2021 MLB playoffs – How the Atlanta Braves stunned baseball to reach the World Series

For the first time in the 21st century, the Atlanta Braves are in the World Series, having claimed their first National League pennant since 1999.

It’s not an insult or a revision of history to say that the Braves began this October run as something of an afterthought. The oddsmakers in Vegas rated them as the fourth-likeliest pennant winner in the NL, ahead of the wild-card St. Louis Cardinals but behind the wild-card Los Angeles Dodgers, the team finished off by Atlanta on Saturday night. At ESPN, just two of our 36 wannabe prognosticators picked the Braves to win the National League.

Yet here they are, in the Fall Classic, a crowning achievement for franchise lifers like star first baseman Freddie Freeman and manager Brian Snitker, who has been with the organization since the early days of Georgian Jimmy Carter’s administration.

While a tiny sample of postseason statistics can tell you only so much, sometimes you can glance at the box scores and an obvious trend will leap out at you. For example, the American League champion Houston Astros have averaged 6.7 runs per game this postseason, far more than any other club. If you were to write a “how they got here” story about Houston, that’s an obvious place to start.

The Braves, on the other hand, have no eye-jabbing statistical indicators that serve as neon signposts pointing their way to the World Series. They haven’t really led the playoff teams in anything, at least on the traditional stats ledger.

But let’s focus on one number where they can’t be touched: 100, their probability percentage for winning the flag they’ve just won. Throughout the postseason, I’ve been running probabilities through my simulator after posting the previous night’s results and logging them to see the daily changes. The first run, which was prior to the start of the playoffs, gave the Braves a 17% shot at winning the pennant.

Sixteen days and 10 games later, they hit 100%. So the only question is: How?


Day 1: Oct. 8

Brewers 2, Braves 1 (NLDS Game 1)
NL pennant odds: 10% (down 7%)

“The Believing in Your Starters Game”

Before the Braves took off, they took a step back, dropping a tense first game of the National League Division Series in Milwaukee, spoiling a fantastic start from Charlie Morton. Morton pitched into the seventh and made his only costly mistake to the last batter he faced: Rowdy Tellez, who hit a two-run homer on a 1-2 pitch in the seventh inning.

Yet one signpost was planted.

In a postseason in which bullpens have been leaned on harder than ever, Atlanta’s starters have faced more hitters for the third time in a game than the starters of any other playoff team.

The thing is, this hasn’t always happened because the starter was dominating. While the Braves’ rotation collectively had the best playoff ERA among the final four teams, its numbers aren’t overwhelming.

That day, Morton entered the seventh in great shape, having thrown six scoreless innings on 77 pitches with eight strikeouts. He stopped missing as many bats in the sixth, but got away with just a walk to Daniel Vogelbach. Then he began the seventh by hitting Avisail Garcia with a pitch.

At that point, a lot of current-day managers would have pulled the plug. The pitch count was fairly low, but the results were changing. Tellez was the next batter Morton faced — the 23rd of the game, and the fifth to face Morton a third time — and he launched a long home run to center, the only runs the Brewers would get that day, and the only ones they would need.

“He said he felt good,” Snitker said after the game. “I thought he was in an area where all year long we’ve let him go back.”

It’s a season-long trend: Whenever Snitker has seen a chance to get another inning or two from a starter, he has tried to get it — even if that meant sending a pitcher up to hit in a clear pinch-hitting situation. It was how the Braves played it all season.

“For us, you want to go out there and lay everything out on the line, and I think that Snit lets us do that,” Max Fried said during the NLCS. “We try to be as honest as we can about how we’re feeling in the moment and he takes that into account with the situation and he’s going to try to do what’s best for the team, always.”


Day 2: Oct. 9

Braves 3, Brewers 0 (NLDS Game 2)
NL pennant odds: 18% (up 8%)

“The Max Fried Game”

Back in 2014, when the Braves dove headlong into rebuild mode, there was no one moment that triggered the decision to tear down. There had been a gradual deterioration from the days of Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Andruw Jones and so many others.

