ATLANTA (AP) — The 2020s are starting to feel like the 1990s for the Atlanta Braves.
Another dazzling regular season.
Another flop in the postseason.
After tying a major league record with 307 homers, the slugging Braves went down meekly to the rival Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series for the second year in a row.
Other than a stunning comeback in Game 2, when the Braves overcame a four-run deficit with a pair of two-run homers and a remarkable double play for a 5-4 victory, the Phillies dominated the best-of-five series.
They handed the Braves their first shutout all season at Truist Park, 3-0 in the series opener. They blasted six homers in a 10-2 rout in Game 3. And they ended Atlanta’s season far sooner than anyone expected with three more homers for a 3-1 clincher in Game 4.
After six months of dazzling play and an MLB-leading 104 wins, it was all over in the space of six days as the Braves and two other division winners, the 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers and AL-leading Baltimore Orioles, were wiped out early.
“A phenomenal year for our club,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but it doesn’t always do that in this game.”
In the 1990s, the Braves began a record-setting run of 14 straight division titles that included only one World Series title.
They are now in the midst of six straight NL East titles. But a 2021 World Series title is the only time the postseason didn’t end in disappointment.
“Look, nobody has the exact formula,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Friday, less than 24 hours after the final out. “If they did, the same team would be winning year after year. That’s what makes baseball great. You’re constantly looking for answers.”
The last two years have left the Braves with plenty of questions.
They chased down the New York Mets to win the East with 101 wins a season ago and earned a first-round bye, only to be knocked off in the NLDS by a Phillies team that finished 14 games behind and barely squeaked into the playoffs.
Now, another blowout by the Phillies, who again finished 14 games behind Atlanta during the increasingly meaningless regular season.
The culprit this time was a stunner — an offense that produced more runs than any other team suddenly went cold at the most important time of the year.
Take out Austin Riley, who hit .353 (6 of 17) with two homers, and the remaining Braves batted .161 (18 of 112) with one homer and only one other extra-base hit over four games.
Most notably, MVP favorite Ronald Acuña Jr. was held to a measly pair of hits after becoming the first player in big league history to post 40 homers and 70 stolen bases in a season. He stormed out of the clubhouse after the clinching game, declining to speak with the media.
Anthopoulos was at a loss to explain the sudden power outage, which was especially jarring as the Phillies did a pretty good imitation of the Braves by smacking 11 homers. Nick Castellanos outhomered Atlanta all by himself, going deep twice in both Games 3 and 4.
“We’re a team that slugs,” Anthopoulos said. “No one would doubt we have a lot of power on this team. We just didn’t slug in this series.”
The division series also exposed an issue that the Braves navigated successfully during the regular season — a lack of starting pitching.
Max Fried missed a large chunk of the season, and Kyle Wright — a 21-game winner in 2022 — barely pitched at all. Snitker covered the losses by using 16 starting pitchers, led by 20-game winner Spencer Strider.
But Strider was beaten twice in the NLDS, Fried struggled in his lone start and Bryce Elder was hammered in a Game 3 rout that finished off his troubling second-half slide.
Just before the playoffs began, the Braves learned that Wright needs major shoulder surgery and will miss the entire 2024 season as well. And the future of 14-game winner Charlie Morton is uncertain after a sprained finger kept him from pitching in the postseason.
Morton, who turns 40 next month, has a $20 million team option for next season. Anthopoulos wouldn’t say if they will exercise the option, and Morton hasn’t said if he plans to pitch another season.
Even if Morton returns, the Braves are likely to seek starting pitching help — perhaps dangling infield prospect Vaughn Grissom, who doesn’t appear to have much of a future in Atlanta, as trade bait.
If Grissom stays in Atlanta, he could move to the outfield to get more at-bats, perhaps taking over in left if the team declines Eddie Rosario’s option.
“We want to make sure he plays,” Anthopoulos said of Grissom. “We will have discussions about where we can get him some at-bats.”
The Braves also have plenty of question marks in the bullpen beyond closer Raisel Iglesias, under contract for two more years after recording 33 saves, and set-up man A.J. Minter, who isn’t eligible for free agency until 2025.
As for the rest of the roster, the Braves have locked up nearly all their top players to long-term deals and are likely to return with essentially the same lineup.
Acuña’s historic season (.337 average with 41 homers, 106 RBIs, 73 stolen bases and 149 runs) was augmented by first baseman Matt Olson setting franchise records for homers (54) and RBIs (139).
Marcell Ozuna bounced back from a dismal start to hit 40 homers with 100 RBIs, Ozzie Albies had 33 homers and 109 RBIs, and Riley slugged 37 homers with 97 RBIs while playing stellar defense.
Unfortunately for the Braves, those impressive numbers didn’t add up to much in the playoffs.
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