Braves rally past Pirates, become first team to clinch MLB postseason berth in 2023

AP photo by Hakim Wright Sr. / Atlanta Braves mascot Blooper waves a flag celebrating the team clinching a playoff berth after Sunday's home win against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

ATLANTA — Being the first team in 2023 to clinch a spot in the Major League Baseball playoffs is far from the last item the Atlanta Braves have on their to-do list.

However, now that it's done — and with three weeks remaining in the regular season, notably early at that — they're looking ahead toward larger aims.

"I wanted to congratulate the guys, but our No. 1 goal coming out of spring training is to win the division," manager Brian Snitker said after the Braves rallied to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 on Sunday and improve to 93-49.

Atlanta currently has a three-game edge over the American League's Baltimore Orioles (90-52) for the best record in the majors. The team on top at the end of the regular season will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and that battle won't be settled soon.

The National League East race might be.

The Braves are five-time reigning champions in the division, and they have a 15-game lead over the second-place Philadelphia Phillies, who host Atlanta in a four-game series that starts with a day-night doubleheader Monday. If the Braves win three of four at Citizens Bank Park, they'll secure their 18th NL East title and 23rd division championship overall, adding to record hauls in both cases.

"It will be a tough four games in three days," Snitker said. "Their lineup is every bit as tough as ours."

The Phillies (78-64) lost two of three to the East's third-place Miami Marlins (74-69) over the weekend, but they sit atop the wild-card standings in the NL. Atlanta has won four of six games this season against Philadelphia, which ended the Braves' bid to repeat as World Series champions last fall when it eliminated them in the divisional round of the playoffs and then went on to win the NL pennant.

By securing a trip to the playoffs after 142 games, the Braves tied the 1975 Cincinnati Reds for the sixth-fewest games to clinch a postseason berth in a 162-game season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 1998 New York Yankees set the record by clinching after 135 games.

Atlanta reached the postseason for the sixth straight year, the second-longest streak in franchise history. The Braves won 11 straight NL East titles from 1995 to 2005.

"It's exciting to be a part of this team. It is going to be a fun end of the season," said Atlanta rookie pitcher Allan Winans, a 28-year-old right-hander who started Sunday's game.

Matt Olson went 2-for-3 with three RBIs in the series finale as the Braves bounced back from Saturday's 8-4 loss to take two of three games against the Pirates, and Ronald Acuña Jr. had a key two-out single to spark the seventh-inning rally and drove in two runs.

Brad Hand (4-1) won in relief of Winans, who allowed two runs and six hits while striking out eight batters in 6 1/3 innings. AJ Minter struck out the side in the eighth, and Raisel Iglesias pitched a scoreless ninth for his 29th save in 31 chances this season, his first as Atlanta's closer.

"He's been awesome," Snitker said of Winans, who has gone back and forth between nearby Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta. "I loved his demeanor. He slows the game down and has a lot of confidence in himself."

Pittsburgh reliever Colin Selby (2-1) gave up four runs in just one-third of an inning to take the loss. Rookie starter Luis Ortiz allowed one run and three hits in 5 1/3 innings against the highest-scoring offense in the majors. Atlanta's 821 runs are 28 more than the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers.

"He was very good," Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. "He attacked the zone. He went after the best lineup in baseball. Defensively, we played well behind him. We had an inning or two with some hard contact, made some plays. But overall, I thought he threw the ball really well."

Pittsburgh's Bryan Reynolds and Jake Suwinski had RBI doubles in the top of the sixth, and Olson's run-scoring groundout cut the deficit in the bottom half.

With the Braves trailing 2-1 in the seventh and chants of "M-V-P!" being heard across Truist Park, Acuña hit a two-run single over Suwinski that short-hopped the center-field wall. Olson followed with a two-run single.

"What Acuña is doing, what Olson is doing," Winans said. "It's just incredible."

Olson leads the majors with 48 home runs (four more than Shohei Ohtani of the AL's Los Angeles Angels) and 121 RBIs (18 more than the Houston Astros' Kyle Tucker). Acuña, with 35 homers and 64 stolen bases, has already become the first player in MLB history with a 30-60 season.

Entering the game, Atlanta and Pittsburgh had MLB's two longest active streaks of games with a home run. The Braves had homered in 20 straight and the Pirates in seven, but neither team managed to go deep this time.

Snitker wasn't complaining.

"That's a big step for our offense," the Braves manager said. "We don't live and die by the home run."

In the first game of Monday's doubleheader in Philadelphia, right-handers will start on the mound as the Braves give the ball to Charlie Morton (14-11, 3.32 ERA) and the Phillies counter with Tajuan Walker (15-5, 4.15). The Phillies will start right-hander Michael Lorenzen (8-9, 3.95) in the second game, but Atlanta had not announced a starter as of Sunday evening.