Wiedmer: Braves write a heavenly ending to a formerly hellish season

AP photo by Sue Ogrocki / The Atlanta Braves celebrate after winning the World Series on Tuesday night against the Houston Astros.

Atlanta Braves chairman Terry McGuirk was holding the World Series trophy the team had just won Tuesday night in Houston against the Astros when he said of the organization's first world championship since 1995: "We had a couple of angels watching over us - Henry Aaron and Phil Niekro."

A half-hour or so later, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker added, "There's a lot of bragging going on in heaven right now," before referring to Aaron, Niekro, former Braves announcer Don Sutton and former team chairman Bill Bartholomay, who first brought the franchise from Milwaukee to Atlanta in the 1960s. All four Braves giants have passed away within the past two years.

(Here at the Times Free Press, we're certain that a couple of our late brethren, lifelong Braves followers David Jenkins and Stump Martin, were right there with the Hammer, Knucksie, Bartholomay and Sutton in cheering home the Bravos.)

If nothing else, this most pleasant and unexpected of October (and November) surprises certainly delivered a heavenly ending to what figured to be remembered as a hellish season as late as early August.

Before winning 36 of their final 55 games - supposedly the best finishing kick in Major League Baseball's 2021 regular season - the Braves couldn't climb above .500 until the first week of the final summer month. It was the longest such stretch of mediocrity ever for any prior World Series winner.

But then left-hander Max Fried began to pitch like an All-Star, if not a future National Baseball Hall of Famer. Third baseman Austin Riley, seen as possible trade bait a year ago, found himself in MVP consideration. The outfield quartet that genius general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired at the trade deadline - Adam Duvall, Joc "Duke of Pearl" Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler - looked like the best pickup since some guy named Ruth went from the Red Sox to the Yankees.

photo AP photo by David J. Phillip / Atlanta Braves starter Max Fried walks into the dugout after pitching six scoreless innings against the Houston Astros on Tuesday night in Game 6 of the World Series.

"It changed the clubhouse," shortstop Dansby Swanson said of his GM's acquisitions. "It lifted us, gave us energy. It brought us closer together."

It eventually made them World Series champs, which prompted this question from a friend on Wednesday afternoon: "Which of the Braves' world championships was more fun: 1995 or 2021?"

For me, that's easy, and not because the 2021 title is less than 48 hours old.

The 1995 Braves were first or burst. They'd reached the Fall Classic in 1991 as Cinderfella, a worst-to-first fairytale that lasted until the 10th inning of Game 7 before falling 1-0 to the Minnesota Twins. They returned there a year later before falling to the Toronto Blue Jays, a run that ended with an 11-inning loss in Game 6. Come 1993, they went 55-19 down the stretch to nip the San Francisco Giants by a single win - 104 to 103 - and earn their third straight National League West Division crown before moving to the NL East the following year during realignment. They didn't get to the World Series again, though, because the Philadelphia Phillies nipped them in the National League Championship Series.

But the point is that after the strike cut short the 1994 season, the only way the Braves could appease an increasingly edgy fan base was to win it all, which they did.

Though this year's model began the season with similarly high hopes after going down in seven games in last fall's NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1988, any distant dream of topping that was dashed when No. 1 pitcher Mike Soroka was lost to another Achilles' tendon injury in late June (having never pitched this season) and All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. - at the time considered an MVP candidate - blew out his knee in mid-July. These Braves were going nowhere fast until mid-August, their one tangible slender ray of hope the fact that even with that 51-54 record in early August, their offense was outscoring opponents for the season.

photo AP photo by Sue Ogrocki / Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Will Smith and catcher Travis d'Arnaud celebrate Tuesday night in Houston after the team beat the Astros 7-0 to win the World Series in six games.

So now that they've won it all for the first time in 26 years, what can GM Anthopoulos do for an encore?

For starters, re-sign free agent Freddie Freeman, and not just because he was the 2020 season's NL MVP or just because he hit five postseason homers this year, the same as Fred McGriff in 1995. No, these two postgame quotes from Tuesday night are why you lock down Freeman for the remainder of his career.

First, from McGuirk: "The character of the man comes first. That's what leads our team as a person and in the clubhouse. Freddie is a very, very special guy. We value him so highly."

Second, from Snitker, who's both former manager Bobby Cox 2.0, but also a warmer, fuzzier version of the Hall of Fame skipper: "I don't know what I would do without (Freeman). He's my rock."

That "rock" rolled when it mattered most in this postseason. Even in a locker room overflowing with high-character players - Anthopoulos said in July of his belief in the Braves Way: "I don't know if I'll ever find the perfect blend, but my default is always to go with high-character good guys" - Freeman has always stood out. He may not always be a consistent contributor at the plate, but he's as consistent in demeanor, behavior and decency as sunrise and sunset.

And after the Braves GM wraps that up, he should sign at least two, and preferably three, of the trade deadline foursome of Duvall, Pederson, Rosario and Soler, doing it as soon as possible while their giddiness over this World Series is fresh in their minds.

So will Atlanta repeat? Is this the end or the beginning for the sweetest Braves run in a quarter-century?

Nothing is certain these days, but it feels like 1991 all over again, when Atlanta went on to rule the final decade of the 20th century in everything but World Series titles, winning once while finishing second on four other occasions.

Not that that's what seems to be in the champions' plans right now.

As they celebrated in Houston's Minute Maid Park, Tuesday night rolling into Wednesday morning, champagne bubbles mixing with cigar smoke, Acuña grabbed Freeman and pulled him close.

"We did it!" Acuña shouted, according to ESPN. "We did it!"

Replied Freeman, "Doing it with you next year."

After what they did without him this year, how can they not?

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.