The Atlanta Braves knew from the beginning they were good enough to repeat as National League East champions. As team leader Freddie Freeman documented when he arrived at Champion Stadium for spring training, "We won 90 games and got better." He did not lie.
But even Braves players and staff members, talking into those same microphones seven months ago, expected to face a tougher challenge in a division where their three main competitors spent more than $800 million in offseason acquisitions. Just ask spring training Freddie Freeman again: "The NL East is crazy. It's going to be a fight to the end."
(Narrator:The NL East was not crazy and it was not a fight to the end.)
Or Brian Snitker’s February comments on the Great NL East Stockpile of 2019: "I’ve noticed, just like everybody else. It’s like all we did was piss everybody else off by winning the division."
The Braves started the season wth an 18-20 record and it didn’t matter because no NL East opponent capitalized on that window. As general manager Alex Anthopoulos said after acquiring lefty specialist Jerry Blevins in late April, "The only saving grace for us right now is that no one in the division is pulling away."
The club is 78-40 since that season-opening slog through the first 38 games — essentially matching the Yankees and Astros as baseball’s winningest teams over that span. That early-May edition of the back-to-back division champs looked nothing like a World Series contender. How times (and rosters) have changed.
There would be no saving grace for the rest of the division once Atlanta hit its stride.
1. Mike Foltynewicz earned his playoff start
No preseason predictions accounted for Mike Foltynewicz — a 2018 All-Star entering his first season as Atlanta’s bona fide No. 1 starter — getting demoted for performance. And perhaps no midseason prognostication factored in Foltynewicz’s return to dominance for the Braves in 2019, an individual roller-coaster ride culminating in eight shutout innings to clinch the division title.
On one hand, everything made sense about Friday night’s events. For the second straight year, Mike Foltynewicz started the division-clinching game. Ronald Acuña Jr. caught the baseball that sealed the NL East crown for the second straight year. The clinching runs were driven in by the predictable quartet of Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann.
But Foltynewicz’s path back into the Braves’ postseason plans was far from guaranteed even two months ago. He had to earn it. And he did.
"It's pretty special just after the year I had, man,” said Foltynewicz, who suffered a preseason setback with a bone spur in his throwing elbow. “I got to do this last year. Same exact thing: I got to start, I got to clinch it. It’s pretty special. The year I had, a lot of ups and downs. I’m glad I could just show the team how I can contribute going forward in the playoffs.“
Since returning to the major-league fold on Aug. 6, Foltynewicz is a perfect 6-0 with a 2.35 ERA, including wins over playoff-bound teams in Minnesota, Los Angeles and (likely) Washington. He’s been a borderline top-10 starter in baseball over that span with 1.3 wins above replacement and 3.46 fielding-independent pitching over 53 2/3 innings.
Pitching records do not matter, but it is at least noteworthy that the Braves have not lost a Foltynewicz outing since June 6.
It’s a pretty safe assumption the Braves will matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals and their righty-dominant lineup (Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Yadier Molina, Harrison Bader) in the NLDS, so here are the weighted on-base averages allowed by Braves starters facing right-handed hitters since the trade deadline:
Foltynewicz is pitching how the Braves wanted (or even expected) him to pitch in 2019 and it could not have come at a better time.
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2. Freddie Freeman’s elbow officially becomes a postseason storyline
Freddie Freeman left Sunday’s game with discomfort in his right elbow stemming from the bone spur issue he’s dealt with for the past couple years. Following the game, Brian Snitker announced that the star first baseman would not travel with the team to Kansas City, opting to stay behind and take full advantage of off days on Monday and Thursday for extended treatment.
“It’s obviously not ideal but it responded pretty good with that off day last week,” Freeman said, “so we’re gonna hope four days off is gonna do the real trick here where I can have no problems going into the last week of the season and into the postseason.”
His manager added that if the playoffs started on Monday, Freeman would take his regular spot in the lineup. Instead, the Braves are going to leverage the early arrival of their division title to try and get one of baseball’s best hitters right before the playoffs.
“At times, it kind of bites him a little bit, and then he does treatment and he’s good for an extended period,” Snitker said. “So it’s nothing worse. It’s probably not as bad as the last time, actually. But it’s enough that if we have some time to let him sit and get it better, then we’re going to take it.”
It’s no secret that Atlanta likely needs Freeman to make a deep postseason run.
Freeman has tallied one extra-base hit over his past 10 games. His on-base percentage has dipped under .300 over that span. He hasn’t homered since his two-homer game at the start of September; he’s slugging under .300 since that game.
On Sunday, Freeman said the elbow discomfort is not affecting his performance, but he’s now in the middle of his worst month of the year and clearly playing through pain. The Braves are banking on this four-day break to help leave his elbow discomfort (and recent struggles) in October's rearview mirror.
3. The midseason injury bug is turning into a blessing in disguise for the Braves
In response to those injuries, the Braves signed veterans Adeiny Hechavarría, Francisco Cervelli and Billy Hamilton. They also gave outfielders Adam Duvall and Matt Joyce more opportunities. Now, those five players and their subsequent production are the difference between difficult postseason roster decisions and Atlanta finding itself lacking playoff-caliber depth for the second consecutive season.
Even as Atlanta’s regulars returned to the fold — and the Braves have still not ruled inciarte or Johan Camargo out for the playoffs — those names still fit into Brian Snitker’s plans. Injuries to Camargo and Charlie Culberson would have left the Braves in dire straits but, while they will be missed, general manager Alex Anthopoulos had enough pieces in place this time around. (Remember where Dansby Swanson’s late-season injury left Atlanta’s 2018 NLDS bench?)
Hechavarría is hitting the cover off the ball and provides a productive utility infield option behind Swanson, Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson. If the Braves carry their traditional three catchers on the playoff roster, Cervelli at least provides a playable option with a long track record of offensive production. The Braves could face a roster decision with Duvall, Riley and Hamilton if Inciarte and/or Camargo return to the fold, but each player has brought plenty to the table to help secure Atlanta’s NL East title.
All in all, moves made in semi-desperation to fill out the 25-man roster in August are now paying off again in September. And maybe even October.