Most of the experts didn’t have the Atlanta Braves winning their division or even making the playoffs. The Phillies, with their 300-million-dollar man, were the sexy pick for the division crown; the Washington Nationals hot on their heels. Four out of five of the CBS MLB experts had the Braves finishing 3rd or worse in the division.
On May 11th, the Braves, behind starter Kevin Gausman and a save from reliever Jonny Venters, the team reached .500. They were 20-20, three games behind the Phillies for first place. Not a torrid start but well within reach of 1st place. Starting pitching and the bullpen were both problematic and cause for concern (both Gausman and Venters later released). And Josh ‘bringer of rain’ Donaldson was batting .270 with 5 HRs and 13 RBIs. That wasn’t what the organization had in mind when they inked him to a deal during the off-season. Still, three games out of 1st place wasn’t a horrible position to be in.
Every team deals with injuries during a grueling 162 game season and the Braves were no different.
Brian McCann spent several stints in the IR. Nick Markakis missed a significant amount of time with a wrist injury. Dansby Swanson, who was having a career year before his injury, was never able to capture the same magic upon his return. Gold Glove center fielder, Ender Inciarte couldn’t finish the season. Austin Riley, who had a historic start to his career, then drastically cooled, suffered a torn LCL and was unable to contribute at the end. The most devastating and brutal injury was to the Braves’ most versatile player, Charlie ‘Clutch’ Culberson. His HBP was the worst of the season; fracturing facial bones. This was the most significant injury of the season for the Braves; the versatility; the charisma; the ‘clutch’, lost from the bench. Unfortunately, the additions of speedster Billy Hamilton and glove man Adeiny Hechavarria, while both making splashes, never captured the essence of ‘Clutch’ Culberson.
Second Half/Trade Deadline
The Braves made major moves during the trade deadline, targeting the weak spot of the team: the bullpen.
The Braves traded starting pitching Kelly Allard for RP Chris Martin. Next, the Braves got Tigers closer Shane Greene for LHP Joey Wentz and outfielder Travis Demeritte. The third deal was for RP Mark Melancon and cash from the Giants for Tristian Beck and Daniel Winkler. Thus, solidifying their bullpen; they hoped.
It was a disastrous start for the new guys, but after some maneuvering by manager Brian Snikter, the three horses found success in their new roles.
Owning the second half spotlight, the streaking Washington Nationals, gave chase. The Braves finished the season 97-65, 32 games over .500 after being 18 games over at the All Star break. They never relinquishing their stranglehold on first place in the division.
While Atlanta didn’t limp into the post season, they did have some issues.
Freddie Freeman was dealing with right elbow soreness that caused him to sit out a four-game stretch during the last week of the season. Ronald Acuna was dealing with a strained groin that caused him to be removed from a game at the end of the season.
Overall, the Braves felt optimistic going into the NLDS facing the St. Louis Cardinals. They won the season series 4-2 and had home field advantage. The Cardinals, however, had history on their side:
The Cardinals swept the Braves in the 1982 NCLS.
The 2000 NLDS ended in a sweep, as well.
And in 2012 it was the infamous, ‘in-field fly rule’, game.
This year was going to be different. This year the Braves were going to exercise some demons from the past. The year was going to be like 1996 and the Braves were going to advance. Only:
The Cardinals scored 4 runs in the 9th inning and held off the Braves in game one.
Molina drove in a run to tie the game in the 7th and drove in the winning in the 10th to steal game four.
And in historic fashion, the Cardinals scored ten runs in the first inning of game five and never looked back.
It was a brave new world, but the same old story. The last ten postseason series have ended in losses for the Braves.
Looking back/Looking Ahead
There are some promising things to take away from this season and there were some memorable moments.
Ronald Acuna’s chase for 40/40 and his becoming the second youngest player in MLB history with 30 homeruns and 30 steals in a season was worth watching.
‘Clutch’ Culberson throwing out Jorge Alfaro at the plate against the Marlins showcased his defensive versatility.
Freeman unleashing a free’bomb’, off the Brewers’ Josh Hader for a walk-off win.
Acuna’s massive 466-foot blast against the D-backs.
Riley’s home run off Michael Wacha in his second career at bat.
There were several other memorable moments and come from behind rallies but these few moments defined a season that was, to some, a success; but to others, a failure.
I, for one, am looking forward to the bright future. Budding superstars, such as, Ozzie Albies, who was stellar with both bat and glove and Acuna Jr. are both under contract for some time to come. Aces Mike Soroka and Max Fried look to anchor the rotation for the next several years. And steady Freddie looks to come back healthy. There is a mix of new school and old school that should provide excitement and victories for the foreseeable future. As always, there are concerns and contracts to negotiate, but the team is trending in the right direction. As we say goodbye to the 2019 season, and our beloved Brian McCann, Brave fans look forward to next season and our next chance at postseason redemption.
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