• Exclusives

    Waiting on a Familiar Foe as NLCS Approaches

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A gray T-shirt caught my eye in the pile of laundry sitting by the washing machine Friday afternoon, one I hadn’t noticed in a while, one my kid wore this week.

    On it is emblazoned the logo of the final season at Turner Field, with the caption, “final game Oct. 2, 2016.” As I loaded the washer, I thought about Freddie Freeman’s words the day before, moments after the Atlanta Braves clinched its first berth in the NL Championship Series in 19 years. Freeman talked about how different things were now, the three-time NL East champion moving on to play for the pennant in its deepest October penetration since 2001.

    It’s been quite the ride the past few years. Indeed, Freddie, how far we’ve come.

    Five wins down and eight to go in this crazy, expanded postseason, capping a season that started with the real worry that we wouldn’t reach the finish line. But here it is, an October where the Braves are playing into the middle of the month, four little wins from the World Series.

    Those four little wins won’t come easy, of course. Make no mistake, the Dodgers are quite the jump in competition from the Reds or Marlins. That’s not to diminish either squad Atlanta vanquished, because they found a way to make the playoffs in this upside-down season.

    All 30 teams played in this environment; 16 of them got at least a taste of playoff baseball (more than I prefer under normal circumstances, but we can discuss this winter). Whichever teams wins this World Series title will have earned it in a way that no champion has before, and we hope with everything we have that no champion ever has to again. I’d say that if the Braves had cleaned out their lockers on Sept. 28. I’ll say that if the Dodgers, Rays or (puke) Astros lift what Rob Manfred affectionally calls, “a piece of metal.”

    The pandemic robbed my hometown of hosting the Final Four this spring, but baseball’s Final Four is set. A few random items to opine about as I watch Georgia pull away from Tennessee on this fine Saturday evening, some 48 hours or so before the Braves and Dodgers meet in Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Ah, The Dreaded Blue Menace: So we meet again, the first team I learned to loathe. In the words of Sophia from the Golden Girls TV show (Google it, kids), “picture it. Atlanta. 1982.” A 13-0 start under new manager Joe Torre. A 2-19 stretch in late summer to tighten the old NL West between the upstart Braves and the defending world champions from L.A.

    The race ended on the final day of the season, the Braves losing in San Diego before Joe Morgan’s homer lifted the Giants over the Dodgers at Candlestick Park. That whole season was captured in a great documentary by TBS called, “It’s a Long Way to October,” which I watched during the early weeks of the lockdown. It’s worth your time, especially if early 80s baseball is before your time.

    Party Like It’s 1982: A clip from “It’s a Long Way to October,” from the final day of the 1982 regular season.

    Nine years later, the Braves trailed the Dodgers by 9 ½ games at the All-Star break before catching fire. You know the rest of the story: the Miracle Braves going from worst to first, beating out the Dodgers for the West crown before knocking out Pittsburgh in the NLCS to clinch their first World Series berth since coming to Atlanta. The division race ended with the Braves beating Houston on the final Saturday of the season, then famously gathering on the infield and watching on the big screen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as the Giants (again!) knocked out the Dodgers to clinch the division title.

    The 1991 team is my favorite sports team of all time. I covered a week of spring training in 2006 for The Brunswick (Ga.) News, and I wrote a story on the 15-year anniversary of the 1991 team. Talking to Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, John Smoltz and Bobby Cox took me back to being an 18-year-old kid who watched every pitch of that pennant race. Of all the stories I wrote during my newspaper career, that’s one of my absolute favorites.

    The Miracle Season: The Atlanta Braves stunned the world by winning the NL pennant and reaching the World Series in 1991.

    Under Pressure: The Braves won their World Series title in 1995, four years after the 1991 team stunned the world. It snapped a 38-year drought for the franchise, or six years longer than the Dodgers current streak without a world title. Every time I see the replay of Kirk Gibson’s famous homer in Game 1 of the 1988 Series, my first thought is, “how have the Dodgers went this long without winning it all?”

    If there’s pressure based on expectations in the NLCS, it’s solely on Los Angeles. The Braves did what they needed to do: they made amends for last fall’s disaster against the Cardinals and won the NLDS, they snapped the playoff series losing streak, they’ve made it as far as they have in nearly two decades.

    The Dodgers? Not so much. World Series losses in 2017 and 2018, followed by a stunning NLDS upset by Washington a year ago. Pandemic and short season notwithstanding, the Dodgers are expected to win the pennant and the world championship. Just something to watch if the Braves win one or two of the first three games (which, not to give away too much, is absolutely critical to Atlanta’s pennant hopes).

    The Right Moves: There are times where Brian Snitker’s tactical decisions drive me crazy – the Patrick Weigel debut followed by Charlie Culberson on the mound this season is one example. With that said, I am a huge fan of the way he handles the clubhouse. There’s no denying his love for the organization, and him getting to manage in the World Series after 4 1/2 decades with the Braves would be amazing.

    There have been plenty of Braves who have enjoyed a fantastic postseason. Snitker’s name belongs right at the top of the list. He’s been aggressive with his bullpen and stuck with a lineup that’s done enough to get Atlanta through two rounds. I’d say if the Braves win the World Series he would retire, but I honestly think Snit enjoys this bunch so much, he’d come back even if he and his team win a ring.

    That Ring, It’s the Thing: Look how that previous sentence ended.

    Win a ring.

    That’s why teams play, to win the World Series. These Braves are eight wins away, the closest they’ve been since 2001.

    Can you believe it? Absolutely.

    Can they take the next step? Stay tuned.

    Coming Sunday: Five keys to the Braves/Dodgers series, who wins and why.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.