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Braves win NL East title for 3rd straight year

@mlbbowman
September 23, 2020

ATLANTA -- Though the journey was different, the Braves still embraced a familiar sense of satisfaction after securing a third straight National League East title with a 11-1 win over the Marlins on Tuesday night at Truist Park. “This is different,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I’m proud of how

ATLANTA -- Though the journey was different, the Braves still embraced a familiar sense of satisfaction after securing a third straight National League East title with a 11-1 win over the Marlins on Tuesday night at Truist Park.

“This is different,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I’m proud of how they handled this whole situation over the past few months. Everything about this year is different, but we’re the [NL East] champs. It’s hard to do that once, let alone we’ve had three in a row here.”

Box score

Top offseason acquisition Marcell Ozuna hit two of the team’s five home runs and NL MVP Award candidate Freddie Freeman accounted for one of the others. As for Bryse Wilson, he tossed five scoreless innings in his first start of a season he primarily spent at the alternate training site.

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With what has proven to be one of the game’s most powerful lineups, a strong bullpen and unexpected contributions from guys like Wilson, the Braves overcame significant rotation woes on the way to winning three consecutive NL East titles for the first time since they claimed an unprecedented 14 consecutive division crowns from 1991-2005.

Their 20 division championships are the most in Major League history.

“They're pretty good,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “Obviously, they've shown they're a tough team to deal with, as far as their offense. They've been banged up a little bit, and still they keep throwing arms at you. They've been, obviously, the class of the division over the last few years, and at different times, over long periods of time. They're the gold standard, the guys you got to go after.”

Freeman, Ozuna, Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies all went deep for the Braves, who have hit an MLB-best 50 homers in September, leaving them six shy of the single-month franchise record set in June 2019.

Generating power has been a consistent source of success for the Braves, who rank second in the Majors with the 98 homers in 55 games. Atlanta totaled just 100 over 162 games in 2015, which served as the beginning of the rebuild that has yielded this run of division titles.

But this year included plenty of challenges in many different forms. Here are some of the most significant obstacles the team overcame to secure another division crown.

Braves' postseason FAQ | How Atlanta got to the postseason

Replacing Donaldson
After Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins in January, the Braves opted to replace him with Ozuna, who has actually exceeded the expectations set when he signed a one-year, $18 million deal.

Ozuna has tallied 17 homers and produced a 1.042 OPS over 55 games. That would be a 50-homer pace during a 162-game season. Yes, it might be too small of a sample size to make this projection, but he’s certainly replaced the pop the Braves lost when Donaldson departed.

“I don’t know if we could have done better,” Snitker said. “He’s been everything and more to what we needed in that spot in the lineup.”

Early COVID issues
Snitker began his media session on the second day of Summer Camp by announcing Freeman and All-Star reliever Will Smith had tested positive for COVID-19. Over the next few days, Félix Hernández and Nick Markakis elected not to play. Then, the Braves went through their season-opening five-game road trip without either of their two veteran catchers, Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers, who remained in Atlanta because they were symptomatic.

A little more than two months later, Freeman is tied for the NL lead with a 2.9 fWAR (Fangraphs’ WAR), Markakis is back with the club and d’Arnaud has proven to be another of last winter’s top signings.

Splintered rotation
Hamels made just one start for Atlanta, and ace Mike Soroka sustained a torn right Achilles tendon in his third start. Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment after one start, and Sean Newcomb was optioned after just four starts. Other than that, everything went as well as it could for the starting rotation.

Ian Anderson has been effective in three of his first five starts, and Kyle Wright has seemingly emerged over the past two weeks. But the only consistently reliable piece of this rotation has been Fried, who didn’t even earn a spot in last year’s postseason rotation.

Still, the Braves have had sole possession of first place since Aug. 17, when they were 24 games into the season.

“Max has done a tremendous job all year,” d’Arnaud said. “He’s even inspired the young guys to pitch this well late in the season. When Soroka went down, he stepped up and did everything we asked of him.”

Missing Albies
How deep is this Atlanta lineup? Well, the Braves ranked seventh in the Majors as they tallied 5.23 runs per game when Albies was sidelined from Aug. 5-Sept. 8 with a right wrist bone bruise. Ronald Acuña Jr. also missed 13 games during this stretch because of wrist and hamstring ailments.

The Braves have averaged 7.7 runs per game over the 13 games since Albies was activated. This number is inflated by the fact Atlanta tallied an NL-record 29 runs the day its All-Star second baseman was activated, but it’s also a product of Albies hitting five homers and producing a 1.154 OPS since returning.

“This is pretty satisfying, given how crazy this whole year has been,” Freeman said. “For us to lose so many guys over the year, it’s pretty amazing we were able to do this.”

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.