Choke? These Braves roared, all the way to an 'improbable' World Series title

·5-min read

HOUSTON — His teammates were out of the dugout, whooping and waving their arms, before Jorge Soler was even out of the batter’s box. With two on and two out in the third inning, Luis Garcia threw Soler a 3-2 cutter that was crushed so definitively that the pitcher didn’t even turn around to look where it went. He just hung his head along with a stadium full of Astros fans as the ball traveled 446 feet — out of the playing field, over the seats in left, over the train tracks that loom over Minute Maid Field, clear out of the ballpark and into the early November night. A true no-doubter.

That put the Atlanta Braves up 3-0 over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night. After that, there was very little reason to doubt that the worst team to make the postseason this year would walk away with the World Series title. The Braves danced in the dirt along the third-base side again when Dansby Swanson hit a two-run home run 411 feet and when Freddie Freeman hit a solo shot 416 feet. There was very little reason to doubt that they would get it done as Braves scored over half a dozen unanswered runs en route to a 7-0 victory in Game 6 to clinch the championship.

But if you’re an Atlanta sports fan, probably the doubts were there until the team danced on the diamond itself after Swanson fielded a ground ball and threw it to Freeman, who immediately pocketed it, for the final out.

All fan bases think their particular pain is unique — and in the craggy details of specific disappointments, it is — but there are two main flavors: the misery that comes from not having hope, and the heartbreak when high expectations come crashing down. Abject incompetence or wasted greatness. No chance, or knowing they could’ve done it.

When you consider that 29 teams go home without a trophy every year, the latter certainly seems preferable — or at least more fun to watch. But each coulda-been-a-champion that comes up short is a wasted window. Perpetual contention is a largely unmet ideal in sports. The journey from offseason to postseason is long and unpredictable for even the best-built teams. Spring puts everyone back at the bottom of the mountain no matter how far they make it in October, trying not to wonder whether they wasted their best shot at a ring.

For so long now, that has been the story for Braves fans. Sixteen trips to the postseason had ended in early exits as talented players came and went and an entire stadium in Atlanta never hosted a winning World Series game. All those years of losing when it mattered most forged a fan base — or at least a narrative — that latched onto a blown 3-1 NLCS lead in 2020 and wrapped it together with the Atlanta Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl to tell a story of a city that never got too comfortable. Another way to put it is that Atlanta always chokes.

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 02:  Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves celebrates after catching the final out to defeat the Houston Game 6 to clinch the 2021 World Series at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday, November 2, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Freddie Freeman raises his arms with joy as the Braves clinch a World Series title. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The 2021 Braves subverted that by getting off to a sluggish start. They were swept in the first series of the season and went on to spend 101 games below .500. Along with losing games, the Braves lost their entire outfield, including superstar Ronald Acuña, Jr., who suffered a torn knee ligament attempting what would have been a heroic catch on July 10.

They lost that game, too, pushing them into third place in an NL East that looked eminently up for the taking. Which is maybe why president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos immediately set to work augmenting his sub-.500 club to turn it into a contender. Less than a week after losing Acuña, the Braves brought in Joc Pederson. Before the trade deadline at the end of the month, they’d also acquire Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and Soler. Moves made, if we’re being honest, out of desperation but also hope. They paid off better than anyone could have expected. Three months later, Rosario would be the NLCS MVP and Soler would be the World Series MVP.

Atlanta’s hapless first half belies a talented roster — every member of the infield hit at least 25 home runs while playing practically every day — that proceeded to play at a 107-win pace from August on. And if you could quell the doubts and ignore the demons, the postseason was practically a romp. The team that had been cursed with October eliminations never even played a game with their season on the line. It just didn’t feel that way to Braves fans.

If you’re primed for pain, even six shutout innings from an ace is a nerve-racking affair. Max Fried pitched the game of his life after taking spikes to his ankle in the first inning. It’s part of a new Braves modus operandi: put the panic-inducing stuff first and then cruise to the finish line.

“This year, it was improbable,” Freeman said after what will be either his final game in a Braves uniform or just the high point of the first part of his career in Atlanta, depending on what the front office decides to do with the stalwart star who has expressed an overwhelming desire to stay with the club.

Championship seasons always are, though. It’s so much easier to lose than it is to win. Which means even the good teams — the ones that win their division four years in a row — have to weather gut-wrenching disappointments and still want to do it all again for a chance to have it go differently. That’s not a curse or bad luck, it’s baseball.

The ball Freeman put in his pocket? He plans to give it to his skipper, Brian Snitker. The Braves lifer and longtime minor-league coach who spent decades waiting for it all to pay off is perhaps better equipped than anyone else to explain what it takes to keep coming back.

“Probably you can't visualize doing anything else,” Snitker said. “You just keep fighting the fight and grinding through because you never know.”

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