Over time, the Braves started relying less on those kinds of internally developed players, and more on pricey free agents. It wasn’t the Braves way. In 2014, after a fast start devolved into a disastrous finish, chief executive and Hall of Famer John Schuerholz demanded a return to the old ways.

That offseason, the team pulled off a flurry of trades moving veterans for younger players. They were the first tentative steps of the rebuild. And in one of those deals, Atlanta dealt veteran outfielder Justin Upton to the San Diego Padres for several young players, the best of whom has proved to be Max Fried.

Fried has moved up the pecking order of big league aces, and now he’s one of the best pitchers anywhere. He dominated the Brewers in Game 2 of the NLDS, working both sides of the plate, and getting pitches in on the right-handers whom opposing managers try to send his way.

“It’s just a ton of strikes,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said. “There’s no free pitches for the hitters. He doesn’t leave stuff in the middle.”

In the end, Fried threw six shutout innings on 81 pitches. It was among the best postseason starts of his career, after struggling in the previous year’s NLDS (he allowed eight runs in 16.2 innings). Fried’s impressive 2021 postseason debut proved that Morton wasn’t the only big-game pitcher in Atlanta. After Fried polished this gem in Milwaukee, Snitker, the Braves and every baseball fan in Atlanta knew their team had a second one.


Day 4: Oct. 11

Braves 3, Brewers 0 (NLDS Game 3)
NL pennant odds: 26% (up 8%)

“Pearls in a Pinch”

When teams start to win with that ephemeral thing we call the “it” factor, little things that teams do to bond become fodder for feature stories. For the Braves in October, the accessory that has launched a thousand pens is the white pearl necklace that has become the signature of Joc Pederson.

“I take them off when I sleep,” Pederson said after a game in which his pinch-hit, three-run homer was all the offense the Braves needed — about his pearls, in a news conference about baseball. “I got them through my jeweler. And, yes, they’re real pearls.”

Pederson was a midseason pickup for Atlanta, the immediate reaction to the devastating season-ending knee injury suffered by MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr., a loss that exacerbated the problems for an outfield still dealing with the absence of Marcell Ozuna, who was placed on administrative leave after domestic abuse allegations.

At the trade deadline, Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos was there to swoop up more help from the outfield from salary-dumping teams, acquiring Adam Duvall from Miami, Eddie Rosario from Cleveland and Jorge Soler from Kansas City.

The additions didn’t just shore up some glaring roster holes. They also changed the personality of an established team in the middle of an underachieving season. While we can read too much into these things when a team succeeds the way the Braves have since this mix all came together, the pearls really do signify something.

“We’re all ecstatic about what he’s been able to do from the personality he is,” Braves pitcher Ian Anderson said. “And the big spots he’s kind of stepped up in is something else. They say some guys are built for it. He’s the epitome of that, I would say.”

The Braves team that had struggled to reach .500 until August and dealt with the losses of two of its foundational offensive players had become something different. And that something different was kind of wonderful.


Day 5: Oct. 12

Braves 5, Brewers 4 (NLDS Game 4)
NL pennant odds: 32% (up 6%)

“Fabulous Freddie”

Freddie Freeman was drafted by the Braves in 2007. When the club entered its rebuild seven years later, he was still young but established, and nearing the end of his arbitration window. A team entering a rebuild might trade a player like that.

Instead, the Braves explained to Freeman what was happening, said there would be some hard times, but told him they wanted him to be the one player left whom fans could identify with, and whom the club could build around, providing continuity and leadership when the new talent arrived.

“It meant the world,” Freeman told ESPN in 2017. “We made a commitment to each other after the 2013 season. To pick me, to believe in me, to help this team get back to the playoffs meant a lot.”

So Freeman was signed to an eight-year, $135 million contract that will finally expire when this season ends. Since then, he has been all the Braves wanted him to be and much more.

That’s why it was so fitting that it was Freeman who boosted the Braves back into the NLCS by swatting a pitch unfurled by dominating Brewers closer Josh Hader over the center-field fence.

“I had a lot of cool moments in my career, but so far I think that’s going to top them right there,” Freeman said of his go-ahead, eighth-inning solo home run. “But hopefully that’s not the last cool one.”

