ATLANTA -- These past five days did not erase all of the optimism and excitement created during the previous six months. But they did provide a clear indication the Braves haven't quite reached the point where they are capable of competing for a World Series title.
A memorable season that exceeded all expectations concluded Monday evening when the Braves lost, 6-2, to the Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. The exchange of hugs and goodbyes came earlier than desired and later than anyone expected when this season began with moderate expectations.
:: NLDS schedule and results ::
"The only thing that will make me happy is winning the World Series," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "That's all you've got to do. I'll take this as a start, winning the division in 2018. But we need to do more next year."
Though the ouster from the postseason brought sadness, Nick Markakis addressed his Braves teammates after the game and expressed how proud he was to have been part of this team. Markakis and Freeman were present for the three consecutive 90-loss seasons that made this year's accomplishments seem improbable.
"Not many guys get to play in the postseason their first year in the big leagues," Markakis said. "They've got experience. They know what it's about now. The experience will pay off in the long run for them."
One of the benefactors of this postseason run could be Mike Foltynewicz, who blossomed into an All-Star this season and then was humbled while lasting just two innings in Game 1. He was given a chance to redeem himself in this final game and walked away satisfied with a four-inning effort that was abbreviated by the need for a pinch-hitter.
The lone run he surrendered came courtesy of a Manny Machado RBI double that followed Player Page for Max Muncy drawing a walk --- one of 27 free passes Atlanta's pitchers issued over 34 innings.
Conversely, the Dodgers' pitching staff issued just nine walks while limiting the Braves to a .154 batting average and .218 on-base percentage.
"We have the right team here," Foltynewicz said. "We just walked a few too many people and gave up a few too many bases. That hurt us, especially against that kind of lineup where one through nine can put it out of the park or put it in the gap."
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos deserves to be lauded for his first year on the job. Limited financially and wary of being overly aggressive at this stage of the rebuild, he upgraded the pitching staff with the in-season acquisitions of Kevin Gausman, Jonny Venters and Brad Brach. The deep-pocket Dodgers added Machado and David Freese to a lineup that already included Justin Turner and breakout sensation Muncy.
After Gausman was used as a reliever in Atlanta's Game 3 victory, Brach surrendered the series' decisive hit -- Freese's two-run single that eluded diving shortstop Charlie Culberson, who was pressed into a starting role when Dansby Swanson tore a ligament in his left hand during the regular season's final week.
Culberson understood what it felt like to be on the other side. He helped the Dodgers reach the World Series last year while filling in for the injured Corey Seager.
"I hope everyone understands what it feels like to get here and also what it feels like to lose," Culberson said. "Sitting on the bench after the game watching [the Dodgers] somewhat celebrate, they didn't really do a whole lot of celebrating because I feel like they knew they were going to beat us and they played better baseball than us."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Working with a bullpen fatigued during Sunday night's win and dealing with the consequences of successfully pinch-hitting for Foltynewicz in the fourth, the Braves wanted Venters to complete two innings for the first time in more than six years. The aggressive plan might have worked had Ozzie Albies made a more aggressive effort to get to Yasiel Puig's blooper that fell in shallow right field in the sixth.
"The ball fell, we couldn't do anything," Albies said. "[Markakis] went for it and I went for it. We didn't get to it. That's it."
Puig's two-out bloop single set the stage for Freese to follow with a go-ahead two-run single off Brach, who was the last reliever placed on Atlanta's NLDS roster. Freese entered 2-for-6 with two homers against Brach. Had the pitcher's spot not been due up second in the bottom half of the inning, the decision might have been to call upon rookie Chad Sobotka, who was humbled in the seventh by Machado's three-run homer.
"Ozzie was coming out and the way [Puig] hit it, it was slicing and it just kept pushing away from me," Markakis said. "I knew it was going to be in that area. It was just a matter of one of us getting there."
Markakis had to go 119 feet and had just a 1 percent catch probability. Albies would have had to travel 80 feet to get it.
Foltynewicz yielded Machado's first-inning RBI double, then pitched around potential trouble in each of the three innings that followed. The decision to limit him to four innings was made after Rich Hill walked Johan Camargo and Tyler Flowers to begin the bottom of the fourth.
Ender Inciarte followed with a sacrifice bunt. After Culberson was unable to score Camargo with his one-out grounder against a drawn-in infield, Foltynewicz was replaced by pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki, who gave the Braves a 2-1 lead with a single to left.
"Kurt got a big hit there, and we knew it was going to be tough to cover all the innings today with the guys that we had," Snitker said. "But just felt like we did a good job giving ourselves a chance."
Suzuki's single was one of the two hits the Braves recorded in 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position during the series. The Braves stranded two runners in the first and third innings and then left the bases loaded in the process of chasing Hill in the fifth.
With out out and the bases loaded, the Dodgers called upon Ryan Madson, who quieted the threat by getting Flowers to pop up in foul territory down the third-base line. Inciarte then hit a lazy fly that Machado gloved in shallow left.
HE SAID IT
"That is a powerhouse over there. They have a lot more money. But I feel like our guys with zero to two [years of experience] are ready to take the next step, and we'll be winning titles here." -- Freeman, comparing the Dodgers to the Braves
"When you experience the postseason, it's a bit of a shell-shocking experience, especially starting on the road. What these guys have learned from this year, they'll be able to use next year for sure. I see this team making the playoffs for many, many years in a row. They're only going to get better." -- Braves veteran reliever Peter Moylan