'This team is special': Braves sweep to NLCS

October 9th, 2020

Though he has been with the Braves for nearly a decade, hasn’t been around long enough to fully grasp what it means for the team to be heading to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2001.

But as the Braves secured a spot in the NLCS by sweeping the Marlins with a 7-0 win in Game 3 of the NL Division Series on Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, Freeman could certainly appreciate getting to where he and many of his teammates felt they deserved to be last year.

“We definitely felt like we deserved to be in this situation [in 2019],” Freeman said. “But we all know baseball is a funny game, and they made us wait one more year. That’s OK with us. We just know we have a really good team right now.”

One year after surrendering 10 runs in the first inning of their final NLDS game against the Cardinals, the Braves left no doubt on the way to improving to 5-0 in this postseason. delivered six scoreless innings, and highlighted another multi-hit effort with a two-run double in the four-run third against Miami starter Sixto Sánchez.

By the time Freeman scored from first base with a single in the fourth, there was reason for the Braves to begin getting excited about matching up against either the Dodgers or the Padres in the NLCS, which will begin on Monday at Globe Life Field in Arlington.

When the Braves last played in the NLCS, their pitching staff still included Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Current skipper Brian Snitker was managing the club’s Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach team, which that year included a hot-shot prospect named Wilson Betemit and a young first baseman named Adam LaRoche.

“This was a difficult season to navigate,” Snitker said, "and so you cherish this. It's pretty special. Any time, I think, that you're going to the NLCS and giving yourself a chance to go the World Series is exciting right now.”

Though the powerful depth of Atlanta’s offense was seen over the past couple of days, the Braves can thank their pitching staff for ensuring they wouldn’t be eliminated from the NLDS for a ninth straight time.

Atlanta’s pitching staff has recorded a shutout in four of the team’s first five postseason games and has allowed just five runs over the 49 innings completed going back to the start of last week’s Wild Card Series against the Reds.

The Braves had never put up more than three shutouts in a postseason; the only other team to register four shutouts within the first five games of a postseason was the 1905 Giants.

“Everyone is talking about the offense entering the series, and it’s been pretty amazing to see what the pitching staff has done,” Freeman said. “Back-to-back shutouts, just like in the Wild Card Series. There has to be some history with this. What they have done is special, and this team is special. We’re pretty confident right now.”

Guiding the pitching staff has been d’Arnaud, who has proven to be an even better catcher than the Braves envisioned. The 31-year-old backstop has communicated well with the pitchers and shown himself to be a valuable weapon within this deep and potent lineup, going 6-for-10 with two doubles, two homers and seven RBIs in the NLDS.

When the Braves were eliminated by the Cardinals last year, they immediately targeted d’Arnaud to replace the retired Brian McCann. They then tinkered with the idea of re-signing Josh Donaldson before opting to replace his power by signing slugger to a one-year, $18 million deal that might have been last winter’s best bargain.

With Acuña, top NL MVP Award candidate Freeman, Ozuna and d’Arnaud filling the first four spots in the lineup, the Braves have an offense that can trade punches with the mighty Dodgers or the powerful Padres. But their hopes of winning the World Series have been enhanced by the dominance of a pitching staff that has proven to consist of more than just Max Fried and a great bullpen.

Ian Anderson, who worked 11 2/3 scoreless innings through his first two career postseason starts, has been reliable since his big league debut on Aug. 26. But Wright's much-welcomed breakthrough has completely altered the look of a rotation that was the team’s weakness throughout the regular season.

Wright stranded six Marlins through the first three innings, then found a groove on the way to allowing three hits and two walks over six scoreless innings. The 25-year-old has allowed three runs or fewer while completing at least six innings in each of his past four starts dating back to Sept. 13. Before this stretch, he had completed at least five innings in just two of nine career starts.

“To have a couple of young guys step in and all of a sudden start making strides is really, really good, and really encouraging for our season and our organization going forward,” Snitker said.

Going forward is something the Braves haven’t done at this point in any of the past 18 years, but this is the start of a new narrative in Atlanta.

“These guys are very entertaining, and they play their hearts out every night,” Snitker said. “I'm so proud of them, and I'm equally proud of the fact that we can give our fan base something to cheer about and get excited about here the next couple of weeks.”