Triumph For the Baby Braves

It still looked another year away when spring training began for this year's Braves. Even if Freddie Freeman, the heart and soul of this team from their last trip to the postseason to the one coming forth, and all three 90-loss seasons in between, believed otherwise.

"You could tell after the first week of workouts," Freeman said in the middle of a clubhouse champagne tsunami, "that we had the talent to do something special. Obviously we still needed to put it together. But this is what happens."

And it didn't help that the Braves ran smack dab into a group of likewise young Phillies when the wheels continued falling off of what once looked like their own amazing, before-their-time run to October.

Then they greeted the Phillies at home Thursday night. And won the first three of a four-game set to nail the division, outscoring the Phillies 19-11 in the span and getting close enough to no-hitting them Saturday afternoon with Mike Foltynewicz crowning a superb comeback season for himself and his team alike. Then, come Sunday afternoon, they beat Cy Young Award contender Aaron Nola and the Phillies, 2-1, to knock the Phillies out postseason contention entirely, on a day Nola probably hoped to bulk up his Cy Young case a little despite the strange case of the Mets' Jacob deGrom, who could yet walk away with the award for off-the-charts pitching despite having a case for non-support against his team.

Taking a one-day-at-a-time approach, the Braves stayed on task. And on the Phillies' throats. "I know I'm redundant saying that all the time, but I felt we just needed to stay current and worry about today's game," said manager Brian Snitker. "These guys have done an unbelievable job of that this year."

So did a previous generation of infant-enough Braves early in the 1990s. A generation that had two Hall of Famers to be and a host of other talent (including two more Hall of Famers) to come. These Braves might have done it a little bit better. Last year, they finished 25 games out of first place in the division. This year, they're eight and a half up. That's a swing of — count 'em — 33.5 games.

These Baby Braves were thought to have a hard enough journey just to get toward contention level next year. The raw talent — Rookie of the Year candidate Ronald Acuna, Jr., Comeback Player of the Year candidate Foltynewicz, infielders Ozzie Albies and Johan Comargo, and the ever popular and ol' reliable Freeman, to name just a few — was there. But so were those division-owning Nats. And the pitching-rich Mets. And the Phillies entered the year having out-done themselves enough last year to be serious obstacles this year.

Until the Nats detonated a slowly imploding bomb upon themselves with dubious trade deadline moves that brought them back little, cost them effective enough pieces, and they wobbled back of the pack for keeps.

Until the Mets opened insanely hot before imploding amidst a morass of injuries, front office contradictions, and apparent allergies toward scoring runs when it really mattered.

Until the Phillies found the weight of contention now still just a little excessive and discovered the hard way that their intelligent rookie manager had a few too many growing pains to overcome himself.

And the Braves themselves had moments where it looked as though they'd have to wait 'till next year to jump all the way back to full contention. Especially with a bullpen that prompted a Tomahawk Take writer to describe it as causing "consternation, frustration, and probably the increased sale of adult beverages."

At the end of July, the Phillies had a tight National League East lead and the Braves just wanted the damn month to be over. Going 10-13 while the equally upstart Phillies went 15-11 could have been worse. The Phillies had only a half game lead at the end of the month. The Braves weren't even close to being out of it, but neither were they going into August with a marked advantage, not with both teams ending the month having lost five out of nine.

And here they are, division champions who never trailed once they regained the NL East lead after 13 August with a doubleheader sweep of the Marlins.

These Phillies will be back in the hunt next year. The team and their rookie manager came through more growing pains than they might have expected just to push things as far as Saturday. They'll have to fine-tune the team in the offseason, of course, but the smarts that now oversee the organization should bode well for them. For all anyone knows, they might even be in the hunt for a choice offseason free agent, maybe Bryce Harper, maybe someone else.

The Braves have some work to do to get through the postseason without too many scars. That bullpen needs a re-thinking. The pen that has the worst walk rate in the league needs a very profound re-adjustment. And they've got to find ways to play better out of their division. Excluding interleague play, the Braves were 39-40 playing outside the NL East, winning only four season series away from their division and those one game over .500. They were also 8-12 in interleague play, winning only one such series.

The postseason isn't going to be easy for these Braves no matter how much they're looking forward to dancing with the big boys.

"We've just been battling every day since Day One," says outfielder Endier Encarte. "We're blessed to be in the position we are right now. We'll do our best to be in the best position that we can, and then we'll battle against whoever we face." Encarte and his mates need to remember that the other guys won't be pushovers. Whoever they face.

Compared to what they had to adjust away from when spring training began — with general manager John Coppolella banned from baseball over international first-year-draft rules violations last October, stripping the Braves of thirteen prospects and keeping them out of Latin markets until 2012 — finding ways to work with a shaky bullpen and a dubious out-of-division record come October must seem like child's play.

Even Coppolella's successor, Alex Anthopoulus, wouldn't have taken odds on his club's October return coming this soon. "I'd be lying through my teeth if I thought" they'd be here now, he told reporters. "I thought we have a really talented team with high draft picks. We have the potential to be really good and have a chance to get better. We certainly exceeded all those things."

Just how excessively they've exceeded should come up in vivid detail when they hit the postseason. But that shouldn't dilute the taste of the champagne over what they did accomplish so far.

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