Every now and then a baseball team comes along that catches our attention and captures our fancy. Even rarer is a baseball team that evokes our love.
The 2021 Atlanta Braves are one of those special teams. They spent most of the season battling one roadblock after another but kept on truckin’. Now here they are, just four wins away from providing a perfect ending to their amazing story.
One of their ancient predecessors has become known in baseball lore as the Miracle Braves of 1914. After 40 games, the perennial cellar-dwellers were 16 games below .500. They were still in last place on the Fourth of July. They didn’t top .500 until Aug. 3.
They wound up with a 94-59 record, winning the pennant over John McGraw’s New York Giants by 10 1/2 games. Then they swept Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s in the World Series.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Miracle Braves held the record for the team topping .500 for the first time at the latest date in the season that reached the Series.
Until now. The current Braves first topped .500 on Aug. 6.
After four months of watching this club grind — they were giving their all but kept spinning their wheels — many of us, this columnist included, were ready to throw in the towel. Perhaps this edition of the Braves was just a mediocre club.
Fortunately, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos saw things differently.
“There was a big upside the last two months,” he told Bradford Doolittle of ESPN. “And if you’re into things like run differential, the Giants, LA, and us were right there in the top three. We felt we had the talent to do it.”
It took Anthopoulos generating an entirely new outfield on the fly in July. It took a 9-0 road trip in early August to propel this team into first place. It took the return of catcher Travis d’Arnaud to manage the pitching staff.
Most of all, it took contributions from every player on the roster. At some point, every single Brave had a key hit, threw a big pitch, or made a big play.
And let’s not overlook the contribution of manager Brian Snitker. He held this team together through those four frustrating months. He knows how hard it is to play this game and manages accordingly. His players show their appreciation with their play.
Snitker also made the key move of the NLCS in Game 6. Ian Anderson held the Dodgers to a single run through four innings. He kept us all anxious but kept the Braves even. In the bottom of the fourth, d’Arnaud worked a two-out walk from a 1-2 count.
At this unlikely juncture, against Dodger starter Walker Buehler, who seemed to be getting stronger, Snitker went for the jugular. He sent Ehire Adrianza up to pinch-hit for Anderson. Adrianza’s double would have scored anybody but d’Arnaud.
No matter. Eddie Rosario, the fourth outfielder acquired in July and the hottest hitter on the planet, lined the series-winning three-run homer into the right-field stands. Rosario tied the MLB record with 14 hits in this postseason series.
“It’s truly a great moment,” Rosario told Doolittle. “Not just in my career, but in my life as well. But I want more! I want to win the World Series!”
The drama wasn’t over, of course. AJ Minter retired six straight Dodgers, four by strikeout. Then came Luke Jackson’s cameo appearance. Before we could ask, “Why?” for the third time, he had allowed one run, placed Dodgers at second and third, and retired no one.
Enter Tyler Matzek. In the performance of his life, he became the first pitcher in postseason history to strikeout three straight batters in the seventh inning or later while stranding runners on second and third. He then retired the Dodgers in the eighth on six pitches.
“What Minter and Matzek did today was just phenomenal,” Snitker said after the game. “And Matzek’s been doing it the entire series. I would like to cut that MVP thing up and give him a little piece of it, because that guy was just spectacular the whole series.”
That left the final three outs for closer Will Smith. The same Will Smith who was so shaky in late summer that he made watching the ninth inning an exercise in slow torture. The same Will Smith who was steadfastly endorsed by Snitker as his closer.
Smith promptly struck out Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger with high cheese. Then AJ Pollock grounded sharply to Dansby Swanson, who threw to Freddie Freeman for the final out. “This might be the definition of pure joy,” Freeman told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. “It really is.”
“One of them was yelling in my ear,” Snitker told Bowman. “Instead of jumping up, Walt [Weiss] grabbed me and it took a minute, honestly, just to … it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this is really happening!’ What a special feeling, though. My God, it’s pretty cool.”
Minter may have put his finger on what has made this team so endearing. “What makes this team so dangerous is we all have a story,” he told Bowman. “We’ve all been through failure. It’s good to see it finally pay off.
“Hopefully, we keep it going!”