It was one step closer to the pennant. One step closer to the place Freeman hoped to reach when he showed so much faith in an organization that showed so much faith in him.


Day 9: Oct. 16

Braves 3, Dodgers 2 (NLCS Game 1)
NL pennant odds: 49% (up 17%)

“MVP! MVP!”

The player who has been drawing the lion’s share of the MVP chants at Truist Park this October is neither the injured Acuna, nor the beloved Freeman (though Freddie has gotten them, too). It’s been third baseman Austin Riley.

Riley starred in Game 1 of the NLCS, a 3-2 Atlanta win in a game that began with another sterling outing from Fried. Still, Atlanta struggled to turn the scoreboard in a Dodgers bullpen game. It turned only when Riley was at the plate.

The first time wasn’t so much anything he did: Eddie Rosario scored in the first inning on a wild pitch with Riley at the plate. In the fourth inning, it was all Riley, whose homer off Tony Gonsolin tied the game at 2.

Finally, in the bottom of the ninth, Riley singled off Blake Treinen, plating Ozzie Albies and giving the Braves the series opener. The crowd responded with “MVP! MVP!”

Freeman, in the midst of a career-worst stretch, struck out four times in the game. But it didn’t matter, because Riley’s heroic night underscored that, even with Acuna on the sideline, Freeman has plenty of help on these Braves.

“These guys just keep playing and it’s not about one guy here, obviously,” Snitker said. “And I think that’s a really good thing.”


Day 10: Oct. 17

Braves 5, Dodgers 4 (NLCS Game 2)
NL pennant odds: 70% (up 21%)

“Red Hot Rosario”

Eddie Rosario was not supposed to be part of the plan. For much of last winter, it looked like he wasn’t going to be part of anybody’s plan. Despite his hitting 32 homers with 109 RBIs for a Minnesota Twins playoff team in 2019, drawing some down-ballot MVP votes both that year and in his follow-up in 2020, the Twins set the arbitration-eligible Rosario adrift last winter by opting not to tender him a contract.

Rosario signed with Cleveland in early February, but not until he had dangled for nearly the entire winter, finally signing about 10 days before the start of spring training. He struggled with Cleveland, and at the trade deadline was more or less salary-dumped on a Braves team that was collecting replacement outfielders. Only Rosario wasn’t a quick fix: He was injured at the time of the deal, and didn’t make his first appearance for Atlanta until Aug. 28.

Since then, all he has done is rake. In Game 2, Rosario posted the first of two four-hit games he had in the NLCS, this one propelling the Atlanta offense to a 5-4 win against Max Scherzer and the Dodgers. The last of those four hits — a ninth-inning winner — was the biggest, a sharp single that scored Dansby Swanson.

A few days later, Rosario would have the game of his life in Game 4, getting four more hits and nearly hitting for the cycle. (He needed a double his last time up, but instead homered for the second time in the game.) And in Game 6, he broke open a tense 1-1 tie with a three-run homer just inside the right-field foul pole and Truist Park exploded with a remarkable thunder of cheering, followed by an “Eddie! Eddie!” chant.

“This whole postseason he’s been pretty much unbelievable,” Freeman said.

That’s part of the wonderful, weird and random nature of baseball. Rosario, a good but temporarily unwanted player, who wouldn’t have been a Brave if not for the dissolution of Atlanta’s opening-day outfield, finds a home and becomes the hottest guy at just the right time.

“I kind of want more at this point,” Rosario said after Game 4. “[I am] just dreaming for the next thing.”


Day 13: Oct. 20

Braves 9, Dodgers 2 (NLCS Game 4)
NL pennant odds: 79% (up 9%)

“M.J.S.”

A day later, for the first time since the Game 1 loss in the NLDS, the Braves’ pennant odds actually dropped. A jaw-dropping, late-inning rally by the Dodgers, who scored four runs in the eighth inning to grab the lead, seemed like a series-shifting change. The 6-5 Los Angeles win — highlighted by Cody Bellinger’s game-tying three-run homer on a pitch so high that he practically had to leap in the air to get to it — dropped the Braves’ pennant probability to 56%.

