ATLANTA — Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman stood in his team's SunTrust Park locker room for a final time this season Monday night, trying hard to accept that the Braves indeed had been ousted from the playoffs thanks to a 6-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"We didn't win the World Series," he said somewhat sourly. "It's a lost season in my book."
He then quickly added, as if he knew he needed to soften those words: "Overall, I thought winning the division set up a good start for what's going to happen in the future."
Sunday night was Braves baseball at its best. A historic grand slam from the regal rookie Ronald Acuna Jr., who became the youngest player in history (20) to smash a postseason grand slam. The oft-injured closer Arodys Vizcaino striking out three straight in the ninth after he'd allowed two Dodgers to reach base to begin the inning. A record crowd in two-year-old SunTrust Park to watch it all unfold, complete with fireworks to light up the sky both before and after the victory.
The Braves' Monday performance against the Dodgers?
Not so good.
And considering the chief reason for that eventual 6-2 loss — pitching, or lack thereof — one wonders if this team is on the verge of returning to greatness or was merely, at least somewhat, the beneficiary of a really weak National League East Division this year.
Even Braves skipper Brian Snitker in referring to the eight home runs the Dodgers hit and 20 runs they scored in four games, "We're not built like that yet."
This is in no way meant to diminish Atlanta's 90 regular-season wins against 72 defeats. Those numbers were an exact reversal of the 72-90 record in 2017. Those numbers should earn Snitker NL Manager of the Year and Acuna NL Rookie of the Year.
Beyond that, in 2019 the youngest team in big-league baseball will be a year older, wiser and better prepared to deal with the ups and downs of a 162-game schedule and another possible playoff run.
"I have a great sense of the future," Snitker said. "I think it's very bright. This season was a huge step forward."
And it surely was. When you haven't been to the postseason since 2013 and you win your division, however weak, by eight full games, you've come a long way.
After all, the wise guys in Las Vegas picked the Braves before the season to win 74.5. Round that off and they won 15 north of that, as well as 18 more than a year ago.
But while they often rose to the occasion when most needed — such as a late-season four-game sweep of Philadelphia in the final home stand of the year — there was also that weekend when the visiting Colorado Rockies swept four straight from the Braves inside SunTrust, Atlanta blowing ninth-inning leads in two of those four defeats.
Such bullpen meltdowns didn't exactly prove the difference against the Dodgers. It never really came to that. But for Atlanta to return to the World Series for the first time since 1999, it needs to dramatically improve a bullpen that blew 20 saves.
Nor does the starting pitching exactly call to mind the Hall of Fame trio of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. Yes, the Braves were fifth in the NL. That's acceptable, but the lack of a No. 1 starter isn't. You look at the Dodgers and at least two or three pitchers — Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, even Game 4 starter Rich Hill — look like a near-certain win every time out. Who inspires such confidence on these Braves?
Then again, as Game 4 starter Mike Foltynewicz said Monday with the kind of positivity athletes often project: "We're pretty legit. We have a group of guys, even in the minors, that are ready, too. We're really close. We have the right group here. We just all as a pitching staff have to clean up the walks."
Perhaps he's right. Maybe they really are just a year away, or as Snitker noted, "We have some really good young players. Really excited about this nucleus."
Added Freeman: "It's hard to put into words right now, because we just got knocked out of the postseason 20 minutes ago. But a lot of people did a lot of great things this year. I think you're going to see the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs for a lot of years."
A half a stadium away, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts agreed.
Without being asked, he volunteered his thoughts on Atlanta moving forward, words to warm the hearts of Braves Nation on the cold nights before spring training arrives.
"We're going to have to deal with those guys," he said, "in the future."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.