ATLANTA -- The Braves have extended the trend of winning the National League East every year Tiger Woods has won The Masters, and they have now started their own “tradition unlike any other” by taking their celebration to the waterfall located beyond SunTrust Park’s center field wall.
After bathing in champagne to celebrate clinching the NL East with a 6-0 win over the Giants on Friday night at SunTrust Park, a group of Braves players ventured out to the waterfall to continue a tradition started a year ago, when the city of Atlanta was treated with the first of what is now two consecutive division titles.
“We weren’t supposed to do it this year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think when we were talking in March, most people were picking us to finish fourth. I think we said back then, 'That’s why we play the game.'"
“This team right here is as good as any team I’ve played on. It could possibly be the best team I’ve played on with the mixture of guys we have,” Markakis said. “We’re confident in ourselves and in each other. Confidence can take you a long way.”
When the Braves unexpectedly won last year’s division title, the 82-win Nationals were the only other division foe that finished with a winning record. Four NL East teams could finish with a winning record this year. Yet, Atlanta has had a lead of at least four games dating back to June 19.
Any lingering doubt of a repeat disappeared when the Braves took three of four from the Nationals two weeks ago, then won a three-game set at Nationals Park last weekend. Atlanta has produced the NL’s best record dating back to May 10, when Acuña moved back to the top of the lineup to help the production of fellow NL MVP candidates Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson.
With one of the game’s most productive lineups and a rotation that has been significantly strengthened by Foltynewicz’s 1.19 ERA over his past six starts, the Braves appear primed to win a postseason series for the first time since sweeping the 2001 NLDS against the Astros.
“I kind of feel like we knocked on the door last year, and I’m hoping we kick it in this year,” Snitker said. “Last year we went in hoping to win a series. I think we’re going to go into the [NL] Division Series this year and expect to win.”
“They have such a good lineup,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Depth, speed. They’ve got youth, and they’ve got experience. It’s just a great mix. They’ve had a heck of a year.”
Donaldson delivered the line of the night when he interrupted Fox Sports South broadcaster Jeff Francoeur’s interview with Brian McCann to say, “Find someone who looks at you the way Jeff Francoeur looks at Brian McCann.”
Braves fans since they became childhood friends in suburban Atlanta, Francoeur and McCann savored this moment, which was enriched by the fact the veteran catcher drilled a two-run homer in the sixth inning. McCann returned to his hometown team this year with the hope of experiencing moments like this.
“It wasn’t the homer, it was this -- the champagne and sharing this moment with everybody in the organization and giving [Hall of Fame executive] John Schuerholz a huge hug,” McCann said. “This organization means the world to me. I bleed this organization.”
The Braves have now won consecutive NL East titles for the first time since 2005, which was McCann’s rookie season in Atlanta. The veteran catcher’s teammates recognized the significance of the moment as they repeatedly doused him with beer and champagne during what was a lively postgame celebration.
“For him to hit a home run in the division clincher coming home, I don’t think anything can get better than that,” Freeman said.
But it can get better for the team over the next few weeks. The Braves still can reach 100 wins, and Acuña is just three steals away from the fifth 40/40 season in MLB history. Most importantly, Freeman and his teammates will be considered favorites when they likely match up against the NL Central winner in the NL Division Series.
When the Braves were eliminated in four games by the Dodgers during last year’s NLDS, they had little choice but to start Anibal Sanchez in Game 2. This year, they have the option to start either a former American League Cy Young Award winner (Dallas Keuchel) or a current NL Cy Young Award candidate (Mike Soroka) in Game 1.
More importantly, there is now a renewed confidence in Foltynewicz, who limited the Giants to three hits over his eight stellar innings. The resolve the 27-year-old hurler has shown since enduring a six-week demotion to the Triple-A level has been as impressive as anything he did while earning his first All-Star Game selection last year.
“He showed me he is a big-game pitcher,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “Everything he went through this year and now, to come back and pitch the way he did tonight, I’m just so proud of him.”