By Ben Walker (AP)
HOUSTON (AP) — Most of the season, it just seemed this wasn’t their year.
They dropped their first four games, and soon injuries piled up. They lost their most dynamic player before the All-Star break. They were stuck below .500 in August.
Yet out of nowhere, suddenly, these Atlanta Braves transformed themselves and took off.
Jorge Soler, Freddie Freeman and the Braves breezed to their first World Series championship since 1995, hammering the Houston Astros 7-0 on Tuesday night in Game 6. Max Fried threw six dominant innings in a signature pitching performance to close it out.
“We hit every pothole, every bump you could possibly hit this year,” Freeman said. “Injuries, every single kind of thing that could happen, that could go wrong went wrong, and we overcame every single one of those things.”
How proud Hank Aaron would’ve been. Even so, Atlanta’s troubles never fully went away.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, the architect of the Braves’ midseason turnaround, missed this crowning achievement after testing positive for COVID-19. He was back home for the clincher.
Soler, a July acquisition who tested positive for the coronavirus in the playoffs, backed Fried early with a monster three-run shot for his third homer against the Astros.
Freeman hit an RBI double and then punctuated the romp with a solo home run in the seventh that made it 7-0.
By then, it was a total team effort. Ailing star Ronald Acuña Jr., the dynamo of Atlanta’s future, bounded from the dugout to join the celebration for Freeman, the longtime face of the franchise.
When Yuli Gurriel grounded out to end it, Freeman caught the throw at first base, put the ball in his pocket, and the party was on for manager Brian Snitker’s club.
A full hour after the game, hundreds of Braves fans packed behind the team’s third base dugout kept doing the chop and chant, causing loud echoes to bounce around the ballpark.
About 700 miles away at suburban Truist Park, thousands of fans poured into the Braves’ home to holler.
A mere afterthought in the summer heat among the land of the Giants, White Sox and Dodgers, but magnificent in the Fall Classic.
“This is the toughest team I’ve ever been a part of,” said shortstop Dansby Swanson, who also homered.
Soler tapped his heart twice before beginning his home run trot after connecting off rookie Luis Garcia in the third inning, sending the ball flying completely out of Minute Maid Park and clinching the Series MVP award.
By the end, nothing could stop them. Not a broken leg sustained by starter Charlie Morton in the World Series opener. Not a big blown lead in Game 5.
Steadied by the 66-year-old Snitker, an organization man for four decades, the underdog Braves won the franchise’s fourth title.
“They never gave up on themselves,” he said on a postgame victory platform. “We lost a lot of pieces over the course of the summer and it was just the next man up.”
Consider it a tribute to the greatest Braves player of them all. Aaron died Jan. 22 at 86, still pulling for his old team, and The Hammer’s legacy was stamped all over this Series.
“Nobody ever wanted to let Hank down,” Snitker said. “That’s just the way it was, we didn’t want to let him down. He charged us with a responsibility to make these guys better and we weren’t going to let him down.”
And note the Braves outhomered the top-scoring team in the majors by 11-2.
For 72-year-old Houston manager Dusty Baker, a disappointment. But for many fans rooting against the Astros in the wake of their 2017 sign-stealing scandal, some satisfaction.
“Yeah, it’s tough, but you know something? You’ve got to keep on trucking, and that gives you even more incentive next year,” Baker said.
“It’s tough to take now, but this too shall pass. I mean, it really hurts, but it’s over,” he added.
Major credit for Atlanta’s title goes to Anthopoulos. Undaunted by Acuña’s knee injury, he pulled off a flurry of July trades that brought the Fab Four to an entirely retooled outfield — NL Championship Series MVP Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Soler.
“Thanks to God for the opportunity to be on this team,” Soler said through a translator.
But even in the Analytics Era, guided by a GM fully versed in new-age ways, the path these Braves took wouldn’t add up in any computer. Especially with how things looked in midseason.
“At that time, we were searching,” third baseman Austin Riley said before Game 6. “I think there’s no question about that.”
Minus Acuña, Atlanta wasn’t over .500 for a single day until the first week in August. The Braves finished 88-73 for the 12th-best record in the majors and fewest victories among playoff teams; their win total was the lowest for a World Series champion since St. Louis’ 83 in 2006.
Plus, some agonizing history in Atlanta, a city where no team had won a title in the four major pro sports besides 1995.
The Braves couldn’t convert a 3-1 series advantage over the Dodgers in the NLCS last year. The Hawks fell short in the Eastern Conference finals last season. And then there was the big one, the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
But these Braves, not this time.
“Boy, we’re in November right now and we’ve been doing this since February. We’ve had so many ups and downs this year. For us to be world champions, that is awesome to hear,” Freeman said.
Favored in spring training to win their fourth straight NL East title, the Braves lost Acuña to a torn knee in July. Earlier, 2020 Triple Crown contender Marcell Ozuna was injured and later placed on leave while Major League Baseball investigated him under its domestic violence policy. Projected ace Mike Soroka never made it back from an Achilles injury.
Going into the playoffs, their bullpen was a crazy patchwork.
They had a guy who made his big league debut in October, a lefty who was pitching in 2019 for the Texas AirHogs in a now-defunct independent league and a righty who was stacking boxes at an appliance warehouse a decade ago. Toss in a rookie who was off the roster a week ago as he watched Game 1 at a hotel in suburban Atlanta.
For sure, plenty of fans around the country were rooting hard against Jose Altuve and the Houston crew. Many continue to heckle them as the “Cheatin’ Astros” for an illegal sign-stealing scheme on the way to their 2017 title, and those feelings might last forever.
Certainly a lot of people were cheering for Baker. A World Series winner as a player and a highly respected figure on and off the field, he wasn’t able to check the final box on his resume as a championship skipper.
The Braves’ crowns have been spread out over more than a century.
The 1995 Atlanta champs featured five future Hall of Famers — rookie Chipper Jones, aces Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, and manager Bobby Cox. Those rings were the lone pieces of hardware that resulted from 14 straight division titles.
The 1957 Milwaukee Braves were led by Aaron in his only NL MVP season. The Hall of Famer’s 44 was painted in large numbers on the outfield grass at Truist Park, and Baker and Snitker often mentioned how much he’d meant to them.
There were the 1914 Boston Braves, too, dubbed the “Miracle Braves” back in the day. In last place on the Fourth of July, they surged to win the pennant, then upset a heavily favored team — the Philadelphia A’s — to earn their nickname.