A season no one could have predicted ended in the most predictable manner as the Braves were outplayed by a better and deeper roster. The razor-thin margin of error for the Braves played out over-and-over in front of a loud and supportive Atlanta crowd Monday night. Opportunities came and opportunities petered out. In the end, it was the Braves who saw yet another team celebrate advancing the playoffs, something the Braves have failed to do in every postseason series since the 2001 NLDS.
But unlike so many of those instances where fans felt the heartache of another promising year ending with October failure, there was more of a bittersweet feeling left as the Braves’s 2018 campaign came to a close. They were never supposed to be in this place. This was supposed to be another rebuilding season. But this year’s squad, led by a 26-year-old flamethrower and a 20-year-old dynamic outfielder exceeded all expectations until they finally ran into a buzz-saw known as the near-luxury tax threshold Dodgers, who routinely began games in this series with a 100+ homers sitting on the bench.
The Braves had their chances, though. They took a 2-1 lead on a pinch-hit single by Kurt Suzuki – possibly his final hit as a Brave. They could have added on with a fifth inning which included a single, a walk, and an error. But with the bases loaded, #6 hitter Tyler Flowers and #7 hitter Ender Inciarte popped up. An inning later, Brad Brach surrendered a two-run single to give the lead back to the Dodgers. Rookie Chad Sobotka, pushed into a high-leverage role after just over a dozen games in the majors, was roughed up for a three-run homer in the seventh that seemed to seal the Braves’ fate.
A potential threat in the eighth fizzled after Lucas Duda hit a ball a country mile, but foul. There were a pair of runners on. Had he been able to Carlton Fisk that ball around the right-field foul ball, it would have been a one-run game. But it was not to be. Duda flied out to center to end the at-bat and the Braves went quietly in the ninth. The Dodgers will advance to face the Brewers in the NLCS.
The Braves were simply not the better team. They relied on rookies like Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, and Sobotka to not just throw innings – but important ones. They used a guy they released earlier this year, Lane Adams, as a pinch hitter and another, Ryan Flaherty, who was designated for assignment. They were missing their starting shortstop, Dansby Swanson, and that came up big on the single against Brach. Culberson dived after a ball and missed. It was the kind of play that Swanson likely keeps on the infield at minimum.
And those that did play were outgunned by a better pitching staff and a lineup without an easy out. Johan Camargo failed to record a hit in four games. Nick Markakis only had one. Atlanta hit two homers compared to eight by the Dodgers. Of the 19 hits they managed in the series, just three went for extra bases. They didn’t steal a base, the Dodgers swiped eight.
Pitching-wise, Atlanta struck out 35 Dodgers in the four games. They walked 27.
In the end, the Braves just weren’t a match for the Dodgers. Not this year, anyway. But keep in mind – the Braves aren’t even close to being the team many believe they are capable of. Next spring, they’ll have Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, and Sean Newcomb back and they’ll be joined by Toussaint, Fried, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Mike Soroka, and Kolby Allard. Add an arm like Patrick Corbin to the top of that rotation and deal away Julio Teheran and just imagine how good things can be. The pen will be aided by overflow from the starting rotation plus the returns of Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, a resurgent combination of Daniel Winkler and Jesse Biddle, and other young kids like Patrick Weigel, Corbin Clouse, and Thomas Burrows looking to make an impression.
The Braves need a catcher and they may have got a good look at that future catcher in Yasmani Grandal. Add in more experience for Ozzie Albies, Swanson, and Camargo – along with the power-hitting prospect Austin Riley. Inciarte and Ronald Acuña Jr. will be back, though a hole exists. Fortunately, for the Braves, there are plenty of options including Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock, and Michael Brantley
In Los Angeles, the Braves see who they want to become. They want to be that team that can go to the bench and bring up a Max Muncy or a Joc Pederson. They want to find and develop pitchers who deliver an onslaught of quality strikes. And they desperately want a bullpen with more than one reliable arm at a time. They weren’t there yet in 2018, but they were a lot closer than anyone thought they would be last February. Now, armed with a collection of amazing young talent – and more on the way – along with roughly $50 million in spending money, the Braves will look to return to the playoffs in 2019.
Tonight wasn’t an ending. The Braves, my friends, are just beginning.