Riley continues to be straw that stirs Braves

October 31st, 2021

didn’t get the biggest hit in Game 4's 3-2 win on Saturday night, when his team got within a game of winning the World Series. But he sure got one of them, knocking in Eddie Rosario with the Braves’ first run when it was still 2-0 Astros, an inning before Dansby Swanson and Jorge Soler went back-to-back. Rosario has been the Braves’ best player in October. Riley has been their best player all season.

Riley likely won’t win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. But there wasn’t a more valuable player in the NL this season -- not Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. or anybody else.

Soto might be the most talented player in the league, and Tatis, who hit 42 home runs in just 130 games, might be the most exciting. Harper, who was just voted Player of the Year by his peers, looked as if he might carry the Phillies to the NL East title until the Braves passed them for good. He will probably be the NL MVP for the second time, following his MVP with the Nationals in 2015. Harper was a star this season, no doubt.

He just wasn’t more valuable to the Phillies than Riley, the heir to Chipper Jones in Atlanta, was to the Braves.

Riley has things working against him, of course, and not just the rest of the MVP field. Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, on the other side of this remarkable Braves infield, will probably take votes away from Riley. But Riley was the Braves’ most important player all season, before and after general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the front office star of baseball in '21, traded for a whole new outfield after Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL in July.

The big guy for the Braves was the kid at third. The country is now seeing in October what Braves fans already knew. There was Riley with big late-inning hits as the Braves got past the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series. There he was with a big hit on Friday night, driving in the only run Atlanta needed in Game 3’s 2-0 win, and again on Saturday night. Those kinds of hits won’t factor into the regular-season MVP voting. But this month has pretty much typified Riley’s entire season.

Rosario has become one of the great October surprises who make this time of year so special in baseball. But Riley, who is still just 24, has been the true breakout star for the Braves and helped turn their season around -- after Atlanta started 44-44, it went 44-29 the rest of the way. He ended up with 33 homers and 107 RBIs.

There are always reasons for everybody’s numbers. But Soto didn’t knock in 100 for the Nationals, and Harper knocked in 84 runs for the Phillies. Tatis would have gotten his numbers up if he had played more games. But he didn’t. Albies ended up with 30 homers in an infield when everyone in the Braves’ infield had at least 25 home runs, and also had 106 RBIs. He’s a legit MVP candidate, too.

Just not as much as Riley. It took a while to notice what he was doing, the way his team snuck up on many this season. But here they are, and here he is. And on Sunday night, they might win Atlanta’s first World Series since Tom Glavine and Mark Wohlers one-hit the Indians in Game 6 of the Fall Classic 26 years ago.

Riley had two more hits on Saturday night. So far this postseason, he has 15 hits, two homers and eight RBIs in 14 games.

“You get into the postseason, and I feel like a lot of people want to change a little bit, trying to do a little extra, a little extra,” Riley said after his huge RBI in Game 3. “I just try to keep it as simple as possible.”

He did it all through the regular season, and has continued his clutch efforts throughout the postseason. Riley went 5-for-15 against the Brewers in the Division Series. He had the walk-off hit that won Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers and started Game 6 for the Braves with a two-run double in the first inning, as Atlanta buried the notion that Los Angeles might come back from a 3-1 deficit for the second straight NLCS.

The Braves know that the Dodgers did storm back from such a deficit in 2020, and that the Astros could do the same thing in this year’s Fall Classic. But the country sees, game by game, why Atlanta has made it this far. Anthopoulos had as great a Trade Deadline as any baseball executive has ever had. Brian Snitker, the wonderful lifer who manages the Braves, had the right guy at the plate on Saturday night when he pinch-hit Soler. The Braves’ bullpen has been spectacular.

And Rosario, one of the Braves’ October heroes, hasn’t just hit the ball all over the place -- he made one of those magical postseason catches to rob Jose Altuve of an extra-base hit in the top of the eighth on Saturday night.

Among a lot of big players for the Braves in ‘21, Riley has been the biggest. Nothing has changed in October. He won’t be the NL MVP. But he ought to be.