Friday, October 22 2021

The Atlanta Braves were on life support. Their obituary was written.

Everyone just waited for the front office announcement that it was time to pull the plug on their 2021 season.

It made sense. Atlanta just lost outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., one of the greatest players in baseball, to a season-ending knee injury. Starter Ian Anderson, who was pitching the best on their staff, was placed on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. Starter Mike Soroka’s comeback ended when he tore his Achilles tendon walking into the clubhouse. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna is out indefinitely after being arrested in late May, and still faces family violence and assault charges.

Doctors, in this case, FanGraphs, gave Atlanta just a 6.2% chance, sitting with a 44-45 record at the All-Star break. The Mets, with a four-game lead, had a 75.1% chance to win the division.

Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos grasped the bleak outlook, knew they had not spent a single day above .500, and laid out instructions to manager Brian Snitker and his staff.

“We’re not giving up. We’re not waving the white flag. We can still do this.’’

Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson celebrate a win against the Nationals.Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson celebrate a win against the Nationals.
Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson celebrate a win against the Nationals.

Well, here they are, five weeks and seven trades later, sitting atop the National League East with a five-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies entering Sunday.

The standings, with Atlanta winning 15 of their last 17 games, have dramatically flipped since the All-Star break:

  • Atlanta: 23-11
  • Philadelphia: 18-17
  • New York: 13-23

Hello playoffs, it’s Atlanta again, on the way to winning its fourth consecutive NL East title.

“It has been as rough and big a grind as any season I’ve been through here,’’ Snitker tells USA TODAY Sports. “Guys were going down with big injuries. We were losing two guys at a time with injuries. We lost three of the first four hitters that started the season for us. We thought we were going to get one of the brightest young starters in the game back in June or July, and now won’t have him back until next June or July. Freddie [Freeman] had a rough start.

“But you know what, they kept consistently fighting the fight. They showed up every day with energy. Never one time did I hear, ‘Woe is me, or pitiful me.’

“And talking to Alex, he was never, ever, in on giving up. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but there was never any talk about shutting this thing down. It was always full-speed ahead.’’

It’s too early for Atlanta to put champagne on ice with an upcoming eight-game stretch against the powerful New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet, after winning 15 of their past 17 games, they could pull away from the pack in September.

The genesis of the comeback, Atlanta executives will tell you, all began at the All-Star break, right after the amateur draft was completed.

Anthopoulos was deeply concerned that the All-Star break would allow sorrow and gloom to seep into their clubhouse. My God, hadn’t they been through enough all year, and now to lose Acuna – an MVP candidate – for the rest of the year, too? It was enough to shatter anyone’s confidence of staying in the race, and leave the players privately wondering whether they would be traded.

Still, the muddling, underachieving NL East gave them hope. The Mets squandered the opportunity to run away with the division. The Phillies couldn’t get above .500. And Atlanta’s run-differential of plus-90 still was the best in the division.

It was now up to Anthopoulos and Snitker to make sure the players understood they still had a chance. Anthopoulos felt it was imperative to send an immediate message.

He spent the All-Star break working the phones, telling teams he needed to make a deal, and quickly. He focused on the Cubs, who already announced they would be trade-deadline sellers. Anthopoulos grabbed outfielder Joc Pederson on the eve of the second half, trading away minor-league first baseman Bryce Ball.

Sure, it wasn’t as if Pederson alone was going to magically change their fate, but after all of the anguish they endured, Anthopoulos thought it was crucial letting them know that the front office and coaching staff wasn’t about to give up.

“That was a legitimate get right there, that was big getting Joc Pederson,’’ Snitker said. “He brought us credibility. He’s a big player in the postseason. He’s a World Series champion. He filled a big need.

It was just the start.

One day later, he grabbed veteran catcher Stephen Vogt from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Then came three more outfielders in Adam Duvall from Miami, Jorge Soler from Kansas City and Eddie Rosario from Cleveland.

Oh, and for good measure, acquired Pittsburgh Pirates closer Richard Rodriguez, too.

“Alex has never been guilty of doing anything,’’ Snitker says, “but making this team better. The guys appreciate the fact he will always have their back, trying to fill holes, and making the team better. We lost some guys, some big guys, but he’s not going to stand pat. He’ll keep pushing that envelope.’’

The truth is that Anthopoulos, according to several executives, actually wanted to do much more.

When the Nationals dropped out of the race and let everyone know they were selling, Anthopoulos wanted three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. He was interested in outfielder Kyle Schwarber, reliever Daniel Hudson and veteran infielder Josh Harrison, too. Sorry, he was told, the Nats refused to trade their players inside their own division.

They wanted Marlins All-Star center fielder Starling Marte, too, but were told the Marlins didn’t want to trade him inside the division, either, and watched him go to the Oakland A’s. They checked in Texas Ranger outfielder Joey Gallo before he was traded to the Yankees. They talked to the Cubs about Kris Bryant and closer Craig Kimbrel too, but the Cubs wanted to wait, exacting the highest possible return on the last day of the trade deadline.

Still, when the smoke cleared the team had completely remade its outfield, fortified its bullpen, and strengthened the lineup with Travis d’Arnaud returning just a week ago.

