The title was right there, across the front of the soaked gray T-shirts that each of the Atlanta Braves wore.
”WE OWN THE EAST,” it read.
The Braves wrapped up the National League East crown and then rode two homers by Andrelton Simmons to a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs that touched off a wild party in the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field.
The game was in the sixth inning when Washington lost 4-2 to Miami, giving the Braves their first division championship in eight years. There were a few high-fives in Atlanta’s dugout when the Marlins won, and a couple of Braves fans did the tomahawk chop in the stands.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez high-fived a fan as he made his way to the dugout after a lineup change, and the celebration really picked up when Craig Kimbrel finished for his major-league-best 49th save. The Braves poured out of the dugout and bullpen and jumped in a circle near the mound at the 99-year-old ballpark.
”What a great feeling,” Gonzalez said. ”It really is a great feeling to realize we’ve played 150-some games to get to this point. We knew early on that the Nationals had lost, but we still wanted to be able to celebrate and come out with a win. And we did.”
The Braves sprayed bubbly and doused each other with beer in the clubhouse. Cigars were passed around, and the smoke quickly filled the small room. A couple of players took a quick break to check on their fantasy football teams and then rejoined the party.
”This is only one celebration of four, hopefully,” slugger Freddie Freeman said.
Simmons hit a solo drive in the fourth and a two-run shot in the eighth, giving him 17 homers on the year.
Simmons’ second career multihomer game was more than enough run support for Julio Teheran (13-8), who struck out seven over six innings of one-run ball.
The Cubs had a chance to tie it when they put runners on second and third with two outs in the fifth, but Teheran managed to escape the jam despite a solid at-bat by Starlin Castro. Teheran needed 11 pitches to get Castro for a swinging strikeout, preserving Atlanta’s 3-1 lead.
”We have a lot of close games, and we just haven’t been able to come back or rally at home,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.
Freeman also hit a two-run homer for the Braves, who have won three of four. Freeman went got three hits and is batting .356 (26 for 73) with six homers and 17 RBI in his past 20 games.
Freeman went deep in the first against Edwin Jackson (8-17), who allowed three runs and eight hits in six-plus innings. The right-hander leads the majors with 17 losses in his first season with the Cubs.
”I kind of feel like I got beat with two pitches,” Jackson said, ”moreso the slider 1-2 (to Simmons) than the fastball by Freeman.”
Atlanta is headed to the playoffs for the second straight year and third time in four seasons. But it’s the first division title for the Braves since 2005, when they won 90 games and then lost to Houston in the division series.
The Braves were the NL’s top wild card a year ago, trying to make one more playoff run for Chipper Jones in the third baseman’s final season. Those hopes were quickly dashed when they committed three errors in a 6-3 home loss to St. Louis in their only game of the 2012 postseason.
”We know last year what happened,” Simmons said. ”We played pretty good but not good enough and we had to deal with a one-game playoff thing. It’s definitely a different feeling.
”Now we know we’ve got some time, we’ve got some games to work with. We’ve got a little bit of time to rest our players.”
The only question now is home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, with Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Louis in the mix for the league’s best record.
It’s quite the accomplishment for Gonzalez and the Braves, who were beset by injuries for much of the year. Veteran catcher Brian McCann missed the first month following offseason shoulder surgery. The outfield of Jason Heyward and brothers Justin and B.J. Upton all missed time. Second baseman Dan Uggla had eye surgery and pitcher Tim Hudson broke his right ankle in July, shelving the right-hander for the rest of the season.
Atlanta kept going the way it often does – with outstanding pitching. Teheran, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen helped anchor the rotation, while Kimbrel led the Braves’ shutdown bullpen, which overcame injuries to left-handers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to once again be among the majors’ best relief corps.
Of course, the lineup had its share of key performances. Freeman blossomed into one of the majors’ best first basemen, unheralded rookie Evan Gattis stepped up and Chris Johnson proved to be a more than adequate replacement for Jones at third. The free-swinging Braves lead the NL with 177 homers and are among the league leaders in strikeouts, as well.
Long after it was over, Gonzalez took his cigar out to the field and took some pictures of the scoreboard. The sprinklers came on as he walked back to the dugout, but he didn’t seem to mind one bit.
It was quite a fun day.
”You want to clinch at home in front of your fans, but if you can’t I think clinching in one of these stadiums — Wrigley or Fenway – one of those old traditional-type ballparks would be second-best,” Gonzalez said.