If you ever want to get in a fight on Twitter -- and hey, who wouldn’t want that? -- may I recommend suggesting to an Atlanta Braves fan that the infield fly rule that was called in the 2012 National League Wild Card Game between the Braves and Cardinals was the correct call? MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds has (correctly) noted that the umps made the right call, but Atlanta fans still lose their minds over it any time you bring it up.
The circumstances of the call might not necessarily be in doubt, but it’s understandable why Braves fans would still be upset about it. The play was not only in Chipper Jones’ final game with Atlanta -- a game in which he made a key throwing error that cost the Braves two runs -- but it was indicative of something Braves fans have become all-too-familiar with over the last two or three decades: Postseason failure.
The regular-season success and postseason disappointments of those Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine teams have been well-documented -- it is difficult to win 14 straight division titles and only one World Series, even if you are trying -- but the Braves’ postseason frustrations are more recent than just that.
Coming into this season, the Braves had lost 10 consecutive postseason series, starting with the 2001 NL Championship Series loss to the D-backs and extending through '19’s NL Division Series loss to the Cardinals. They’ve lost series to the D-backs, the Cardinals, the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cubs and the Astros in that time. They’ve had future superstars traded away, rebuilding periods started and restarted and two ballparks in two very different areas of town -- the new ballpark has even had two names already.
The Braves have been good for a long time; since 2011, they have the fifth-most wins in baseball. But they’ve never broken through in the postseason. This pain has been compounded by all the postseason struggles of other teams in the region, most notably the Atlanta Falcons (who will be hearing the numbers “28-3” their entire lives) and the Georgia Bulldogs football team -- who, just three seasons ago in Atlanta, came one overtime play away from winning their first National Championship since 1980. A friend here in Athens names all his fantasy teams “Not Since 1995.” As far as tortured sports cities go, Atlanta is rather underrated. Though it should be noted that Atlanta United won the MLS Cup in '18.
But now? Now it sure feels like that’s changing. A new vanguard of Braves, freed from the generations of past frustrations, has taken over in Atlanta, and if the first week of the playoffs are any indication, they are no longer operating under some sort of civic curse.
The Braves blasted the Marlins 7-0 on Thursday to complete a fully dominating sweep of Miami in the NLDS to advance to their first NLCS since 2001. They’ve won all five of their postseason games this season, by a combined score of 24-5. They have three legitimate MVP Award contenders in Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, and they also appear to have discovered two top-shelf starters in Max Fried and Ian Anderson. It is all coming up roses for the Braves right now. This is what they’ve all been waiting for.
If you’re looking for perhaps the most telling reason to be excited about the Braves, look to the number “five,” the number of runs Atlanta has allowed in the playoffs so far. All five of those runs were allowed in one game: The Braves have put together four shutouts, becoming the first team since the 1905 Giants to open the postseason with four shutouts in five games.
Heading into the postseason, the worry was about the pitching, not the hitting. The Braves' rotation has been ravaged by injuries this year, most notably to Mike Soroka, and there were legitimate questions about how they would piece together a pitching staff. But the playoffs have shown how it could work.
It has helped that Will Smith has returned to his previously terrific self, throwing 4 1/3 perfect innings so far, but everybody in the once-wobbly Braves bullpen has been excellent. Smith, Mark Melancon, Tyler Matzek, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Darren O’Day, Shane Greene and Jacob Webb have combined to give up just one run in 20 1/3 innings. You’re going to win a lot of games if your bullpen does that. The Braves just won all of them.
That’s what’s most exciting about this: All the ways the Braves have usually lost in the postseason have become their strengths. The defense has looked excellent, the top of the order has been consistently imposing, they’ve got two potential aces atop the rotation (and Kyle Wright threw six scoreless innings in his lone start as well) and the bullpen has, again, been near perfect. The postseason has felt a little bit like a cleansing for Braves fans, a way to shed all the pain of the last few years. All the things that usually go wrong … just haven’t. All they are missing is a correctly called infield fly rule that goes for them, rather than against them.
Now, of course, comes the hard part: The Dodgers. The Dodgers have won all their postseason games too, the only other team that has done so. They have all the same advantages the Braves do, though their starting pitchers have higher upsides, and, oh yeah, they have those two MVPs in the middle of their lineup. But then again: Freeman might give the Braves their first MVP since Jones won in 1999, and he’s surrounded in the order by one of the brightest young stars in baseball and a guy who almost won the Triple Crown.
The Dodgers might have a little more talent than the Braves, but just a little. And besides, the Braves have been losing in the playoffs to teams with less talent than them for 20-plus years now. Perhaps it is time luck starts swinging in their direction. Perhaps it is time for them to catch their break.
The Braves have their toughest test in front of them in the NLCS. But they have already gotten over one hump, a big one, one that had their fans fatalistic and morose, and, well, quick to snap at people who point out correct infield fly rule calls. The Braves’ postseason struggles have led their fans to believe they are owed some karma backpay. This very well could be the year that backpay comes due.