ATLANTA -- One year after simply feeling appreciative of the chance to compete in October, the Braves enter this postseason understanding all of the success achieved over the past six months has created much greater expectations and the legitimate hope they could win a playoff series for the first time
ATLANTA -- One year after simply feeling appreciative of the chance to compete in October, the Braves enter this postseason understanding all of the success achieved over the past six months has created much greater expectations and the legitimate hope they could win a playoff series for the first time since 2001.
An enhanced sense of excitement will be felt when the Braves begin their National League Division Series against the Cardinals at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday. The standing room-only crowd that will fill SunTrust Park will be celebrating the reward of a 97-win season and anticipating the possibility the World Series could visit Atlanta for the first time in 20 years.
“The only time I want to pack up is after the World Series and we've won it,” Braves Game 1 starter Dallas Keuchel said.
Here are the four components that have put the Braves in position to confidently enter the postseason.
Managerial decision: When Josh Donaldson made it clear he wanted to bat second and the Braves were unsuccessful with their bid to acquire Michael Brantley or another power-hitting outfielder, manager Brian Snitker felt he had no choice but to move Ronald Acuña Jr. from the leadoff to the cleanup spot.
Six weeks into the season with his team 18-20 and struggling offensively, Snitker moved Acuña back to the leadoff spot on May 10 and immediately reaped the benefits. The 21-year-old outfielder resumed the NL MVP Award-caliber production he provided when he moved to the top of the lineup during the second half of the 2018 season and the Braves produced the NL’s second-best record the rest of the way.
It should be noted Austin Riley arrived five days after the lineup switch was made and spent six weeks looking like an NL Rookie of the Year Award candidate. Donaldson also took off in the middle of June. But the season’s most influential decision was the one Snitker playfully admits he’d have made sooner if he wasn’t a “dumb you-know-what.”
Key Transaction: It’s impossible to overlook the significant value the Braves gained by signing Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal this past winter. But even with the NL MVP Award-caliber production the veteran third baseman provided this year, the Braves might not have been successful without what occurred during the first week of June, when they signed one big free agent and thankfully missed on the bid to sign another.
After the Braves signed Keuchel to a one-year, $13 million deal on June 7, it was revealed they had attempted to complete this deal and add Craig Kimbrel, who signed with the Cubs. Keuchel provided much-needed stability to a rotation that did not receive good value from Mike Foltynewicz until late August. Meanwhile, Kimbrel battled multiple injuries and posted a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances for the Cubs.
Fortunately for the Braves, the Cubs and Rays provided more significant offers to Kimbrel. Instead of committing $40 million-plus over three years to the former All-Star closer, the Braves had the remaining funds necessary to truly bolster their bullpen as a whole with the Trade Deadline acquisitions of Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin, who now stand as their top three relievers.
Breakout player: Mike Soroka established himself as the Braves’ top prospect, and scouts had long said his floor at the MLB level might be a No. 3 starter. But given he missed most of last year with a right shoulder issue and then developed a different one in Spring Training, there certainly weren’t expectations he’d exit his first full season as a down-ballot NL Cy Young Award candidate.
Soroka finished third in the NL with a 2.68 ERA and earned his first All-Star selection. The 22-year-old right-hander compiled a 1.55 road ERA. Within the Divisional Era (since 1969), the only other pitchers to produce a lower road ERA over at least 15 starts were Greg Maddux (1.12 in '95) and Roger Clemens (1.32 in 2005).
The Canadian hurler immediately made it clear he was ready to establish himself as Atlanta’s ace. He allowed one earned run or fewer in nine of his first 10 starts, and the Braves won 15 of his first 19 starts.
Calling Card: During a season in which home run records were being broken with great regularity, it might be hard to say the Braves set themselves apart with their ability to consistently hit home runs. But the value of the long ball was certainly visible when the Braves knocked a MLB-high 56 home runs in June. They exited May three games back in the NL East and entered July with a five-game division lead.
Acuña drilled 41 homers, but he finished three steals shy of what would have been just the fifth 40/40 season in MLB history. Freddie Freeman tallied a career-high 38 homers and Donaldson finished with 37. Entering the season’s final weeks, it looked like this year’s Braves club might become just the fourth in MLB history to have three different players collect at least 40 home runs.
Ozzie Albies (24), Riley (18) and Dansby Swanson (17) also recorded career-high homer totals. The Braves ranked fourth in the NL with a franchise record 249 home runs. They had totaled just 100 in 2015, which was the first season of their massive rebuild.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.