ATLANTA — With two outs in the top of the sixth inning on Opening Day, things were going as predicted for the 2018 Atlanta Braves.
They were losing.
That’s the easy way to say it. But it’s how they were losing that seemed to fulfill all the preseason prophecies.
The Braves’ offense, predicted to be spotty, small-ball-oriented and with almost no power, had been held to two hits by Phillies ace Aaron Nola. One of the hits — their first of the season, in fact — was a bunt single down the third-base line by Ryan Flaherty.
Starting pitcher Julio Teheran, the team’s de facto ace, known to be excellent at times and maddeningly inconsistent at others, lived up to that billing. He made it to 90 pitches — but just 5 2/3 innings — before it became clear he was gassed. It was only 2-0 Phillies, but there was an encroaching sense of negative inevitability.
See, the 2018 Braves were supposed to be a bad team. All the preseason projections pointed clearly in that direction. Their rebuild was almost done, but not almost done enough for a winning season. Though there were clear bright spots — the steady Freddie Freeman, the exciting Ozzie Albies, emerging young pitchers such as Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, plus the eventual promise of superstar-in-wating Ronald Acuna — there were still too many weak spots, still too many questions. Projections varied but the Braves were supposed to lose more than they won. And on March 29, as the top of the sixth unfolded, they were doing little to change minds.
Within a few minutes of Teheran’s departure, a bullpen meltdown grew the deficit to 5-0. It wasn’t all that surprising, given the inexperience in that ‘pen. Still, the disgruntled murmur had that had been building around SunTrust Park had evolved into full-throated negativity. The Braves, in the eyes and minds of many of the 40,208 in attendance, seemed disappointingly, unfortunately, exactly as advertised.
But — because baseball is weird and exciting and doesn’t care what anyone thinks — that top of the sixth inning was the last time the 2018 season went as expected for the Braves, or at least it was the last time expectations were described in negative tones.
What followed — and the way in which it unfurled — would go on to symbolize Atlanta’s season as a whole, those themes still defining the team as it approaches October with a division title that any reasonable baseball observer could not have predicted.
Yet, the Braves told us exactly who they were in the season’s first game.
Down, but rarely out
A big comeback can make a big statement, and help form an identity, even on Opening Day, which brings us back to that formerly ugly sixth inning against the Phillies when the Braves gave the first hint of what was to come.
Out of nowhere, the supposedly weak offense woke up — with an assist from Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, who removed Nola after just 68 pitches.
Freeman homered. Later, Albies homered. A double here. A single there. Before long, the Braves had tied the game 5-5 in the bottom of the eighth.
What a dramatic and unexpected turn of events.
Even more dramatic and unexpected was Nick Markakis’ walkoff homer an inning later that gave the Braves an 8-5 win. Since then, that has pretty much been the story of the 2018 Braves: surprise comebacks, timely contributions and bucking expectations.
Down three? Down five? Down six? Whatever.
“How we won that Opening Day game is how we’ve been winning all year, pretty much,” Freeman said. “That’s hard to do. That’s extremely hard to do, and we seem to come back a lot. It’s starting to not be surprising when we come back in games.”
Their most recent Houdini act came Friday night against, coincidentally, the Phillies. Down 4-1 in the bottom of the seventh, the Braves erupted for five runs and eventually pulled out a 6-5 win. It was their 35th comeback win of the season.
With each big comeback, that undeniable tone of Opening Day echoes.
“It kind of sparked the whole thing, like, ‘Hey, we’re here. We can do this,’” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Not that we ever had the doubt before, but . . . seeing it happen just kind of like thrust us onto the right path.”
Though he appreciates the resilience, manager Brian Snitker is among those who have come to expect it.
“When they get down, they’re not down,” he said. “It’s really good to see, it’s really great to watch. It’s good to see that quiet calmness that they have in the dugout, the belief in themselves that they have in the dugout, the belief that they have in one another, and how they kind of like going to battle together.”
Snitker also takes no credit for that resilience. Besides, there’s not much he can do or say to motivate a self-motivating group, even when things go sideways. There have been very few times this season when he has had to speak up in the clubhouse.
“It can’t be forced or it can’t be faked because they’ll see right through that,” he said. “If you’re not speaking from the heart and from your gut, these guys call bulls— with the best of them.”
While there were big contributions from those who you’d expect to offer big contributions in that tone-setting Opening Day win, there were also some pleasant surprises. One of the biggest was Preston Tucker’s game-tying single in the eighth inning, which started a trend of role players coming up big when called upon to produce.
Tucker, who occupied left field for much of the first month as the team awaited the arrival of Acuna, credits the Braves’ front office for assembling a team with such depth.
“We had a bunch of guys who, if we needed to replace somebody or we needed somebody to pinch hit or step in, I feel like they felt like they were going to contribute to the same level as some of the everyday guys,” said Tucker, who continued the trend in the early weeks with a number of big hits, including three-run homers off the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Cubs’ Yu Darvish.
