For a decade, the path to the National League pennant almost always went through Atlanta. Of the 10 N.L. Championship Series from 1991 through 2001, the Braves played in nine. They went all the way just once, in 1995, but they were N.L. royalty.
And then it stopped. From 2002 through last season, the Braves dropped eight division series and also lost a wild-card game. October futility had come to define them, as their general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, learned early in his tenure, during a dinner in town.
“I sat at the counter and just kind of put my head down, and I remember someone was talking about sports teams,” he said this week. “There was a lady behind the counter, and someone said, ‘The Braves are having a great year,’ and she goes, ‘Yeah, but they always lose in the playoffs.’
“And she was right, but I remember it really bothering me. I was like, ‘I hate that that’s the narrative.’”
In his first two seasons in Atlanta, though, Anthopoulos’s teams only reinforced the story. The Braves won the N.L. East in 2018 and 2019, then predictably fell flat. Last fall, with a chance to clinch their division series at home against St. Louis, they gave up 10 runs in the first inning.
Now the Braves cannot lose, and they are headed to the N.L.C.S. after finishing a three-game sweep of the Miami Marlins on Thursday with a 7-0 victory in Houston. It was Atlanta’s fourth shutout in five games this postseason, after two against the Cincinnati Reds in the first round.
“We flipped the script,” said Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ longtime first baseman. “Everyone was talking about our offense, and now everyone’s going to be talking about our pitching — which is great, because they deserve it.”
The Braves finished one run behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the major league lead in scoring this season. Freeman is a leading candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award, and a cast of dynamic hitters — including Ronald Acuna Jr., Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud — surrounds him. For most of the season, the pitchers needed all the support they could get from that potent lineup.
The Braves ranked 28th out of 30 teams this season in starters’ earned run average, at 5.51 — but most of the time it was worse than that. Only Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson made more than five starts, and in the 35 games started by others, the rotation was torched for a 7.97 E.R.A.
The staff ace, Mike Soroka, tore an Achilles’ tendon in August. The former All-Star Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment. The veteran Felix Hernandez opted out of the pandemic-shortened season, and several journeymen and fading prospects failed to stick.
The Braves had hoped that by October they would have Cole Hamels, the most valuable player of the 2008 World Series, to stabilize the rotation. But Hamels, who signed a one-year, $18 million deal last December, struggled with a shoulder problem in spring training, and a recurrence ended his season after one start in September.
In other words, the Braves were not likely to become the second team, after the 1905 New York Giants, to spin four shutouts in its first five games of a postseason. But they have done it, and not because Christy Mathewson tossed three by himself.
“That’s tough to do in any league — and it was everybody, you didn’t have just a dominant couple of guys,” Braves Manager Brian Snitker said. “It was an entire team full of pitchers doing this. They should be proud of themselves; that’s an unbelievable accomplishment.”
Fried fired seven shutout innings against the Reds, and Anderson worked six. After a 9-5 victory in Game 1 against the Marlins, Anderson blanked them for five and two-thirds innings on Wednesday, and Wright did it for six on Thursday. A deep and versatile bullpen took care of the rest.
The starters’ success has validated their advanced billing. Fried, Anderson and Wright were all top 10 draft picks: Fried by San Diego in 2012 (he was traded to Atlanta two years later for Justin Upton), and Anderson and Wright by the Braves. But while Fried has excelled for two seasons — he is 24-6 since the start of 2019 — the others are just now proving themselves.
Wright was demoted to the Braves’ alternate site after four starts this season, and a month ago his E.R.A. was 8.05. He rediscovered his confidence, and his stuff, just in time.
“It was just me putting unnecessary pressure on myself to make the perfect pitch and get the swing and miss,” Wright said. “For me, when I got sent down, it was simplifying everything and attacking the zone. We have one of the best defenses you’re going to see, so just trust my stuff and pitch.”
Anderson, 22, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his debut against the Yankees in August. He did not throw a changeup when the Braves drafted him from Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., but he learned it in the minors and has made it his best pitch, to go with a fastball and curve. He has reason to be self-assured.
“His first start in the big leagues, he was just sitting at his locker talking to anybody that walked by,” Freeman said. “Most guys have headphones on, not really talking to anybody, trying to get in a zone. You could just tell the maturity Ian had when he first walked into that clubhouse, so what he’s doing in the postseason doesn’t surprise any of us.”
The challenge will be greater in the N.L.C.S. The Dodgers, who swept their division series against the San Diego Padres, will be far more imposing than the Braves’ playoff opponents so far: The Reds and the Marlins both scored fewer runs than the average N.L. teams this season.
But in a postseason of busting narratives and flipping scripts, the Braves will take their chances as a new group chases a spot in the World Series.
“It’s just amazing, since 2001, we’ve finally gotten past this point,” Freeman said. “A lot of these guys don’t know much of the history in that clubhouse, but now we get to start our own.”