Mark Bradley: This isn’t the Braves’ best team, but it might be the right team
It was 2004. I was sitting with Bobby Cox at his Adairsville farm. We were speaking, as everyone did and still does, about the Braves having won only one World Series. And from the comfort of his chair, the Hall of Fame manager looked at me and smiled. “You know,” he said, “we played better in three of the ones we lost than in the one we won.”
It was a baseball lifer’s way of shrugging and saying, “That’s baseball.” As this October unfolds, I’ve begun to view the team of Cox’s heart, the team managed by Cox’s former third-base coach, through that lens. On the record, this is the worst team that qualified for these playoffs. It’s the second-worst band of Atlanta-era Braves of the 23 that have reached postseason. But here it sits, awaiting its National League Championship Series opponent and knowing that, should the opponent be the 106-win Dodgers, the 88-win Braves will hold the home-field edge.
Not so long ago, we were saying of the Braves, “This just isn’t their year.” But maybe it is. Maybe we just didn’t know it — how could we have known it? — yet.
Example: Ronald Acuna, maybe the most gifted player in the world, tore his ACL before the All-Star break. This led Alex Anthopoulos to add Joc Pederson. With Marcell Ozuna in limbo and Mike Soroka out until at least 2022 and Travis d’Arnaud nursing a bum thumb, the general manager kept adding. “We needed a lot of players,” he would tell this correspondent, and here it is October and Anthopoulos — were he a swaggering self-promoter, which he is not — could pull an Ozymandias and say, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
Example: In the thrill ride that was Game 4, Milwaukee had scored its first runs and taken its first lead in 22 innings. With two out and two on in the fourth, Guillermo Heredia — starting because Jorge Soler tested positive for COVID-19 during batting practice — was grazed by Eric Lauer’s final pitch of the night. The pitcher’s spot was up next. Brian Snitker sent Orlando Arcia, long a Brewer, to pinch-hit. As a Brave, Arcia hit .219 during a regular season that saw him demoted to the minors. He’d made two Division Series appearances as a pinch-hitter, grounding out to end Game 1, drawing a walk in Game 2.
The right-hander Hunter Strickland relieved Lauer. This prompted Snitker to pinch-hit for his pinch-hitter. Up stepped the lefty-swinging Eddie Rosario, another of the add-ons. He’d hit .271 as a Brave. He’d had a hit in each of the three NLDS games. This was the matchup Snitker wanted all along. Rosario singled to center, driving home the tying runs.
Said Snitker: “I told Eddie at the beginning of the day, “You’re going to get in this game. You’re not starting it, but you’re going to play in this game, so be ready.’ And really that kind of just happened when I pulled Arcia. I’m thinking we might not load the bases again.”
Said d’Arnaud: “We had a lot of ups and downs. Up until July we were still under .500. And Double-A (Anthopoulos) did his thing and brought us Joc (Pederson) and brought us Jorge and brought us Eddie. Brought us Duvy (Adam Duvall) and Rich-Rod (reliever Rich Rodriguez). He showed he still believed in us. We all got even closer as a group and as a team and we started having fun again.”
Then: “I think Joc coming loosened everybody up. We all know his pedigree, his resume, everything he’s been through. For him to come over and just be so, just be Joc basically, and especially when we were, like I said, a few games below .500, I think it let everybody know we would be all right regardless of how tough the year’s been.”
On the Fourth of July, who knew Pederson would be a Brave, let alone an Atlanta style influencer with his pearls? Who figured the second-biggest hit of 2021′s biggest game — to date, anyway — would be the work of Rosario, then working in Minnesota? Who knew Freeman, whose contract expires in November and who was hitting .197 on May 8 and .224 on June 9, would be standing at home plate with two out in the eighth inning of a playoff game, staring out at the fearsome Josh Hader?
Nobody knew, but here it was. Freeman sent Hader’s slider flying, and the Braves were bound for the NLCS, and you were recalling Cox’s words about how you don’t always win it all with your best team.
Snitker: “Somebody asked me if I was thinking that (Freeman would hit a home run). I had so many things going on in my mind when that happened, when he hit that ball. It was like the perfect ending.”
Actually, it wasn’t the end. Snitker’s team gets to keep playing. If it wins four more games, it’ll be in the World Series, a place no band of Braves has graced this century. So many thoughts are running through our minds right now, the uppermost being this: This isn’t the team we figured we’d be seeing, but it might be the right team at the right time.
Nobody remembers that the 1995 Braves finished 28th among 30 clubs in batting average during the regular season. We do have fond memories of the parade down Peachtree after they became world champs.