This past Thursday, the Atlanta Braves won their first playoff series since 2001. I’ve been waiting for that day since I was two, and I did not even know it. Braves fans have been carrying 25 years of emotional baggage surrounding the team’s playoff history since their last (and only) World Series title, and neither of us have been alive for that whole stretch. Getting through this series was critical for the fanbase to not experience another bad playoff loss, especially in a year where many feel the team is capable of winning the World Series.
Last year was the first time the team had a real shot of making headway in the postseason since the early 2000’s. The team had won its second consecutive NL East title, proving the first one was not a fluke, and had a much improved lineup, reinforcing Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman with free agent pickup Josh Donaldson.
However, this theoretically stronger lineup posted a whimsical .225 batting average in the five-game National League division series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, with Donaldson and Freeman both hitting under .200. It was later revealed that Freddie had bone spurs in his right elbow, which was causing discomfort and inhibiting his swing. Donaldson signed with the Minnesota Twins after the season.
Enter the 2020 season. The Braves replaced Donaldson with one of the Braves’ nemeses from the Cardinals NLDS team, Marcell Ozuna, Freeman had surgery on his elbow and entered camp healthier than ever, and veteran starter Cole Hamels was added to the starting rotation.
All of that was almost thrown out the window when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and player compensation issues arose over the shortened season, but in the end we got a 60-game season with multiple rule changes and an expanded playoffs.
A short season could have meant anything in terms of record, but it demanded that the Braves’ best players have consistent and high output seasons to be relevant.
Multiple players did so, saving a season that could have been in serious trouble when the team lost four of their five original starting pitchers. For the first time since Chipper Jones in 1999, the Braves might have an MVP winner in Freddie Freeman. Freeman finished the season first or second in WAR (position players), OBP, slugging %, OPS, runs and extra base hits. This was after he had a severe bout with COVID-19 before the season started.
On top of that, Freeman was not the Brave who was a few hits away from winning the triple crown (Marcell Ozuna), was not the Brave who was arguably the best hitter at his position all year (Adam Duvall), and wasn’t one of the Braves with a three-homer game this season (Duvall and Ozuna, multiple times).
In other words, the Braves were already really powerful this season on offense, and Freeman still led the charge through all 60 games.
Having a guy like Freeman is critical to feeling like the Braves are a complete team.
He is the spiritual successor to Chipper in terms of being the foundation of the franchise. Everything is built around him being the leader in the clubhouse and the most reliable player on the team.
The Braves have had a hump they could never get over with teams that made the playoffs since 2001. In the early 2000s, it was a team that was losing its strength in a weak division, and got lucky in 2005 with the Baby Braves.
Every playoff team after that never had the firepower or emotional fortitude to be a team the fanbase was confident in to be a championship team.
There would be silly mistakes, blown saves, untimely cold streaks at the plate, abysmal umpiring (looking at you, Sam Holbrook), or just running into better teams. There was never a team that could just get the job done when it needed to.
This year’s team finally got over this hump in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Reds. The pitchers duel between Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer and Atlanta’s Max Fried was the kind we would be prone to losing — the kind of game previous teams never had the guts to pull out. This game somehow lasted 13 innings, and Freeman won it with the kind of clutch at-bat that has often been missing in the past. Faced with a 1-2 count, Freddie was extra patient, didn’t force anything, and looped a line drive into center field to drive in the only run of the game. It was the type of effort our playoff teams have not made in a what seems like a long time.