How Atlanta, in a Season of Obstacles, Made the World Series
ATLANTA — An October tradition that arrives without fail with every World Series is discussion of resilience and perseverance and how the teams that made it had overcome all manner of season-threatening menaces along the way.
Fair enough. But even the “no one believed in us” teams of the past would tip their caps to this year’s Atlanta Braves, who rode a rocky path to the World Series, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday night in Houston.
“We have had like 40-foot potholes that we’ve hit, like humongous speed bumps,” Freddie Freeman, the Atlanta first baseman, said over the weekend. “Everything you could possibly see in a road, we hit it.”
Let’s consult the trip history.
An Inauspicious Start
The season begins in Philadelphia. Atlanta, which reached the National League Championship Series in 2020, is favored to win the N.L. East.
Max Fried, the Atlanta starter, pitches five innings and strikes out eight; he gives up just two runs. Atlanta, though, struggles to score and loses in the 10th inning when Jean Segura hits a walk-off single.
Atlanta Loses the All-Star Game
Atlanta is getting ready to host its first All-Star Game since 2000, but Major League Baseball is under intense pressure to move the game after Georgia passes a law making it harder to vote in urban areas.
Commissioner Rob Manfred agrees with the public sentiment and yanks the exhibition from Truist Park, sparking a baseball-focused political uproar that continues to this day. The Braves say pointedly that the move was “neither our decision nor our recommendation.”
The Season’s First Win (and the Second)
After the disappointment on opening day, Atlanta lost again. And again. And again.
Deliverance comes on a Wednesday, when Atlanta plays a doubleheader in Washington. The visitors stitch together a win, 7-6, in the first game for their inaugural victory. They win the second game, 2-0.
In less than six hours, Atlanta goes from 0-4 to 2-4.
A Star Outfielder Faces Accusations
Atlanta is 24-25 and not long removed from a four-game winning streak. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who won a Silver Slugger Award in 2020, is batting .213 but is a regular in the lineup after signing a four-year, $65 million deal.
A fresh addition to the injured list, Ozuna is in Georgia while his team is on a road trip when he is accused of domestic violence. Although he later enters a pretrial diversion program that can lead to the dismissal of his court case, his arrest thrusts his career into turmoil while M.L.B. conducts its own inquiry. He does not play again for Atlanta in 2021.
Mike Soroka’s Achilles’ Tendon Strikes Again
One of Atlanta’s most promising young pitchers, Mike Soroka is recovering from a tear of an Achilles’ tendon when he tears it again while walking at Truist Park.
Any hope of a return in 2021 is dashed, taking away a right-hander with ace potential who had a 2.68 E.R.A. in 2019.
Ronald Acuña Jr., the 2018 N.L. rookie of the year and signer of a $100 million contract, is hitting .283 with 24 home runs and 52 R.B.I. in 82 games.
But during a game in Miami, Acuña attempts a catch in right field and tears his right anterior cruciate ligament. Season-ending surgery is planned for the player who was the best on Atlanta’s roster.
Falling Below .500 at the All-Star Break
Although Atlanta won the game in which Acuña was injured, evening its record, it loses to the Marlins to enter the All-Star break at 44-45. The team disperses while the All-Star Game is played in Denver instead of Atlanta.
Shoring Up the Outfield With Joc Pederson, a .230 Hitter
General Manager Alex Anthopoulos is known as an eager dealer around the trading deadline. With July 30 looming and his outfield a mess, Anthopoulos sends a prospect to the Cubs in exchange for Joc Pederson, who is batting .230 with 11 home runs.
Even in a down season, Atlanta expresses confidence in Pederson, in part because of his 2019 season, when he hit 36 home runs for Los Angeles, and also because of his experience of winning the World Series with the Dodgers in 2020.
“It’s a really good get for us and an experienced guy that’s had success,” says Manager Brian Snitker, who pictures Pederson in the leadoff spot. “He hits good pitching.”
A Mad Dash at the Deadline Lands Eddie Rosario
Anthopoulos keeps shopping. On July 30, which is the trading deadline, Cleveland sends Eddie Rosario, an outfielder, and cash considerations to Atlanta in exchange for Pablo Sandoval.
One catch, though: Rosario is hurt and on the injured list. Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s president of baseball operations, predicts nonetheless that Rosario, who hit .254 in 78 games for Cleveland after his arrival from Minnesota, will help Atlanta once he heals.
Atlanta also snags Adam Duvall back from Miami, after more than a week of talks, and Jorge Soler from Kansas City.
“You can’t replace Ronald Acuña,” Anthopoulos said over the summer. “But I just don’t believe you can have the mind-set of: You lose any one player and you just shut it down for the season.”
Getting Above .500
In third place in a pretty terrible N.L. East, Atlanta hosts Washington. With an 8-4 victory that extends its winning streak to four games, Atlanta climbs to 56-55, the first time the club has a winning record in 2021. It does not get above .500 to stay until Aug. 8.
Atlanta Wins Nine Straight
An East Coast swing proves a feast for Atlanta: It sweeps the Nationals in Washington, it sweeps the Marlins in Miami and wins the first two games in Baltimore. Seeking its third consecutive sweep, Atlanta sends Touki Toussaint to the mound for an interleague game at Camden Yards. He allows one run over five and a third innings, and Atlanta wins its ninth straight game, 3-1.
The team is 68-57 and controls the East.
Another N.L. East Title
The second-place Phillies visit while Atlanta is on another winning streak. In the final game of the Philadelphia-Atlanta series, Atlanta clinches its fourth consecutive N.L. East title.
A Division Series That Started Poorly
Atlanta, which won just 88 regular-season games, lost Game 1 of its National League division series against the Milwaukee Brewers. Then it rattled off three straight wins to take the best-of-five series.
In Game 3, Pederson, the July acquisition from Chicago, stars as a pinch-hitter, hammering a three-run home run to give Atlanta all the runs it needs. (Cue the Mr. Joctober headlines.)
In Game 4, Rosario takes a star turn, tying the game with a single to center. Pederson’s fielder’s choice helps Atlanta close the gap that Milwaukee had built with a two-run home run. But it is Freeman’s solo home run in the eighth that puts Atlanta in front for good and propels the team to the National League Championship Series for the second consecutive year.
Upending the Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the 2020 World Series after a come-from-behind victory over Atlanta in the N.L.C.S., were one of the last teams anyone wanted to face for the pennant.
Atlanta won Game 1, when Rosario scored an early and crucial run, and Game 2, when Rosario hit a walk-off single. The series shifted to Los Angeles, where the Dodgers took Game 3. Rosario, predictably, given this postseason, was the star of Game 4, starting his night with a solo homer, adding a triple and a single and then, in the final frame, a three-run home run.
On the brink of elimination, Los Angeles routed Atlanta in Game 5 to extend the series.
Game 6 is back in Atlanta on a Saturday night. Rosario hits another three-run homer and reliever Tyler Matzek extinguishes a Los Angeles threat by striking out three straight batters — including Albert Pujols and Mookie Betts — after entering the game with runners on second and third and no one out.
Atlanta wins the game (and the N.L.C.S.), 4-2, and gets ready to head to Houston for its first World Series appearance since 1999.