“It was unbelievable,’’ Snitker said. “He wasn’t going to let anything stop us. They were the perfect guys, too. The guys fit right in. They all immediately had an impact winning games, and the makeup is really good on everybody he brought in, too.’’

Really, it’s the character of the players, in which Anthopoulos takes the most pride. He understands the value of players coming into an organization that can fit right in. If they have an abundance of talent, but are selfish and care only about their individual success, sorry, Anthopoulos doesn’t want you.

“You learn when you fail, and I failed plenty of times as a GM,’’ Anthopoulos says. “I think for me, it was I could tell the difference. I want to be able to walk into that clubhouse and like the vibe, and the group, and the people.

“People you surround yourself with are critically important. I think it matters on the field. I think it matters in the environment. I think it matters day in and day out. I especially think the key element is when things aren’t going well, that’s when it ends up showing up.

“You can have a lot of talent, and still win games, but you’re going to hit a bump. But when it’s a a strong group, the roof and the floor doesn’t cave in, it stays together.’’

This team sure refused to be torn apart, and now, could be sneaky dangerous in the postseason. Freeman is performing like an MVP again, raising his batting average from .224 to .300 over the past seven weeks with a 1.036 OPS the second half. Max Fried is pitching like a Cy Young contender with a 1.57 ERA since the All-Star break – including a four-hit shutout on just 89 pitches Friday. And infielders Austin Riley (1.090 OPS) and Dansby Swanson (.943 OPS) have combined for 21 homers and 65 RBI in the second half.

“I’ve said for five months now that I just feel like we’re capable of getting on a run,’’ Snitker said. “It took a long time for that to happen. But we stayed relevant.’’

Atlanta took body blows all season, leaving them staggered and woozy, but instead of dropping to the canvas, here they are in the final rounds of the NL East fight, looking as if they’ll be the last one standing in the division.

Once again.

Joey Votto is worth every penny – and more

The game is littered with players who sign huge contracts, and they’re unable to deal with the burden, or Father Time simply catches up.

Then, there is Joey Votto, who signed a 10-year, $225 million extension in 2012, and just when it looked like Votto was in a downward spiral for 2 ½ seasons, Votto is fulfilling his end of the deal. He has two years and $57 million remaining on the contract, which could be a bargain the way he’s delivering.

“I signed a really big contract 10 years ago and my No. 1 priority was living up to that,” Votto said. “Making sure that the Reds and the ownership group was really satisfied with my performance, the fanbase is satisfied with my performance. That’s my No. 1 priority and I still feel that way. Each and every day, I think about the importance of earning my paycheck and playing well.”

Well, he’s doing all of that, and much more, leading the Reds into a tie for the second wild-card spot with the Padres.

He has a major-league leading 17 homers and 41 RBI, with a .770 slugging percentage since the All-Star break. He is hitting .279 with 28 homers and 81 RBI with a .949 OPS, despite missing 28 games with a broken thumb.

“It almost sounds ridiculous,’’ he says, “but I almost feel like I’ve re-learned to hit. I’ve really, really enjoyed the fruits of that discovery.”

Literally a stolen base

Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Kolten Wong stole second base off former teammate, St. Louis Cardinals Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina, and then stole it again.

Only this time, literally stole it.

It was Wong’s first career stolen base off Molina, and to celebrate the occasion, he picked up the base after the game was over, and had Molina sign it with a message.

“As a young kid, I caught all the way through high school, so ‘Yadi’ is a guy I look up to,” Wong told reporters. “He’s one of the all-time best catchers to ever play this game. To watch him as a young kid, play with him once I got into pro baseball, and then get a chance to steal a base off him, that kind of just solidified my career.

“I was telling my wife, ‘If this is the end, the fact that I got that off him, I’m so excited about how my career went.’”

Two-face

The Rockies have always been a formidable force at home, and patsies on the road with a .541 winning percentage at Coors Field and .399 on the road.

This year, they’ve taken it to the extreme.

The Rockies entered Saturday with a 43-21 (.693) record at home, with a 14-45 (.237) record on the road.

The .456 difference would easily be the largest in baseball history, eclipsing the 1945 Philadelphia Athletics who were 39-35 (.527) at Shibe Park and 13-63 (.171) on the road.

It’s certainly understandable seeing the Rockies hit a major-league leading .288 at home in the mile-high air compared to a major-league worst .210 on the road, but it’s mind-boggling that the starters have a 3.61 ERA at home and a 5.30 ERA on the road.

Around the basepaths…

– Forget the Rockies’ search for a GM.

They already found their man: Bill Schmidt.

The Rockies plan to promote Schmidt to be their full-time GM, and he already is interviewing candidates for key front office moves.

The Rockies also are expected to bring back former manager Clint Hurdle in a front-office leadership position.

– MLB will be closely watching another upcoming court case in Texas.

Federal prosecutors, in a court filing, are planning to present testimony from about five Major League Baseball players who allege they received oxycodone from former communications director Eric Kay, who faces trial in the fatal overdose of pitcher Tyler Skaggs.

– Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Shohei Ohtani’s historic season is that he has played in all but six of the Angels’ games this season, including every game the past month. That wouldn’t be possible without the AL’s designated hitter.

“If he’s a National League player right now,’’ Angels manager Joe Maddon said, “I don’t think you’d see the glorious numbers on both sides of the ball that you’re seeing right now. There’d be more of a reason to give him a day off either before or after he pitched, or both like had been done before, to make sure you’re not ….jeopardizing his career.”

– In the wild-card era, only eight divisions have had three teams win at least 90 games, with the 1978 AL East the lone division with four teams winning 90-plus games.

This year’s AL East could duplicate the feat with all but the Orioles having a realistic chance to win at least 90 games.

– Only in baseball where a kid could grow up in the Bronx, dreaming of being the next Derek Jeter, get bounced around, and called up by the Yankees, playing a starring role while still living at his parents’ home.

Meet Andrew Velazquez, 27.

He drove in four runs in the Yankees’ sweep over the Red Sox and homered on Saturday against the Twins.

– Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is baseball’s newest owner becoming the first Brewers investor since Mark Attanasio purchased the team in 2005.

The deal was actually reached in early May, but they delayed an announcement because of the Bucks’ championship playoff run.

– The Cubs are now 12-37 since pitching a no-hitter on June 24 against the Dodgers. The Dodgers are 33-15 since then.

– What, did Rickey Henderson come out of retirement? The Yankees had a major league-low 20 stolen bases in the first half, but lead the major leagues with 309 stolen bases the second half.

– Luke Voit, who was peeved and unafraid to share his feelings when the Yankees acquired fellow first baseman Anthony Rizzo, certainly is putting his money where his mouth is.

He is hitting .500 (11 for 22) in his last six games with three homers and 11 RBI.

“I was top 10 in the MVP (voting) last year and I’ve been a great player for this organization for the last three years,” Voit told reporters. “I’m not going down. I want to play. Obviously, I know it’s going to be tougher with Rizzo, but I deserve to play just as much as he does.”

Yes, indeed.

– There is no doubt that Walker Buehler of the Dodgers is the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award with his league-leading 13-2 record, league-best 2.11 ERA with 162 1/3 innings, second-most in the league.

He has allowed two or fewer runs in nine of his last 10 starts, yielding a .179 batting average.

It would be the Dodgers’ ninth Cy Young award on the roster.

“It’s not something that I really care about,” Buehler said. “I want us to win games and win the division and get to the playoffs and do what we did last year and what we set out to do every year. If I somehow put us in a position and have the type of year to be in that conversation, that’s great. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning games and that’s my focus.”

– The Padres have only themselves to blame for being in the precarious position of missing the postseason with their biggest payroll in history and a star-filled lineup.

They are 17-18 against the two division bottom-feeders: the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.

In contrast, the Giants are a combined 23-6 against the Diamondbacks and Rockies while the Dodgers are 21-5.

– The Giants’ new ace is Logan Webb, who is yielding a 1.64 ERA in his last 11 starts, with the Giants going 10-1.

“I don’t think that there’s any denying that he’s among the league’s best starters, not just ours,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler says.

– This will be the first year of Mike Trout’s fabulous career that he won’t finish in the top 5 of AL MVP voting, winning it three times and finishing runner-up four times.

Trout has been sidelined since since May 17 with a strained calf.

– He isn’t getting the national attention he deserves, but Brandon Crawford is quietly having a spectacular season, and certainly deserves to be in the conversation for the National League MVP award.

Besides playing Gold Glove defense, Crawford is batting .300 with 19 homers, 70 RBI and a .901 OPS.

And, yes, he still has the Giants in first place with the best record in baseball.

“In my time in baseball, I’ve seen a lot of great individual seasons with the different organizations I’ve been in,” Farhan Zaidi, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, told reporters. “The season that Craw has had this year, I’ve never seen a player have more of an impact on a team’s success than what he’s done.”

– The Seattle Mariners must be covering their eyes watching catcher Mike Zunino looking like Mike Piazza these days.

Zunino has a career-high 26 homers, the most by any catcher in Rays’ history, while averaging a homer every 9.65 at-bats.

How ridiculous is the pace? Just Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome and Luke Voit have had a better home run ratio in the last 20 years.

– The wait continues: By the time the Pirates play the Dodgers again, May 9, 2022, they will have gone 1,434 days without defeating them, dating back to June 6, 2018.

– How scary will the Brewers be in October? All-Star closer Josh Hader should be the most rested reliever in baseball.

Hader, with precious few save opportunities since the last six weeks, and being out 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19, has pitched only 10 ⅔ innings since July 1, and has pitched only 43 ⅓ innings all season.

– Remarkably, all 13 pitchers who were on the Blue Jays’ opening-day roster have been on the injured list, optioned, or released.

– Whit Merrifield set the Royals franchise record playing in his 422nd consecutive game, but shrugs off the milestone.

“I mean, who wants to come out of the lineup?” Merrifield said. “I don’t really understand people’s fascination with giving guys a day off.”

– And finally, can you imagine if Twitter was around when George Steinbrenner was alive? Lord have mercy!

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta Braves’ huge turnaround has team atop NL East standings

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