There was Ryan Flaherty, who manned third base while Johan Camargo healed from a spring training injury and then led the NL in hitting for a chunk of April.
“It’s really been a unique year in the sense of where we’ve gotten the production from . . . when other guys weren’t going (well) and other guys were, which is the sign of a good team,” Flaherty said.
And how about Charlie Culberson, who made the most of his playing time as a fill-in and provided two walkoff homers and a slew of other big hits? There’s that theme again.
“Preston Tucker and Ryan Flaherty, you could argue, were MVPs of our team in April,” Freeman said. “We’ve had so many guys get us to this point. . . . It seems like every month there’s a new guy who comes in and helps us win two or three games, and that’s all you need during the year.”
It’s one thing for someone to come up big in a fill-in role a couple of times a season, but for seemingly everyone to shine when given the opportunity? That doesn’t happen often.
So what has been the Braves’ secret? While the question generates the usual cliches around the clubhouse, players also cite an X-factor: the confidence of their manager.
“Even if a guy fails . . . he’ll throw them right back into that situation, telling them, basically, ‘Hey, I trust that you can do this and I’m gonna ride it out until you get it done,'” Tucker said of Snitker. “Knowing that you have that opportunity to fail is huge, and it usually pays off more times than not.”
Stepping up isn’t just limited to youngsters and role players, though. It can come from a bullpen guy getting a big out or earning a spot save. It can also come in the form of non-surprise surprises.
Markakis fits that latter category. Just as his Opening Day homer wasn’t exactly expected, his resurgent 2018 season has been much the same; the 13-year veteran earned his first All-Star selection after a first half that saw him produce big hits seemingly every night.
Another non-surprise surprise has been Acuna. Nobody doubted his ability to contribute quickly, but he turned into a superstar — and arguably the second-half team MVP — before he reached 100 games.
“You don’t surprise anybody anymore. When those guys come up, there’s already video on them,” Snitker said. “There’s already things that the opposition is plotting to attack them with, so you never really know how they’re going to adjust to all that. . . . To his credit, he did it in a hurry.”
Just another example of things breaking right in 2018.
“It takes a combination of a bunch of different people,” Markakis said. “Everybody’s done their job. Everybody’s done what they’re supposed to when they come up, filling in, and it’s been fun to watch, especially as young as these guys are coming up. It’s fun to be a part of and it’s exciting.”
Five-run leads aren’t insurmountable, but nobody watching on Opening Day expected the Braves to overcome one. Likewise, nobody expected the Braves to win the division, yet here we are.
“I really thought we had a good chance of playing meaningful games in September,” Freeman said. “I don’t know if we were going to be going for a wild card, division, anything. I just thought we had the right talent to be able to play meaningful games. . . . We had the pieces.”
Ingredients don’t always translate to success, however, and even Snitker admits to not knowing exactly what to expect when the Braves broke camp in March. He had small inklings of how some things might go, but, again, his team left certain expectations unmet.
“I was kind of like everybody else, wondering how we’re going to score runs,” Snitker said, “and for the better part of the year we led the league in runs scored.”
And . . .
“I didn’t know where our power was going to come from, and I look up and everybody in the lineup’s got double-digit homers.”
Nobody sees that coming, Snitker said, even when a roster boasts tons of potential talent.
“You never know when they’re going to get it, when they get ‘it,’ when that’s going to be, and we have a lot of young guys that have,” he said. “They’ve grabbed onto this stuff and probably progressed a little quicker than we thought they were going to.”
Here’s some raw, unedited video from inside the Braves’ clubhouse celebration. They’re a happy bunch. Division champs for the first time since 2013. pic.twitter.com/0ybAFIrsLe
— Jason Foster (@ByJasonFoster) September 22, 2018
Not that there weren’t stumbles along the way. A big one came April 14 when the Braves blew a 10-2 lead against the Cubs in frigid conditions at Wrigley Field.
Such setbacks can be devastating for young teams, but, again, the 2018 Braves have shown they’re not the typical young team.
“Those are the points where you can go downhill, and we didn’t go downhill. We came back and started winning some more,” Freeman said.
The quick rebounds?
“Those are the little games where you sit back and (think), “Whoa, I think we’re gonna be good this year,'” Freeman said.
Indeed, they were. Indeed, they are. Division champions for the first time since 2013.
With the postseason now calling, the Braves are sure to again face low expectations. The franchise hasn’t won a postseason series since 2001, a string of first-round or wild-card-game exits having long replaced Atlanta’s reputation as a World Series contender in the ‘90s. As one might imagine, however, these Braves are only concerned with the present — and winning.
“It’s the only stat that I really care about,” Swanson said. “(Our success) may be a surprise to the outside world, but it was never a surprise to anybody in here because that’s just not how we operate. We’re competitors, we believe that we’re going to win, we believe that we have a good team to win. We believe that we’re going to do it all year long.”
In other words, it would be foolish to expect anything less from the 2018 Braves.