The Principality

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Braves Clinch Second Straight NL East Title

A 6-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Friday night confirmed for the Atlanta Braves what has seemed inevitable since taking 3 out of 4 games last week from its rival Washington Nationals. The Braves were crowned winners of the National League East for the second consecutive year, a feat not achieved since capturing the 14th title of that magical run that ended in 2005. With a 9.5 game lead over the Nationals, Friday’s shutout win made the task insurmountable for Atlanta’s rivals with a week of the season still to play. Atlanta became the third team crowned its division winner in 2019 after the Los Angeles Dodgers picked up the NL West and the New York Yankees claimed the AL East.

Even a stuttering few days in which the Braves dropped 3 consecutive games for the first time since July 18th couldn’t stop the charge of a team tipped to finish fourth at the start of the season. Led by a mixture of youth and experience, Atlanta has held sole possession of first place since June 12th and the lead has been at least 4.5 games since June 18th. “We weren’t supposed to do it this year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think when we were talking in March, most people were picking us to finish fourth. I think we said back then, 'That’s why we play the game.'"

Victory over the Giants seemed a mere formality right from the start. Mike Foltynewicz has looked like a different pitcher since returning from his stint in the minor leagues and hasn’t lost in the season’s second half and accumulating a meagre ERA of 1.19 from his last six starts. Foltynewicz was clearly out to state his case for a spot in the postseason rotation and did his chances no harm with an 8-inning, 95 pitch effort where he allowed just three hits (all to Giants leadoff man Mike Yastrzemski) and a walk, whilst striking out seven. “He showed me he is a big-game pitcher,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “Everything he went through this year and now, to come back and pitch the way he did tonight, I’m just so proud of him.”

Credit too should go to Ronald Acuna Jr. Having spent much of late August and early September mired in the worst slump of his young career, some questioned whether the pursuit of becoming just the fifth player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season was wearing on the young star. However, a day after hitting his 40th home run and completing the first leg of the accomplishment, Acuna broke out of his slump against the Giants and was instrumental in the Braves’ first four runs of the night. Acuna walked and scored in the first inning, then doubled and scored in the third. However, he saved his biggest hit for two innings later, belting his 41st home run, a two-run shot, into the right field seats. Brian McCann capped off the scoring an inning later with a two-run shot of his own. The 2005 title was captured in McCann’s rookie season. Brought back this year for a final stint in Atlanta, it seemed only fitting the Braves repeat the feat in what may be his last season. “For him to hit a home run in the division clincher coming home, I don’t think anything can get better than that,” Freddie Freeman said.

For the Braves now however, focus must turn to winning in the postseason. The last time the Braves won a postseason series was in 2001 when they swept the Astros in the Division Series. Since then, the playoffs have provided nothing but heartbreak, not least in its past two visits where resounding defeats to the Dodgers have been waiting. “I kind of feel like we knocked on the door last year, and I’m hoping we kick it in this year,” Snitker said. “Last year we went in hoping to win a series. I think we’re going to go into the [NL] Division Series this year and expect to win.”

Snitker’s opinion was echoed by veteran right fielder Nick Markakis. “This team right here is as good as any team I’ve played on. It could possibly be the best team I’ve played on with the mixture of guys we have,” Markakis said. “We’re confident in ourselves and in each other. Confidence can take you a long way.” The Braves will likely play the winner of the NL Central in the NLDS, starting on October 3rd.

Andrew Bracegirdle

20th September 2019