Braves look to capitalize on shortened season

Dansby Swanson hits a walk-off home run in the ninth inning during game 1 against the Washington Nationals at Truist Park on Monday, August 17, 2020. The Braves won, 7-6. Photo by Kevin D. Liles for the Atlanta Braves

Despite abnormal circumstances, the 2020 MLB season is underway. The league is conducting an abbreviated 60-game season, something that has never been before in its history, complete with an expanded playoff format. For the Atlanta Braves, this is an opportunity to build on recent success as they pursue a third consecutive division title. Although this season will inevitably have an asterisk attached to it, there will (hopefully) still be a World Series champion, and the team’s ambition is no less than what it was at the conclusion of last season – a chance to compete for the sport’s ultimate prize.

For a long time, it was doubtful that the Braves (or anyone else) would get this chance. Major League Baseball shut down spring training camps for all 30 teams on March 12 due to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. As the pandemic developed, it eventually became clear that any kind of season would have to be played without fans, which would cut into a large part of teams’ revenue. Many different ideas were floated as March bled into April and May, including the creation of two to three playing bubbles in places such as Arizona and Florida, but no clear path for a return to action could be established.

In addition to the significant logistical hurdles that needed to be overcome, there was also significant bickering between the league and the player’s association. In contrast to the NBA, which benefitted from a strong relationship between the commissioner’s office and the players, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA head Tony Clark had an extremely difficult time bringing their two sides together.

Negotiations dragged on for months; the league had initially hoped that games could be played on the 4th of the July, but that became an impossibility when the two sides could not agree on financial and logistical terms for a season. Proposals for seasons of 114 games, 89 games, 76 games, 72 games and 70 games were all rejected by one of the two parties. May passed with no agreement. Eventually, Clark and the players’ association called for Manfred to make a decision and promised they would play when called upon. On June 23, the league announced a 60-game season that would begin on July 23. Players would report for “summer camp” on July 1.

Several rule changes were made for the shortened season, including a universal designated hitter in both leagues and a new extra-innings runner rule, where the last batter of the previous inning would start the inning on second base. MLB also expanded the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams in an effort to make up for lost TV revenue.

The Braves entered 2020 with high hopes. Following their crushing defeat in five games at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals last year, the team added several pieces that they believed could get them over the playoff hump. Josh Donaldson, who had a huge bounce-back year after signing a one-year contract with the Braves, departed for a larger, multi-year deal from the Minnesota Twins. In response, the team acquired free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who had terrorized them as a member of the Cardinals in the playoffs.

The team also added All-Star closer Will Smith to an already stout bullpen, and signed veteran pitcher Cole Hamels to complement young starters Mike Soroka and Max Fried. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud also joined the team to replace the newly retired Brian McCann. In addition to MVP candidates Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman and young stars such as Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, the organization felt they had all the pieces to defend their division crown and advance deep into the playoffs.

Then, the coronavirus hit, the season was postponed, delayed and then restarted, and uncertainty swept over the league. Veteran outfielder Nick Markakis and newly acquired starter Felix Hernandez both opted out of the season due to concerns about the virus. Hamels was placed on the injured list with arm and shoulder issues.

And then, on Aug. 3, Soroka tore his ACL covering first base during a game against the Mets. The loss of the best young pitchers in the game, who had finished sixth in Cy Young voting last year, was a devastating blow to the team’s already depleted rotation. Manager Brian Snitker was forced to piece together a rotation of youngsters such as Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright, or journeymen such as Robbie Erlin and Josh Tomlin.

In spite of all this, the Braves have continued to show the resilience that has made them one of the most enjoyable teams to watch over the past couple years. In spite of poor pitching, the team has pulled off several thrilling late-inning comebacks, most notably against the Nationals on Aug. 17 and the Phillies on Aug. 22. Acuña had heated up after a slow start before hitting the injured list along with his buddy Albies. In their absence, Swanson has stepped into the leadoff spot and performed admirably. Newcomers Ozuna and d’Arnaud have provided some much-needed thump in the middle of the lineup. Freeman has continued to be his reliable self at the plate and in the field. Fried, the last man standing from Atlanta’s projected starting rotation, has played like an ace. Remarkably, the team stands at 16-12 going into Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Yankees, in possession of first place in the National League East.

Due to the expanded playoffs, the path to a championship is wide open. So far, no one has been able to separate themselves in the NL East, and the Braves have an excellent of defending their title. Acuña is off the injured list, top pitching prospect Ian Anderson made his debut Wednesday, and there is hope that Hamels could return to the team soon. However, it is clear that if the Braves are to reach their goal, it will be on the strength of their offense and bullpen. Without Soroka, Atlanta simply does not have the firepower of other more talented starting rotations.

The team will eventually have to reckon with the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers, who are clearly the class of the National League right now, but in a season of so much unpredictability, no team, no matter how talented, is invincible.

Some fans of the Braves may remember the last time there was a shortened baseball season, also due to prolonged negotiations between the league and players. That was in 1995, and the Braves brought the first (and only) World Series trophy to Atlanta that year.

On the 25th anniversary of that championship, the hope is that the team can duplicate this feat and bring another title to Atlanta.