Four and counting: Braves win NL East again

October 1st, 2021

ATLANTA  --  Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos may eventually provide the contract offer that could keep Freddie Freeman in Atlanta for many years to come. But he at least already offered to have an ice cream machine delivered to Freeman’s house.   

“We added an ice cream machine in the clubhouse during the year,” Anthopoulos said. “Freddie Freeman really wanted it, so we added a soft serve [machine]. I told him, I think in June, we were going back and forth texting at some point, and I said, ‘If we win this division, I’m getting one delivered to your house.’ I told him today, ‘Do you want it? We’ll get it delivered tomorrow.'”  

Well, Freeman declined the generous offer. But the veteran first baseman was soaking in the other splendors of winning a division after the Braves clinched a fourth consecutive National League East title with a 5-3 win over the Phillies on Thursday night at Truist Park.  

“Four in a row is hard,” Freeman said. “I can’t imagine those 1990s teams and how they did all that. This is a great feeling. This is right up there with 2018 for me. This year had so many ups and downs and so many things could have derailed the season.”

The Braves have now won six straight games with consecutive three-game sweeps of the Padres and Phillies. They’ll host the Mets for three games this weekend. Atlanta is locked in as the NL's No. 3 seed against the second-seeded Brewers, who will host Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday, Oct. 8, on TBS.

“The biggest thing is getting here and punching your ticket,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Who knows what is going to happen after all this. But, we’re going to have an opportunity to do something really good.”

Nobody expected the Braves to win the first of their four straight division titles in 2018, which was just four seasons into what was a massive rebuild. But fewer may have expected Atlanta to win this year, especially after Ronald Acuña Jr. suffered a season-ending right knee surgery on July 10.  

Marcell Ozuna didn’t play after his domestic violence arrest in late May and potential ace Mike Soroka never threw a pitch this year. But just before veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud and top young starter Ian Anderson ended long injured list stints in August, Anthopoulos reconstructed his outfield by acquiring Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario before the July 30 Trade Deadline.  

“I feel like I’ve never been part of a season that never had as much adversity as this one,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “But I think that’s a good characteristic for this team, to be able to battle and fight for everything. I feel like we’ve earned every bit of what we have this year.”

Long before the Braves soaked themselves in champagne (and then smoked celebratory cigars as some fans remained in the stands nearly an hour after Will Smith threw Thursday’s final pitch), Soler stirred the hometown crowd with a monstrous, 465-foot leadoff homer against Kyle Gibson. The powerful outfielder has tallied 13 of his 26 homers since being acquired from the Royals.  

While Soler and Adam Duvall have enhanced the lineup’s power supply, Austin Riley has fueled it throughout his 33-homer season. Riley heard MVP chants from the energized home crowd after he drilled a fourth-inning home run off Gibson.   

“That was pretty special,” Riley said. “Through all the struggles I’ve been through [the past two seasons], I’m finally seeing some consistency. That was a pretty sweet moment.”

Riley and Freeman will both finish among the top 10 in National League MVP balloting. You could also make arguments for Duvall and Ozzie Albies, the energetic second baseman who is tied for the NL lead with 75 extra-base hits. His latest was a decisive RBI triple in the two-run fifth that gave the Braves the cushion they needed to overcome Andrew McCutchen’s two-run homer off Ian Anderson and J.T. Realmuto’s solo shot in the eighth against Luke Jackson.  

Charlie Morton began this series by tossing seven scoreless innings against the Phillies and Fried lowered his NL-best second-half ERA to 1.74 with seven strong innings of his own on Wednesday. Anderson further enhanced hope for Atlanta’s rotation by blanking the Phillies until McCutchen homered in the seventh.

After losing to the Brewers on Aug. 1, the Braves were in third place and five games out of first place. They then swept a three-game series in St. Louis to begin a stretch during which they won 16 of 18 games, including nine straight against the Nationals, Marlins and Orioles from Aug. 13-22.  

The Braves gained a five-game lead on Aug. 27, but saw that advantage drop to just 1 1/2 games by the start of September. They regained some distance with a four-game lead on Sept. 12, but sat just one-half game ahead of the Phillies after all games were played on Sept. 18.  

While winning 10 of the 11 games that have followed, the Braves gradually took control of the division race. But when did Anthopoulos really become confident his team would win this fourth straight division crown? 

“Last night, I’m not kidding,” Anthopoulos said. “After [Wednesday] night was the first time I felt like we had a really good chance of getting this done.”