On Friday night, the Atlanta Braves punched a ticket to the playoffs for the second straight year by defeating the San Francisco Giants 6-0. It’s a run so impressive that fans and pundits alike are apt to forget how leery expectations were as Opening Day loomed.
Back on Feb. 7, former Marlins catcher JT Realmuto was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Perennial All-Star Bryce Harper joined him a few weeks later by signing an unprecedented contract. Fast-forward seven months, and the preseason favorites to win the National League East are locked out of the playoffs.
The champions of the division claimed the title in decisive fashion. Along the way, the Braves led by as many as 10.5 games. They have spent 112 days and counting on the throne of the NL East.
A record of 95-60 is a far cry from 18-20, the losing mark Atlanta posted after the first 38 games of the season.
The Braves are also far-removed from the coagulated lineups and rotations of the spring. But as the weather got warmer, so did the Braves. The greatest catalyst has been none other than 2018 Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna, Jr.
Brian Snitker inserted Acuna at the top of the order on May 10. That position hasn’t changed since. If the phenom starts, he is the first Atlanta member in the box.
Acuna came into the division-clinching game batting .280 and slugging .884 when batting first in the lineup. His 254 total bases coming into Friday helped generate runs at an alarming rate. He went 2-for-2 on Friday and launched his team-leading 41st HR of the season. The center-fielder reached base in all four at-bats.
Despite a more fluid lineup as the summer progressed, Atlanta was still hamstrung by a rotation and bullpen that appeared to be unsettled. Even after trading for valuable pieces, it took a while for the new additions to get comfortable. Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Cody Martin all struggled to find their footing with their new roles. Now, that plight is distant memory.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Braves’ run has been its fortitude in the face of constant change. Whether it be by free agency, trade or promotion, the 2019 NL East champs displayed many new teammates on their virtuous path.
Veterans Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte have spent significant time on the IL. The ultimate utility-man, Charlie Culberson, is already listed as being out for the season after being hit in the face with a fastball last week. Not to mention, another flexible piece in Johan Camargo is currently on the IL with Inciarte. The list goes on.
Enter guys like Anthony Swarzak, Andeny Hechavarria and Fransisco Cervelli. Mentioning Dallas Keuchel wouldn’t be fair. Again. . .the list.
Then there is the rise and decline of Austin Riley. The rookie sensation helped bolster the Braves’ offense in the months of May and June. During his first 43 games played, Riley hit 14 HR, while slashing .273/.326/.582. After a stint on the DL and a rehab in the minors, Riley has yet to replicate the form that garnered him the praise as Pete Alonso’s competition for 2019 Rookie of the Year.
Yet, despite a slew of injuries and fresh faces, this team maintained its torrid pace to become the first Atlanta team to win back-to-back division titles since 1992. That defense 27 years ago turned into a total of 14 consecutive division titles, a mark that has never been matched in baseball.
To add to the majestic nature of the Braves journey, the winning pitcher of Friday night’s clincher was none other than Mike Foltynewicz. The 2018 All-Star, and Atlanta’s best weapon from the starting rotation a season ago, entered the 2019 season rehabbing. He continued to struggle with mechanics, while concern grew for the flame-thrower.
Folty has now won 12 consecutive games that he has started. He threw eight strong innings and surrendered just three hits to help Atlanta defend their division crown in front of their home crowd.
Call it poetic or claim that it’s a rise for a bigger fall, the ascent that Snitker’s squad has reached is, at the very least, impressive as hell.
Instead of creating a whirlwind, the proverbial revolving door has resembled an entrance to a Fortune 500 company. It’s a machine ran by veteran presence and jovial energy. The corporate boss is savvy and patient. The supervisor is respected and feared to be let down.
What awaits for the 2019 NL East Champions is yet to be determined. But, judging by the character of their journey, the Braves will be in position for a very different outcome come this fall.