Atlanta Braves, dominant in MLB regular season, await the postseason

Were it not for baseball’s fascinating tendency to shift the laws of mathematics every October, the Atlanta Braves would be entering the final week of the season as the easy choice to win the World Series.

They have been the best team nearly from start to finish, led by a seemingly perfect lineup that has spent the past six months hitting 59 more home runs than the next-closest team while striking out less than all but four other squads.

They have the first 40-40 man this decade in Ronald Acuña Jr. and the storied organization’s single-season home run king in Matt Olson. Their starting rotation, should it proceed as planned, has more playoff experience than those of the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers combined. Only three teams’ relievers average more strikeouts per nine innings.

The Braves were the first team in baseball to win 100 games, and some combination of three Atlanta wins and Orioles losses over the next week will clinch home-field advantage all the way.

But the trouble with being baseball’s best regular season team, at least recently, is that it does not seem to matter much when the weather starts to cool. The last time the team with the best 162-game record won the title was 2018, when the Boston Red Sox did it. Similarly, since the Braves started this stretch of six straight National League East titles, they have made fewer World Series appearances (one) than other teams in the division have in that span (two). The year the Braves won the World Series — 2021 — they sneaked into the playoffs with just 88 wins.

The Rays, charmed then tested this year, have a chance in October. Again.

Why regular season dominance rarely leads to the same thing in October is one of the questions executives in the sport have pondered for years, particularly since the postseason expanded to 10, then 12 teams in recent seasons. From the view of those trying to build winning rosters, the formula seems to expire Oct. 1: Most annual contenders have perfected the task of building a roster deep enough to reach the postseason. And most of them conclude that what happens then is up to fate.

“Every team wants to be playing their best baseball and peaking going into the postseason,” Olson speculated by way of explanation for that trend. “Maybe sometimes there’s more attention on the teams doing well heading into it, so you notice more if something bad happens.”

Olson is right, of course. Momentum is an undeniable contributor to October’s tendency to reduce an entire season of calculated decisions to a roll of the dice. The teams with the best records in their leagues, such as the Braves this year, receive the “honor” of a first-round bye. They wait for lesser teams to hash things out in best-of-three series, sitting quietly until those clubs are ready for them, getting a chance to take a break.

But as the playoffs are constructed now, first-round byes yield an unprecedented break from daily routines, a longer layoff than the all-star break, more time away from competition than most players have had for months. In theory, those days provide a chance for achy muscles to rest and tired arms to regenerate some vigor. But in practice, they can interrupt rhythms and usher in doubt.

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The Braves know that better than anyone. Last year, they won 101 games and earned a first-round bye, only to see all momentum halt at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, who charged into the best-of-five division series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals and won three games before the Braves could wipe the crust from their well-rested eyes.

“We’re talking about that, how we’re going to approach that off week,” Braves Manager Brian Snitker said. “We’re going to do things differently than we did last year because it’s unpredictable. …

“That’s why I tell the guys: ‘Until you get in [the postseason], you never have a chance. But you never know what will happen once you do get in.’ We’ve experienced that over the last six years, too.”

If there are cracks in Atlanta’s foundation, they are not in its prolific lineup — unless everyone cools over the break. Five players have hit at least 30 homers. Nine players have hit at least 15. Position by position, even bench slot by bench slot, the Braves match up favorably with any team in the postseason. Their bullpen has been inconsistent lately but remains one of the deeper and more experienced groups among the contenders.

If there is reason for concern, it is tied to their rotation, particularly after this past weekend. Max Fried went on the injured list with a blister on his pitching hand, though he will be eligible to return for Game 1 of the NLDS and the Braves expect him to be ready for it. Charlie Morton left Friday’s start at the Washington Nationals early with right index finger discomfort, and the Braves placed him on the injured list, too. He will not be back for the division series, so the Braves will have to get through that without him, relying on Bryce Elder and his 3.63 ERA to help them do it.

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But even though the Braves insist the news isn’t damning for Fried or Morton, their injuries stir some uncomfortable memories. Last year at this time, Fried was dealing with a virus that knocked him down at the worst possible moment. Ace Spencer Strider suffered an oblique injury that limited his effectiveness in the postseason. Against the Phillies’ bludgeoning lineup — maybe the only one that, when hot, can match Atlanta’s seemingly endless firepower — Atlanta’s arms weren’t enough.

Funnily enough, the Braves are lined up to face those same Phillies — this time with Trea Turner in tow — should Philadelphia emerge from its first-round series. The Phillies again would enter the NLDS matchup with less pressure than their division rivals. They would, arguably, do so with as much starting pitching as they did last year, too. And just like last year, the Phillies could collide with the Braves with far more momentum — the one thing the best record in baseball does not always earn.

“You try to do everything right, to the best of your ability, to get the guys ready,” Snitker said. “But once that series starts, things take off and you see where it leads you.”

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