But the Braves’ history of October futility took a back seat to nobody’s. It was even older than the Twins’ streak — old enough, in fact, to vote. When it started in 2001, Julio Franco was the Braves’ regular first baseman. (He’s now 62.) It spanned the final years of the Bobby Cox era, the entirety of the Fredi González era and the start of the Brian Snitker era.
And as of Thursday afternoon, the Braves’ streak, in contrast to that of the Twins, is over. It ended in the most definitive way possible — because you absolutely, positively, 100 percent cannot lose in baseball if the other team never scores. The second of two straight shutout victories, 5-0 over the Cincinnati Reds in Atlanta, clinched the best-of-three National League first-round series and sent the Braves into the division series next week.
And the way the Braves did it, pitching 22 consecutive scoreless innings (including 13 in an extra-inning win in Game 1), has them looking like a team that might just keep winning. They will meet either the Chicago Cubs or Miami Marlins in a division series in Houston, then, should they survive that, possibly the top-seeded Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.
The Braves now get four days of rest — a cherished luxury this time of year — and can line up their rotation for the division series the same way they did in the first round, with ace Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson in Games 1 and 2. Combined, they tossed 13 scoreless innings and struck out 14 against the Reds, letting the Braves’ bullpen and a powerful offense anchored by Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna do the rest.
“Me and maybe some of the coaching staff are the only ones that know the history,” Freeman, the longest-tenured Brave, said in a video interview with reporters. “Some of these guys are too young to understand the history of the Braves in the postseason. But I’m not one of those. I know what’s going on.”
It wasn’t so much history but pitching that had the doubters circling the three-time NL East champion Braves, and that made the Reds, who were five games under .500 with two weeks left in the regular season before catching fire and sneaking into the 16-team playoff field, a trendy upset pick among experts.
Last October, the Braves featured a playoff rotation of Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka. That team, which went 97-65 and won the East by four games, flamed out in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the division series, while the division rival Washington Nationals turned a wild-card berth into a World Series title. Fried, meanwhile, was toiling in Atlanta’s bullpen for the St. Louis series, while Anderson, 21 at the time, was not on the Braves’ postseason roster, having spent most of 2019 in Class AA.
This year, the Braves had to replace all three members of that 2019 postseason rotation. Keuchel departed as a free agent. Foltynewicz regressed so deeply the Braves dispatched him to their alternate training site one start into his season, never to bring him back. Soroka, the NL rookie of the year runner-up in 2019, was lost for the season after he tore his Achilles’ in his third start of 2020.
But the stress test of the Braves’ rotation depth went even further than that. Veteran Felix Hernandez, whom the team envisioned as a fifth starter in 2020, opted out of the season during training camp because of novel coronavirus concerns. Lefty Cole Hamels, whom they signed to a one-year, $18 million free agent deal, showed up with a sore shoulder and made just one start. Sean Newcomb, their No. 3 starter coming out of camp, lasted just four starts before he was dispatched. And veteran lefty Tommy Milone — the best General Manager Alex Anthopoulos could do for a reinforcement at the trade deadline — bombed in three starts for the Braves and wound up on the injured list.
Even with Fried pitching his way into contention for the NL Cy Young Award, going 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA, the Braves’ starters posted a combined 5.51 ERA in 2020 — the highest rotation ERA in history for a postseason qualifier. Take away Fried’s contribution, and the figure soars to 6.44.
It was difficult to muster much confidence in the collection of starting pitchers — Fried, Anderson and rookie right-hander Kyle Wright, ages 26, 22 and 24, respectively — that the Braves would be sending against the Reds’ formidable trio of Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray in the first-round series. And the Braves didn’t even try to fake it.
Speaking before Game 1 about Fried, who had been limited by an ankle injury down the stretch, Snitker acknowledged, “If he can go five innings, that’d be great.” And speaking of Anderson and Wright, neither of whom had any postseason experience, Snitker was almost pleading when he said, “I’m hoping we’ll get [four or five innings out of each], and if we don’t … we’ll adjust and adapt.”
Fried, though, matched Bauer zero for zero in Game 1, shutting out the Reds for seven innings in a game the Braves finally won in the 13th on Freeman’s walk-off single. And Anderson — who debuted for the Braves in late August and posted a 1.95 ERA across his six starts — nearly matched Fried, tossing six scoreless innings in Game 2. They never even needed Wright, who struggled at times in 2020 but went 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA over his final three starts of the regular season and who will be lined up for Game 3 of the division series.
“Their pitching — I don’t want to say it was better than I thought it would be, because that would be disrespectful,” veteran Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. “But they were very, very good.”
As the Braves closed in on the clinch Thursday afternoon — a game in which Atlanta led by just one run in the eighth inning — there was absolutely no evidence any of them were carrying the weight of their awful postseason history.
It certainly didn’t appear that way when Ozuna, the veteran outfielder who put up career-best numbers after he signed a free agent contract with the Braves during the winter, smashed a two-run homer in the eighth, pushing their lead to 3-0, and celebrated with an audacious, pantomimed selfie halfway up the first base line.
Those two decades of postseason futility were melting away, along with any doubts about their starting pitching.