The Atlanta Braves Win it All

The Atlanta Braves ended the 2021 season with a bang on Tuesday night, crushing the Houston Astros in a seven-run rout that rarely felt even as close as the eventual score. Atlanta had failed to make the World Series in any of their last 12 playoff appearances since being swept by the Yankees in 1999. But as they always say, the 13th time’s the charm, and the Braves took home the big trophy in front of a disappointed Minute Maid crowd.

The post-Milwaukee period was a tough one for the Braves, as they spent most of the 1970s and 80s fighting with Cleveland and San Diego for the unofficial title of the league’s most moribund franchise. They were more or less a Ted Turner-driven sideshow that existed to fill up hours on TBS between reruns of Alice and The Andy Griffith Show. They hit it big in the worst-to-first 1991 season, and even with a lengthy rebuilding phase in the mid-2010s, they’ve won the second-most games in baseball since the start of that season, behind only the New York Yankees. Despite impressive feats like dominating the top of the NL East for over a decade, one thing always marred their legacy: the lack of World Series victories. For all their dominance — the Braves won 100 games on four occasions in the 1990s and had chances at two more if not for the 1994 strike — they only emerged with a single World Series win in 1995.

It’s not entirely fair to count World Series titles in light of baseball’s greatly expanded modern playoffs, but life is rarely known for playing fair. The team that won Game 6 in 2021 is a very different one from that which won Game 6 in 1995. These Braves were not a dominating team, but rather one that wasn’t a heavy favorite to win the division and lost their franchise player, Ronald Acuña Jr., halfway through the season with a torn ACL. The 1995 team had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz in their primes. This one had to throw two consecutive bullpen games in the World Series because the broken leg Charlie Morton suffered in Game 1 reduced them to a two-man rotation.

Luckily for Atlanta, Max Fried was the right pitcher at the right time. Fried’s last two starts were ugly losses to the Dodgers and Astros, but the baseballs have no memory. Fried wasn’t missing any velocity, but his performance wasn’t of the overpowering variety and the Astros managed to put 15 of his pitches into of play. Like most of the very best Fried starts, he instead relied on location like a 15-year veteran, threading the needle against the patient Astros and weaving ruin. In 74 pitches, he racked up 17 called strikes. His 23% called strikes was the second-highest percentage for any pitcher throwing at least 50 pitches this postseason, trailing only his own nine-strikeout, six-inning shutout of the Brewers earlier this month. And Houston didn’t fare any better when the bats come off their shoulders. With an xBA on those hits of .199, the BABIP gods were not unkind to Fried, resulting in just four singles for Houston, never more than one in the same inning.

The first inning was the only time the Astros mounted a serious threat. After Jose Altuve hit an infield single, Michael Brantley reached first on what had to have been the scariest play of the game for an Atlanta fan. While trying to complete the standard 3-1 putout at first, Fried’s right foot did not find the first base bag. Brantley stepped on the pitcher’s ankle while trying to reach, sending Fried tumbling and resulting in two runners on and nobody out; Fried was charged with an error. While Brantley never actually touched first base, he was called safe with most of the attention on Fried’s ankle. After some light limping, Fried returned to come back and retire the side, striking out Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel.

That was the last time the Astros had a runner in scoring position. Statcast defines balls hit between 8 and 32 degrees as “Sweet Spot” events, and Martín Maldonado’s third-inning single was the only ball hit against Fried that fit in that category. Fried was lifted after 74 pitches and six innings, and with a six-run lead, he left with the knowledge that only an epic meltdown by the Braves’ bullpen would prevent him from being the winning pitcher in Atlanta’s first championship in 26 years.

In a postseason full of parades of relieves, the Braves just needed two — Tyler Matzek and Will Smith, to finish dispatching Houston, who went down in a quick and orderly fashion. Matzek started by going to the fastball well one time too many against Yordan Alvarez, who punished him with a hard single despite the platoon disadvantage. But he faced little resistance the rest of the way and struck out the side in the eighth, even coming back from a 3-0 count to whiff Marwin Gonzalez on a low-inside slider. Smith looked a little iffy against Brantley to start the ninth, with the Astros outfielder getting to first on a hard single off a poorly placed fastball. That was it for Houston, however. Smith mostly fastballed his way to the last three outs in a game that probably could have been closed out by Will Smith the catcher or Will Smith the actor.

Suffice it to say, the day went better for Atlanta’s offense. Having just used José Urquidy for an inning in Sunday’s win, Luis Garcia drew the start on three days’ rest. Garcia was less wild than in his Game 3 start but got fewer whiffs this time around with his hard stuff. He survived the first two innings unscathed, but the third was a different story. After Ozzie Albies swung underneath an 0-1 fastball, Garcia obliged him with a slightly lower one that he lined to right-center for a one-out single. After a Dansby Swanson lineout, Garcia tried to nibble around the lefty Eddie Rosario, resulting in a five-pitch walk.

Garcia cut the heart out of the Red Sox with cutters last week, but Jorge Soler avenged them when he muscled one that didn’t cut literally out of the park for a three-run jack that everyone knew was gone the second he connected.

That was all the Braves ended up needing, but that didn’t prevent them from banking some insurance runs. Cristian Javier had command issues, and his night — and really, Houston’s — was ended by a fastball he dangled in Swanson’s wheelhouse that resulted in a two-run homer, extending the lead to five.

While I suspect that Freddie Freeman will end up re-signing with the Braves when all is said and done, if this was his last game with Atlanta, he ended it in storybook fashion. Freeman had his best postseason ever, hitting .304/.440/.625 with five homers. The fifth home run came in the seventh inning of Game 6 on a slider from Phil Maton in his final at-bat of 2021. Remember how I said at the top that life rarely plays fair? This was one of those happy exceptions. It just wouldn’t have felt quite right if Freeman, after basically being the guy the Braves hung on to during rebuilding, was wearing a different uniform — or in a subsequent, different profession — when Atlanta won their next World Series.

By all accounts, this team should not have won the World Series. Forced to cobble together an emergency outfield for the final two months of the season, the 88-win Braves beat the 95-win Brewers, then the 106-win Dodgers, and the 95-win Astros, while never having to stave off elimination. The 2021 Atlanta Braves were not the best team in baseball in 2021. But they beat many of the best teams in baseball in October and thoroughly earned their forever status as 2021 world champions.

Let’s do this baseball stuff again in 2022!

(I hope)





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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eurobirdbrain
1 year ago

I mean seriously, what kind of BS karma would have to happen for your top 2 pitchers to suffer broken legs in the first inning of a WS game? I thought there was no way a guy recovers from that; but he popped up, dusted himself off and said to himself, “now you’ve just pissed me off” and proceeded to mow them down. An amazing series and an amazing team who will be remembered as the NO QUIT Braves. As a collective we needed to get that huge ape off our backs. Sign Freddie and Soler and go get another ring.

Antonio Bananasmember
1 year ago
Reply to  eurobirdbrain

I’d like to give Duvall a look as well. Duvall, Acuna, Soler, Swanson, Riley, Albies, and Freeman are all a 30 HR threat.

docgooden85member
1 year ago

Duval!!! Blake Bortles!!!

Lanidrac
1 year ago
Reply to  eurobirdbrain

Of course, the Braves’ 2022 outfield depends on what happens with Marcell Ozuna’s situation this offseason…

eastside
1 year ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I don’t think it does.. I think even the Braves are ok with him never playing MLB baseball again.

Lanidrac
1 year ago
Reply to  eastside

He’s currently still under contract, so if he can get his legal situation worked out, then the Braves still have to pay him (or find someone willing to trade for him) if nothing else.