MILWAUKEE — Freddie Freeman and the Atlanta Braves left spring training with high hopes after winning three straight National League East Division titles. Then All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. tore the ACL in his right knee, and it fell on the front office to get underwhelming Atlanta the help it needed.
The Braves hadn't been above .500 all season when general manager Alex Anthopoulos essentially acquired an entirely new outfield at the trade deadline in late July. Those moves helped Atlanta surge to another division crown — the team's 21st overall, the most in MLB history — and an NL Division Series matchup against the Milwaukee Brewers that starts Friday.
"Getting those pieces kind of just gave us that boost of energy to make it," said Freeman, Atlanta's veteran first baseman who was the NL MVP last year and this season earned his fifth MLB All-Star Game selection.
The Brewers, who benefited from their own roster adjustments to win the NL Central, will have home-field advantage for the best-of-five series as a higher seed. Milwaukee hosts the first two games, at 4:37 p.m. Eastern on Friday and 5:07 p.m. Saturday, with both televised by TBS.
Whether it was Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler to the Braves, or Willy Adames to Milwaukee, both clubs had to shake up their fortunes by changing the lineups in order to punch a fourth consecutive playoff ticket.
"Both teams have made additions that have helped their respective teams," said David Stearns, the Brewers' president of baseball operations. "We started a little bit earlier than most teams in making some of those decisions and some of those acquisitions."
Milwaukee was below .500 when it acquired Adames from the Tampa Bay Rays on May 21. The Brewers went 74-44 after the shortstop's arrival. Adames batted .285 with 20 home runs, 58 RBIs and an .886 on-base plus slugging percentage, leading the team with 3.9 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs, despite playing just 99 games after being traded by the reigning American League champions who are the AL's top seed for the playoffs.
"I don't think I did anything crazy or anything special," Adames said. "I just come to the field every day just to play the game the right way, just to have fun and enjoy this because this is what we live for."
Rowdy Tellez came over from the Toronto Blue Jays and provided the Brewers stability at first base. Hunter Strickland, designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels, became a key part of Milwaukee's bullpen. Eduardo Escobar arrived just before the trade deadline and is one of the Brewers' top hitters.
The Braves didn't seem to have any major holes in the lineup until their entire opening day outfield fell apart. Promising rookie center fielder Cristian Pache struggled at the plate and got hurt, left fielder Marcell Ozuna was arrested on assault charges in late May after an altercation with his wife and hasn't returned, and Acuña injured his knee in early July to end his season.
"We were just treading water all year, kind of playing .500, couple games under .500 all year," Freeman recalled.
Pederson was the first reinforcement, acquired from the Chicago Cubs on July 15. Two weeks later, Anthopoulos added three more outfielders: Duvall from the Miami Marlins (after playing the past three years for Atlanta), Soler from the Kansas City Royals and Eddie Rosario from the Cleveland Indians.
Duvall and Soler have been especially productive, with Duvall clubbing 16 homers and Soler adding 14 in 55 games each down the stretch. That helped Atlanta go 36-19 after July 31.
"We've been mixing and matching all year," Freeman said. "It's been an absolute grind. I think that's what's so special about it this year is because I felt like we've been grinding all year, trying to figure it out."
This series is expected to feature the Braves' potent lineup facing the Brewers' exceptional rotation.
Atlanta has three of the NL's top four RBI producers in Duvall (113), Austin Riley (107) and Ozzie Albies (106), while Freeman led the NL by scoring 120 runs.
Milwaukee struck out an MLB-leading 1,618 batters with a rotation studded with All-Star right-handers Corbin Burnes (11-5, 2.43 ERA), Brandon Woodruff (9-10, 2.56) and Freddy Peralta (10-5, 2.81).
Burnes will start the opener against veteran Charlie Morton (14-6, 3.34) for the Braves. Burnes gave up five runs in four innings when he most recently faced the Braves on July 30, though the Brewers still won 9-5.
Morton is 7-3 with a 3.38 ERA in 13 career postseason appearances. He pitched 10 2/3 scoreless innings for Tampa Bay in last year's AL Championship Series.
"It's nice to know that I've been in these spots," Morton said. "It's reassuring because the unknown is really what gets you in life."
The Brewers are adapting their bullpen to account for the absence of setup man Devin Williams, the 2020 NL rookie of the year who fractured his throwing hand when he punched a wall the night Milwaukee clinched the division title last month.
Milwaukee does appear to have the edge at closer. All-Star left-hander Josh Hader converted 34 of 35 save opportunities and posted a 1.23 ERA with 102 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings for the Brewers during the regular season. Atlanta's Will Smith went 37-of-43 on save opportunities and had a 3.44 ERA.
Smith was with the Brewers from 2014-16, one of the connections between the Brewers and Braves, who will be facing off in a postseason series for the first time.
The Braves played in Milwaukee from 1953-65 — winning the World Series in 1957 and the NL pennant the following — before moving to Atlanta.
Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron, who died Jan. 22 at the age of 86, played for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954-65 before joining them in Atlanta and hitting his record 715th career homer in 1974. The Braves traded Aaron to the Brewers in 1975, and he played in Milwaukee that season and the next before retiring with 755 homers.
The series shifts to Atlanta for Game 3 on Monday, and Game 4 would also be played there if necessary. Milwaukee would host again if the series goes the distance.
Notably, both teams fared better on the road than at home during the regular season. The Braves were 46-35 away and 42-38 at home, with the Brewers 50-31 away and 45-36 at home.