Young Braves focus on future after NLDS loss to Dodgers
Enthusiasm should not be confused for complacency.
As the Atlanta Braves home clubhouse echoed with hands clapping on teammates’ backs and words of encouragement following the close-knit team’s 3-1 National League Division Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, star first baseman Freddie Freeman, the franchise’s foundation who hand-delivered the first-ever playoff win at SunTrust Park less than 24 hours earlier, stood in front of his locker discussing the next steps.
The ahead-of-schedule Braves are not done. In their minds this was a disappointing beginning in their minds, but a necessary beginning all the same.
“I think a lot of guys in here are excited about what happened this year, especially after what Snit (Brian Snitker) and Nick (Markakis) said after we lost and before you guys came in here,” Freeman said. “A lot of people are excited, and obviously I am too because to stop what has happened the last four years was obviously the No. 1 goal.
"Now we’ve reached that goal. And now we’ve gotta start winning this thing, making the playoffs every year so we can win that title.”
The Braves’ slimmer margin for error caught up to them
The Los Angeles Dodgers were NLDS favorites for a reason — or several.
The well-establish National League contenders were neither surprise division winners nor inexperienced upstarts. As the Braves rebuilt, the Dodgers rattled off 90-win seasons. The 2018 Dodgers capped their sixth consecutive division title with the league’s best run differential and the top offense in baseball after the trade deadline. They made splash moves to acquire Manny Machado, the best-available hitter this summer, David Freese and Brian Dozier, side-stepping concerns over club control in win-now moves.
The result was an extremely deep roster built for playoff baseball: Effective starting options, a daunting stockpile of power bats to counteract an opposing manager’s decisions and World Series experience to spare.
“A lot of those guys are bought, you know? I felt like a lot of our guys are homegrown. You gain that experience. What just happened I think was huge for us,” Freeman said. “I feel like we have what they have over there. They’ve just got guys that are six to 10 years in the big leagues. We’ve got guys that are zero to two.
"So I feel like we’re gonna be better-suited for playoffs from now on. What they’ve done in the front office to make this team how it is, I think we’re going to be here for a long time. Obviously that’s a powerhouse over there. They’ve got a lot more money. But I feel like our guys zero-to-two (years of experience) are about to take the next step and we’ll be winning titles here.”
Baseball’s playoffs offer few guarantees for favorites, especially a favorite needing a one-game tiebreaker to secure its divisional ticket, but Atlanta’s meeting with Los Angeles proved to be a clash of timelines.
The Dodgers are farther ahead in the pecking order for now, which cut Atlanta’s margin for error down to almost nothing. And there were errors.
Braves pitchers walked 27 batters in four games. Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta’s best player in the series, missed a sign to cost the team a rare baserunner in Game 1. Anibal Sanchez gave up his first career home run on a 3-0 count in Game 2. Freese, the aforementioned deadline pickup who happens to have a .830 OPS and a World Series MVP, was able to push across the go-ahead runs in the sixth inning only after Yasiel Puig’s pop-up to right field — a play with a 3 percent hit probability — dropped between Nick Markakis and Ozzie Albies.
The Dodgers outscored Atlanta 20-8 in the NLDS and 55-26 in the season series overall.
The matchup evened up after the two teams boarded their respective flights to Atlanta, but seemingly every frame was a high-stress inning for Braves pitchers.
“I think probably after we won the division, they probably sat around and thought about the playoffs, but until you actually experience it, the intensity, just the electricity that's involved in that. And like I say, if a team makes the playoffs, they're pretty good,” Snitker said. “So the consistency — knowing we played the Dodgers this year and how strong they are, but it's just — I think it's just been a great experience for all those young guys to have experienced the postseason at such a young age. I hope they remember how good it felt when we clinched the division. And as they head to their offseason and their workouts and when they get to spring training, you know, they'll have an eye on the prize there."
The Braves have clear question marks after squaring up against a juggernaut, some of which may be addressed through in-house development and growth.
Markakis is a pending free agent, leaving a void in right field with ample payroll flexibility and a top-tier farm system to fill it. Kurt Suzuki, who drove in Atlanta’s two runs in Game 4 to complete another strong offensive campaign, can also hit the market. The starting rotation and bullpen took significant strides as the team continued to promote young arms and make trades, but even All-Star starter Mike Foltynewicz addressed the pressing need to address the team’s walk issues before their next presumptive playoff run. Pending free agents Anibal Sanchez, Lucas Duda, Brad Brach, Ryan Flaherty and Rene Rivera each made the postseason roster. Julio Teheran's role is up in the air.
