The Atlanta Braves won 88 games this season, the fewest of the 10 playoff participants and fewer than two teams — Toronto and Seattle — that didn’t reach the postseason, but as they say this time of year, you can throw those records out the window.
As winners of the not-so-rugged National League East, the Braves not only earned passage to the NL Division Series, where they beat the Milwaukee Brewers in four games, they’ll have home-field advantage in the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers, a wild-card team that won 106 regular-season games.
The battle for the NL pennant is a rematch of the 2020 NLCS, when the Dodgers overcame a 3-1 series deficit by winning the final three games to earn a berth in the World Series, where they beat Tampa Bay in six games for their first championship since 1988.
Nine things to know about the Braves:
1. Built for Joctober
Joc Pederson hit so many big playoff homers for the Dodgers from 2015-2020 that they nicknamed a month after him. The left-handed-hitting slugger has continued his October heroics in Atlanta, clubbing two pinch-hit homers in the division series, including a three-run shot to give the Braves a 3-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 3.
A platoon player in Los Angeles, Pederson left last winter in search of more playing time, signing a one-year, $7-million deal with the Chicago Cubs. He was traded to Atlanta on July 15 and hit .249 with a .752 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, seven homers and 22 RBIs in 64 games for the Braves.
“That guy’s got no heartbeat,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s like he’s on the playground. Playing against him in the postseason the last few years, you could tell that. He just slows things down and doesn’t get caught up in anything other than his at-bat.”
2. Let Freeman ring
The Dodgers are all too familiar with the lethal left-handed bat of Freddie Freeman, the former Orange El Modena High standout and 2020 NL most valuable player who propelled the Braves into the NLCS with a game-winning eighth-inning homer off Milwaukee relief ace Josh Hader on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old first baseman, who hit .300 with an .896 OPS, 31 homers and 83 RBIs this season, hit .360 (nine for 25) with two homers and six RBIs in last year’s NLCS, and he would have hit a third homer had Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts not made a leaping catch at the wall to rob him in the fifth inning of Game 7.
Freeman’s homer Tuesday was the first Hader gave up to a left-handed hitter this season. “That is what you dream of when you’re a kid, hitting a homer to clinch a playoff,” Freeman said. “And for it to happen, it’s kind of amazing.”
3. Tyler Matzek 1, Yips 0
A crippling case of performance anxiety in 2015 derailed the career of left-hander Tyler Matzek, a Capistrano Valley High product who was a first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in 2011.
Matzek, with the help of doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, persevered. He revitalized his career with 2018 and 2019 stints for the independent-league Texas Air Hogs, signed a minor league deal with Atlanta before 2020 and developed into one of baseball’s best setup men.
Mixing a 96-mph fastball with an 85-mph slider, Matzek went 0-4 with a 2.57 ERA in 69 games this season. He pitched in all four division series games, giving up no runs and three hits in 4 1/3 innings, and he had a 1.69 ERA across 5 1/3 innings of four NLCS games last October.
4. Bold moves
There was speculation in mid-July that the Braves, having just lost MVP candidate Ronald Acuna Jr. to a season-ending knee injury, dropped six games back in the division and fallen three games under .500, might go into sell mode and trade away veteran ace Charlie Morton.
Instead, general manager Alex Anthopoulos, after acquiring Pederson, went on a trade-deadline shopping spree, acquiring outfielders Adam Duvall from Miami, Jorge Soler from Kansas City and Eddie Rosario from Cleveland on July 30. The Braves are 40-20 since and lead the NL in scoring, averaging 5.1 runs per game.
“It just showed that he still believed in us,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said of Anthopoulos. “We got closer as a group and a team and started having fun again.”
5. The Big Three
The Braves rotation isn’t as dominant as that of the Dodgers, who feature three Cy Young Award candidates in Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, but Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson are more than capable of keeping the team in games.
Morton, 37, went 14-6 with a 3.34 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 33 starts. Max Fried, the 27-year-old left-hander from Studio City Harvard-Westlake High, went 14-7 with a 3.04 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 28 starts and threw six shutout innings in a 3-0 win over Milwaukee in Game 2 of the NLDS.
Right-hander Ian Anderson, 23, went 9-5 with a 3.58 ERA in 24 starts and threw five shutout innings in a 3-0 win over the Brewers in Game 3 of the NLDS.
6. Soler eclipse
The Braves found out two hours before Tuesday’s game that Soler, the power-hitting leadoff man who batted .269 with an .882 OPS, 14 homers and 33 RBIs in 55 games after his trade from Kansas City, tested positive for COVID-19 and will be out for at least 10 days, sidelining him for most, if not all, of the NLCS.
But the lineup still packs plenty of punch with Freeman, third baseman Austin Riley, who hit .303 with an .898 OPS, 33 homers and 107 RBIs this season, second baseman Ozzie Albies, who hit .259 with a .799 OPS, 30 homers and 106 RBIs, and shortstop Dansby Swanson, who hit .248 with a .760 OPS, 27 homers and 88 RBIs and replaced Soler in the leadoff spot.
7. Swanson song
You won’t hear his name in the conversation of the game’s great shortstops, a list headed by Fernando Tatis Jr., Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Brandon Crawford and Corey Seager, but Swanson quietly put together one of the better all-around seasons for a shortstop in 2021.
In a year that began with him losing an arbitration case, Swanson was an offensive force while playing 160 games. He is also a reliable defender with good range and a strong arm, as he showed in Monday’s division series win when he made a back-hand diving stop to save a run in the fifth inning and turned a clutch inning-ending double play to save another run in the eighth.
8. Will Smith, the Other
It’s only a matter of time before this NLCS delivers a rematch between Will Smith, the Braves closer, and Will Smith, the Dodgers catcher. The first one didn’t go too well for the Atlanta left-hander.
In the first-ever playoff pitcher-batter matchup between players with the same name, the Dodgers slugger hit a three-run homer in the sixth inning to wipe out a 2-1 Braves lead in an eventual 7-3 Dodgers victory in Game 5 of the 2020 NLCS.
Will Smith the closer was solid but not dominant this season, going 3-7 with a 3.44 ERA in 71 games, striking out 87 and walking 28 in 68 innings. He converted 37 of 43 save opportunities but gave up 11 homers. Only one closer, Philadelphia’s Ian Kennedy, gave up more (12).
9. Pearl Jam
Pederson, a free spirit known for his bold wardrobe, accessories and haircuts — have you seen his blond faux-hawk? — saw a pearl necklace one day in mid-September, bought one of his own and began wearing it during games. A fashion trend quickly sprouted in Truist Park, where grown men and children alike show up clutching pearls.
“I saw the pearls, and I was like, ‘You know what? That looks cool,’ ” Pederson said. “I’ve done the black chain and the gold chain and all those different ones, and I think a lot of other players have. But I don’t know, they kind of caught my eye. I was like, ‘You know, those look good.’ And I texted my jeweler and got some out. And [fans] kind of went crazy.”