his first three postseason starts, Anderson didn’t allow a run over 15.2 innings and struck out 21 on his way to a 2-0 record. The Dodgers finally got to him in Game 7 of the NLCS, squeaking out two runs on back-to-back two-out hits, leading to an early exit. However, none of that should take away from the brilliance he showed on the big stage every time he took the mound. There’s no doubt in my mind that with Soroka, Fried, and Anderson in the fold, the Braves have the makings of the best rotation in baseball for years to come.

A significant reason for that is also because of all of the young arms Atlanta still has yet to develop. We saw flashes of some of that this postseason with Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. If one or both of those guys can turn the corner next season, the Braves might have more starting pitching than they know what to do with, and they still have plenty of more high-powered arms waiting for their opportunity. As we saw this season, you can never have too much starting pitching, and that shouldn’t be something the Braves ever have to worry about again for years to come.

Of course, as bright as the future of Atlanta’s rotation is, you can’t forget about the things that made this team churn all season long. The bullpen was incredible, and the offense can go toe-to-toe with any team in baseball. For the most part, the core pieces of both units are locked in for the long-haul, and Anthopoulos shouldn’t hesitate to offer contracts to guys like Marcell Ozuna and Mark Melancon this offseason.

The season undoubtedly did not end as we all hoped, especially after being up 3-1 in the NLCS. However, losing three straight competitive games to an elite baseball team isn’t how this Braves squad should be remembered. This is only the beginning of something special, and this season — without arguably their best pitcher, with three rookies in their starting rotation, five starting position players under the age of 26, and no Adam Duvall — they finished one bounce away from a World Series berth.

That’s pretty damn amazing. Nobody in that clubhouse should be hanging their head, and there shouldn’t be any fans blaming some mystical “Atlanta curse.” They left it all on the field, and it didn’t go their way. Sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles — just ask the Dodgers. However, if you put yourself in the right position enough times, eventually you will achieve glory, and that’s exactly what the Braves have set themselves up to do for years to come.

 

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