The Atlanta Braves were quite a few pieces away in 2018. Los Angeles made that clear this October. But the path ahead for Alex Anthopoulos’ front office, however, is littered with potential answers — both within the organization and elsewhere.
Over an 11-year stretch, Atlanta built a young, talented foundation with a competitive window extending past the horizon. The next task is to build around that core — year in and year out, during summer signing periods and Winter Meetings, draft after draft, trade deadline after trade deadline — until 1995 happens again.
Young Braves roster now tasked with ending borderline historic playoff drought
Four years after Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. were born, the Atlanta Braves swept the Houston Astros. Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones hit late home runs in Game 1, Tom Glavine spun a gem in Game 2 and John Smoltz recorded the final out in Game 3.
Seventeen years later, the franchise is still trying to rediscover that feeling.
Following the 2001 NLDS, the Braves lost to the eventual World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series. The following season Barry Bonds’ Giants sent them home in the division series, starting a run of four straight years of NLDS defeats. Then the franchise’s historic run of division titles came to an end, and the once-inevitable postseason presence that all powerhouses project faded away.
The 2010 group could not rekindle that flame. The 2012 group exited in controversial fashion. Players from the 2013 Braves team still remember Craig Kimbrel standing in the Dodgers’ visiting bullpen as Juan Uribe’s home run landed in the seats.
The Braves organization has now lost nine consecutive playoff rounds, including that 2012 one-game wildcard loss to St. Louis. That is the second-longest drought in MLB history behind only the Chicago Cubs, the one-time lovable losers who lost 10 consecutive playoff rounds from 1910 to 1988.
The Braves have nearly condensed that entire 78-year run of postseason misery into two decades.
As Freeman warned: "I think you're gonna see the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs for a lot of years to come." If that holds true, this team will be tasked with leaving the Cubs' undesirable record alone.
Next season’s division championship will not be hand-delivered to Atlanta simply because they are the up-and-coming incumbents. While the Braves may be molded in the image of the past two World Series champions in Chicago and Houston — quick reminder: the 2015 Astros lost the division series then missed the playoffs altogether the next year — they will not be the only teams actively trying to improve this offseason.
That future 162-game grind was not on the players' minds on Monday night, though.
"This is just the start of something special," Mike Foltynewicz said.
Uncharacteristic struggles against left-handers undercuts Braves offense in NLDS
The Dodgers’ NLDS rotation choices seemed to play to Atlanta’s strengths entering the series. With four left-handers poised to take the mound if the five-game set went the distance after standout rookie Walker Buehler starred in the tiebreaker win over the Colorado Rockies.
The Braves feasted on left-handed pitching in 2018, reaching base in more than one third of their plate appearances with a .445 slugging percentage. Only the Astros and Yankees were better by league-adjusted offensive standards, though their production fell off in the second half:
2018 Season: 107 wRC+ (3rd in MLB)
2018 First Half: 115 wRC+ (3rd in MLB)
2018 Second Half: 97 WRC+ (10th in MLB)
2018 September: 93 wRC+ (18th in MLB)
That steady decline carried into October as the Braves opened their first postseason series in five years against two left-handed starters who stole their lunch money in Games 1 and 2. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw were brilliant under the bright lights of Dodger Stadium, delivering two haymakers in noncompetitive games. When Buehler could not deliver the knockout punch in Game 3, the task fell to Rich Hill. For three innings the veteran southpaw looked up to the challenge. By the time the fourth inning rolled around on Monday evening, the Ryu-Kershaw-Hill trio had combined for 19 scoreless innings with 14 strikeouts and two walks. In fact, the Braves had managed just one run — Freddie Freeman’s go-ahead home run off former teammate Alex Wood in Game 3 — against Los Angeles left-handers in 18 NLDS innings.
Kurt Suzuki ended the drought.
Manager Brian Snitker’s decision to pinch-hit starter Mike Foltynewicz with two outs in the bottom of the fourth after consecutive Rich Hill walks paid immediate dividends when Suzuki, a menace against lefties and one of the best offensive catchers in baseball since donning a Braves uniform, laced a single to right field to score two.
The wheels fell off for Hill (and the Dodgers defense) from there. In the fifth inning, Freddie Freeman singled, Nick Markakis walked and Johan Camargo reached on a fielding error before manager Dave Roberts made a pitching change. That knockout punch was simply delivered by Machado and the Dodgers' bullpen.
Still, managing two runs in 19 1/3 innings against Los Angeles’ left-handed starters ended up being one of few defining statistics in this first taste of playoff baseball for this young Braves roster.