It wasn’t just the momentum swing of the Dodgers’ rally and the Braves missing out on a chance to grab a 3-0 lead. In Game 4, the Dodgers were pitching 20-game winner Julio Urias, and the Braves were planning a bullpen game.

But something special has been going on in the Atlanta bullpen since the beginning of the playoffs. Namely that Snitker has tied his late-inning fortunes to the bullpen trio of Tyler Matzek (M), Luke Jackson (J) and Will Smith (S), and the plan has worked better than anybody could have expected.

The plan, before that trio showed up in the late innings, was to start regular-season starter Huascar Ynoa and have him go for at least a couple of innings. But after Ynoa turned up with shoulder tightness on game day, he was removed from the roster.

Atlanta won 9-2 anyway, taking a commanding 3-1 lead that put the Braves on the doorstep of the World Series in a game without a starting pitcher. Rosario’s near cycle didn’t hurt, but this was still an emblematic performance from the Braves’ bullpen.

It was a performance that included two-thirds of M.J.S. — Matzek and Smith went one inning each — and that, crucially, didn’t require Snitker to use any of his big three starters in relief action (unlike Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, whose use of Max Scherzer in the NLDS Game 5 might have contributed to his team’s demise against the Braves). Instead, Snitker has been able to follow a formula similar to that of the 2014-15 Kansas City Royals. At various times, Snitker has flipped the order that Matzek and Jackson have appeared, but the trio has worked in tandem all October, and has shown little sign of wearing down.

Through the postseason, the M.J.S. bullpen has combined for a sub-1.00 ERA and a sub-.150 batting average allowed, with Matzek in particular appearing in virtually every game.


Day 16: Oct. 23

Braves 4, Dodgers 2 (NLCS Game 6)
NL pennant odds: 100% (up 21%)

“No Place Like Home”

Even in an NLCS in which the Dodgers looked mostly lifeless and lusterless, L.A. still managed to spring back to life in Game 5. Chris Taylor clubbed three homers, A.J. Pollock hit two more and L.A. rolled to an 11-2 win in Game 5. The loss dipped the Braves’ pennant probability to 61% — though that figure was probably a little low considering the Dodgers were losing key parts faster than the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Questions about last year’s Atlanta collapse from a 3-1 series lead over the Dodgers crept up once more, even as the Braves insisted that this year’s team is different from last year’s team. Heck, it’s different from the team it was during the first half of this season.

“It’s going to be the narrative it seems because every day it’s brought up,” Freeman said after Game 5. “So I don’t think we have a choice until we kill that narrative.”

On Saturday, the Braves killed the narrative.

In Game 5, all the pieces were there. Anderson put up four innings, allowing one run, with his changeup-heavy arsenal. Snitker pinch hit for him in the fourth, and that replacement, Ehire Adrianza, doubled with two outs to keep the inning alive.

And then NLCS MVP Rosario lit the place up with a three-run homer to right, just over the wall, and just inside the foul pole. But it was enough to spark what very well have been the loudest roar yet heard in Cobb County, Georgia.

The rest was there, too. Before the M.J.S. bullpen could even get started up, A.J. Minter came on and threw two perfect electric innings. Jackson struggled, but Matzek struck out three straight with the tying runs in scoring position. The last of the three was former MVP Mookie Betts. Freeman, in what may have been his biggest game ever, didn’t play hero ball. Instead, he accepted the four walks that were there to get.

And Smith finished it, with Dansby Swanson making a dazzling play on an A.J. Pollock grounder to end it.

And while the Atlantans jammed into every crevice of Truist Park made a whole lot of noise, they didn’t take an at-bat, throw a pitch or field a grounder. But their presence was felt. That was very different from last year, when the Braves blew that lead before three mostly lifeless crowds on a neutral field in Arlington, Texas.

Now, those Braves fans will get to see the first World Series games played in Cobb County, and the first in the Atlanta area since the golden days of manager Bobby Cox & Co.

They’ll get to see them not because of one hot player or one organizational philosophy that has paid off. They’ll get to see them because their club has progressed, step by step, one foot in front of the other, trying to find the path to that place every team wants to go.

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