Atlanta Braves overcome ‘ups and downs’ to clinch fourth straight NL East title

Written by on September 30, 2021

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves have done it all before — many, many times before — but this one felt a bit different.

More satisfying, for sure.

After all, the Braves floundered under .500 much of the season. They endured devastating injuries and grim legal issues. They had to essentially rebuild their outfield at the trade deadline.

And yet there they were Thursday night, swigging champagne, puffing on cigars and celebrating an NL East championship.

Ian Anderson turned in another dominant pitching performance, Jorge Soler and Austin Riley homered to power the offense, and the Braves clinched their fourth straight division title by completing a sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies with a 5-3 victory.

“We were just trying to hang in there and pull this thing off,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s unbelievable what these guys accomplished with everything we went through.”

The Braves didn’t climb above .500 until Aug. 6, yet they went on to capture their 21st division title — more than any other team — since moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966.

They’ll face their former city in the playoffs when they open the best-of-five Division Series at the NL Central champion Brewers on Oct. 8.

“It’s a great feeling,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “We had a lot of ups and down, so many things that could have derailed us.”

Atlanta’s very first hitter got things rolling in the division-clinching triumph. Soler hit the first leadoff homer of his career, going deep for the 26th time this season on a 3-2 pitch from Kyle Gibson (4-6).

Riley, bolstering his improbable MVP candidacy, added to the lead with his 33rd homer in the fourth. He drove in another run with a broken-bat single in the fifth to extend the lead to 5-0.

Ozzie Albies, who also figures to be part of the MVP race, threw his support to Riley.

“He’s been carrying this team,” Albies said. “He did a great, great job. He had a great season.”

It was more than enough run support for Anderson (9-5), who appears to be rounding into the sort of form he showed during the 2020 postseason as a rookie.

Anderson pitched six innings of one-hit ball before yielding a two-run homer to Andrew McCutchen in the seventh. A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson and Will Smith worked the final three innings, with Smith breezing through the ninths to earn his 37th save.

In a way, the finish was a bit out of character, considering all the obstacles that were thrown Atlanta’s way.

Star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. was lost to a season-ending knee injury, while former ace Mike Soroka didn’t make an expected comeback after tearing his Achilles tendon for the second time.

In addition, slugging outfielder Marcell Ozuna — the pot-stirring leader of the Braves’ run to Game 7 of last year’s NL Championship Series — was arrested after an altercation with his wife in late May and didn’t return to the team.

General manger Alex Anthopoulos pulled off a flurry of moves at the trade deadline, assembling an entirely new outfield that included Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario.

The Braves spent 126 days without a winning record — the most by a division champ since the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays and fourth-most since the divisional era began in 1969, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Braves finally got hot to take control in one of the majors’ weakest divisions. They gained sole possession of the NL East lead for the first time Aug. 15 while in the midst of a perfect 9-0 road trip and never relinquished the top spot.

Philadelphia made a late surge, getting within 1 1/2 games of the lead last weekend.

But Atlanta snuffed out the Phillies’ hopes with a stifling run of starting pitching by Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Anderson. In the series, they combined to allow just 10 hits and three earned runs over 20 innings.

When Smith struck out Ronald Torreyes for the final out, it was time for another celebration before a near-sellout crowd of 38,235.

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