For the first time in 26 years, the Atlanta Braves stood alone at the top of Major League Baseball. Let’s take a look at five key moments that fueled the run.
No.5 – Alex Reyes Melts
Through 108 games, the Braves were 54-54. They had not spent a day over .500 all season. Every few weeks, the Braves would make a run toward .500 before losing. Tonight, the St. Louis Cardinals would not let the Braves lose.
Heading into the eighth, the Cardinals led 4-2. Giovanny Gallegos walked onto the mound and promptly recorded two outs. It was happening again. The Braves were going to fall to (what felt like) 0-1,000 in their chances to get above .500. Freddie Freeman laced a single to left before Austin Riley hammered a ball into the left-field seats at Busch Stadium. It’s tied. Dansby Swanson rips an opposite-field double to force Gallegos from the action.
Welcome, Alex Reyes.
Reyes walks home the go-ahead run. For good measure, he walks the next two batters. All of a sudden, it is 7-4 despite five consecutive Braves failing to put the ball in play. Manager Mike Shildt finally understood that Reyes was a Braves fan, so he yanked him. Justin Miller came in to walk Jorge Soler and make it a four-run game. Miller was able to force Freeman to line out, ending the inning.
A late-season game against the San Diego Padres was a continuation of an early-season game. If you check this game on Baseball-Reference, the Braves would have a 55-55 record rather than a 55-54 record. However, when the game was played, the Braves were 55-54.
No.4 – Freeman Sends Braves to NLCS
We are back in another eighth inning. The Braves are at home now, hosting the Milwaukee Brewers. The Braves lead the series 2-1, but Game 4 is knotted up at four. Josh Hader is at the peak of his powers. After entering in the eighth, he struck out Eddie Rosario and Swanson to set up a matchup with Freeman. Hader is Milwaukee’s best high-leverage pitcher. He also demolishes left-handed hitters like Freeman. In his career, Hader allows lefties to slash .124/.223/.240, good for an OPS 76 points lower than he allows to right-handed hitters. He is about to win his third NL Reliever of the Year Award, and this season might be his best. Across 58.2 innings, Hader worked to a 1.23 ERA. He struck out 15.6 batters per nine innings, and he allowed just three home runs.
In 2021, Hader let lefties slash .133/.220/.156 for an OPS of .376. In 50 plate appearances, no lefty hit a home run off Hader. In 14.0 career innings in the playoffs, Hader had not allowed a home run.
Freeman launched the first pitch he saw into left-center to put the Braves on top. Hader got out of the inning, but Smith came in to close the door on the Brewers’ season. The Braves were going to their second consecutive NLCS.
No.3 – Matzek Mows Down Dodgers
It is the top of the seventh in Game 6 of the NLCS. The Braves lead the series 3-2, and they lead Game 6 by a score of 4-1. Luke Jackson walks out of the bullpen as the entirety of Braves Country holds its collective breath. Earlier in the series, Jackson came into a game with a three-run lead and promptly surrendered it to Cody Bellinger. Would Game 6 be different?
Naturally, Jackson faced three batters in the inning. He allowed a pair of doubles around a walk, and he left the game in a precarious spot. The Los Angeles Dodgers had two runners in scoring position with no outs. They trailed by two, but a base hit would tie the game.
Tyler Matzek walked into the game in dire straits. The Dodgers have Albert Pujols, Steven Souza, and Mookie Betts to extend the inning. All three could reverse the score with a home run, but they just need to put the ball in play to tie it. The Braves have a 58% chance of closing out the game.
Pujols strikes out on four pitches. Win probability jumps to 67%.
Souza strikes out on four pitches. Win probability jumps to 79%.
Betts strikes out on three pitches. Win probability jumps to 88%.
It took just 11 pitches for Matzek to flip the game on its head. He came back out for the eighth and retired Corey Seager, Trea Turner, and Will Smith (the other one) on six pitches. The Braves’ Smith pitched a perfect ninth, and the Braves headed to the World Series for the first time since 1999.
No.2 – Swanson and Soler Double Dip
It is Game 4 of the World Series. The Braves led the series 2-1, but the Houston Astros lead this game 2-1. Do-it-all pitcher Cristian Javier entered in the seventh and struck out Duvall. The Astros have a 67% chance of tying the series. If they do, they would force the Braves to win a game in Houston to win the World Series.
Swanson steps into the batter’s box and immediately falls to an 0-2 count. He fouls off the third pitch. 0-2 is a death sentence for hitters. Swanson has performed better than the average hitter in 0-2 counts in four of the last five seasons, but he has a career slash line of .170/.169/.252 in that count.
Swanson proceeded to launch a ball into right field, just clearing the wall to tie the game.
With Soler coming to the plate, the Braves have a 55% chance of taking a 3-1 series lead and needing to win one of three to win the World Series. Soler crushed a 2-1 pitch to left, clearing the glove of Yordan Alvarez. It’s 3-2 Braves.
Ryan Pressly came in and slammed the door for the Astros, but the damage was done. Jackson and Smith pitched clean frames, and the Braved headed to Game 5 with a 3-1 series lead.
No.1 – Has That Ball Landed?
We are in Houston. It is the top of the third inning. Max Fried and Luis Garcia are matching zeroes. Ozzie Albies slaps a base hit to right field, but Garcia retires Travis d’Arnaud and Swanson. Rosario draws a five-pitch walk. Soler steps into the box and immediately forces a 3-1 count. Garcia gets a called strike two, and the battle begins. Soler fouls off the next two pitches, yanking them down the left-field line.
To this day, the next pitch probably has not landed. It is somewhere in space with Albert Pujols’ home run from the 2005 NLCS. Soler uncorked a missile so far into left field that aliens have begun attempts to retaliate. Sadly for the aliens, they do not have access to the Soler Power of two-time World Series champion and 2021 World Series MVP Jorge Soler.
The Soler blast put the Braves up 3-0. Swanson would tack on two more runs in the fifth with a blast of his own. Freeman drove in Soler with an RBI double in the fifth as well. Freeman capped off the scoring with a home run that was eerily similar to the location of his series-clinching home run against the Brewers. Fried, Matzek, and Smith combined to pitch nine shutout innings, and the Braves won 7-0.
Despite not reaching 100 wins on the season (playoffs included), the Braves lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy for the first time since 1995.
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