ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman knew this year would be different than any of the previous four, but he certainly didn't have a feel for the tremendous satisfaction he and his Braves teammates would actually feel six months after he exited Spring Training wondering, "Why not us?"Nearly 30 years after creating
ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman knew this year would be different than any of the previous four, but he certainly didn't have a feel for the tremendous satisfaction he and his Braves teammates would actually feel six months after he exited Spring Training wondering, "Why not us?"
Nearly 30 years after creating the improbable worst-to-first 1991 season, the Braves staged yet another unexpected celebration after clinching the National League East with Saturday afternoon's 5-3 win over the Phillies at SunTrust Park. The champagne shower proved to be extra sweet for Freeman, Nick Markakis and manager Brian Snitker, who all experienced the painful portion of the massive rebuild that began four years ago.
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"This group of guys [has] been relentless throughout the whole year," Markakis said. "It showed, and it paid off. I couldn't be more proud of these guys. It's an honor to be a part of this team and go out there and grind every day with these guys."
Coming off four consecutive losing seasons, the Braves are division champs for the first time since 2013 and the second time since '05. They sat at the top of the division standings for much of the season's first half, stumbled in July and then regained sole possession of first place for good on Aug. 13. They had lost 14 of their past 18 home games before delivering the dagger by winning each of the first three games of this four-game set against the second-place Phillies.
"You sit back sometimes and wonder what this is going to feel like," Snitker said. "When I was here as a third-base coach and we won the division or the Wild Card, it was great. You wonder as a manager how it would feel, and it's even better than I had anticipated."
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When Snitker replaced Fredi Gonzalez as Atlanta's manager a little more than a month into the 2016 season, he was viewed as the loyal organizational coach who would likely be re-assigned by the end of the season. A little more than two years later, he's a National League Manager of the Year candidate thanks to the ascension of players like Mike Foltynewicz, who is heading toward the playoffs looking like a legit front-line starter.
Standing as the most significant acquisition made within the first year of the rebuild, Foltynewicz fittingly took control during this clinching game and provided a performance that conjured memories of former Braves pitcher John Smoltz, the Hall of Famer who served as FOX Sports' analyst during Saturday's game.
"It was very different knowing what's at stake, but at the same time you can't get overhyped, like I tended to do in the past with bigger games," Foltynewicz said. "To be able to do it in front of our home crowd was pretty special."
Foltynewicz held the Phillies hitless until Odubel Herrera singled to begin the seventh inning and did not allow a baserunner to advance to second base until Maikel Franco singled and Pedro Florimon walked with one out in the eighth. Jesse Biddle entered and promptly walked Jose Bautista before allowing Cesar Hernandez's two-run single.
"I thought [Foltynewicz] was going to go all the way," Snitker said. "His pitch count was so low. It was unbelievable how efficient and how good he was in arguably our biggest game of the year."
After Rhys Hoskins cut the Braves' lead to one run with a single against Brad Brach, the Braves responded much like they did two weeks ago, when they blew a six-run eighth-inning lead in a loss to the Red Sox and then proceeded to win seven of their next eight games.
Jonny Venters prevented further damage as he retired the only two batters he faced in the eighth and extended the splendor of a season he never expected to experience. His season debut for the Rays marked the first time he had pitched in a Major League game since coming out of the Braves' bullpen during the 2012 Wild Card Game -- the final game of Chipper Jones' career.
A late-July trade brought him back to Atlanta and provided him this chance to be a key figure for this group of overachieving underdogs.
"It's pretty special to do it with these guys," Venters said. "We knew we had something special since day one. But to be able to do it and pull it out, it's pretty special."
As he has so often done since giving the Braves no choice but to keep him as their starting third baseman, Johan Camargo made some key contributions in this clincher. He made an incredible diving grab in the fifth inning and provided a two-run, first-inning single against Jacob Arrieta, who walked three in the first and allowed Freeman's two-run single before exiting after just two innings.
"When I walked in the clubhouse after the first few days of Spring Training, you could tell we had the talent," Freeman said. "We still had to wait for a few guys to get here. They got here and they made a huge impact. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies. They're 20 and 21 years old. They get to walk into winning. That's awesome. Hopefully, we can continue it for a long time."
Acuna made his presence felt when he ran down Aaron Altherr's long drive against Venters in the eighth. But the 20-year-old phenom truly provided a spark when he walked and stole second base in the first inning. He joined Alex Rodriguez, Orlando Cepeda and Michael Trout as the only players in Major League history to record at least 25 homers and 15 stolen bases in their age-20 season or younger.
Camargo preserved Foltynewicz's no-hit bid and produced one of the finest catches you'll see from a third baseman when he dove to grab Maikel Franco's 105.7-mph liner in the fifth inning. The play conjured memories of one Martin Prado made for the Braves near the end of the 2010 season. Unfortunately for Prado, that proved to be a season-ending play, as he tore his oblique muscle and suffered a hip pointer.
"That's what this group did all year," Braves bench coach Walt Weiss said. "Guys made plays. Camargo, in particular, I'm so proud of him because I'm sure he heard the whispers about third base all year, and all he did at third base all year was get better and better and better. Now, he's a helluva player. I think it's great he ends up making a huge play to help us clinch."
HE SAID IT
"I probably haven't even felt half the emotions I have until I sit down and reflect. It's really true. We really did it." -- Snitker
"I love these guys. I love this place. I love this team, and I love this city. It's amazing. It's such a blessing to be here." -- Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, an Atlanta native
Anibal Sanchez will take the mound when the Braves and Phillies conclude their four-game series Sunday at 1:35 p.m. ET at SunTrust Park. Sanchez will be starting on regular rest and looking to build on the strong outing he produced when he struck out nine Cardinals batters on Tuesday. The veteran has a 3.02 ERA over his past nine starts. Philadelphia will counter with National League Cy Young Award candidate Aaron Nola.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.