With about a dozen games remaining in the MLB’s grueling 162-game season, the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a familiar position. Although it seemed implausible for most of the summer, the Braves sit in first place in the National League East.
The Braves entered the 2021 season having won three consecutive division titles and were expected to four-peat as division champions. But to the fans’ consternation, their performance for most of the year has not resembled a ball club accustomed to winning.
After a mediocre start, the Braves’ record stood at 25-26 by the end of May. While there was still plenty of baseball left to be played, Manager Brian Snitker had to shake up the lineup after star outfielder Marcell Ozuna was arrested on May 29 on domestic violence charges, jeopardizing his future not only with the Braves but in baseball.
Following a dull June, the Braves’ other star outfielder, Ronald Acuña Jr., suffered a season-ending ACL tear on July 10. This devastating injury made it even more difficult for the team to muster the firepower needed to ascend in the standings, finishing July one game under .500.
While the possibility of securing a playoff spot appeared up in the air, it was by no means unfeasible due to the overall weakness of the National League East division. But without Ozuna and Acuña Jr., other players needed to step up and provide a spark.
The Braves would rely on stellar production from reigning National League MVP first baseman Freddie Freeman and All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies, both of whom rank in the top 15 in National League hits, home runs and runs.
While Freeman and Albies have been integral to the Braves’ late-season success, the story of the year has been third baseman Austin Riley who does not get the credit he deserves. Riley has been one of the consistent bats in the lineup and has arguably been the Braves’ 2021 MVP. Although he got snubbed from the All-Star Game, he used it as motivation, establishing himself as one of the best third basemen in the big leagues. Riley ranks fourth in hits, tenth in home runs, sixth in RBIs and seventh in batting average in the National League. When he’s not coming up clutch at the plate, he’s making diving stops in the field and showing off his cannon of an arm at third base.
With dangerous hitters in their lineup to compensate for average pitching, the Braves would finally rise above .500 for the first time this year on Aug. 5. Amid a hot mess in their division with the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies also hovering near .500, the Braves were poised to separate themselves from the pack. A much-needed winning streak came between Aug. 13 to 22 when the Braves won nine games in a row, finishing the month with a 70-61 record atop the division.
While the month of September is still young, the Braves have been able to hold onto first place, likely securing them a spot in the postseason next month. Four teams from both the National League and American League qualify for the postseason, with the three division leaders and the winner of a single elimination wild card game rounding out the field.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have already qualified for the wild card game, but their opponent is still undecided. If the season ended today, the winner of the wild card game would advance to a best-of-five series against the dominant San Francisco Giants, an opponent the Braves could evade by not qualifying for the playoffs via wild card. Thus, to be in the best position for the playoffs, the Braves would need to win their division, which would pit them against the Milwaukee Brewers in a slightly more winnable best-of-five, then worry about the Giants or Dodgers later.