For just the fourth time in franchise history and for the first time since 1995, the Atlanta Braves are World Series champions.
While the Braves began the 2021 season with high hopes after a devastating loss in last year’s NLCS, their run to the title was a little unexpected. After all, Atlanta didn’t even have a winning record this season until August. The Braves also had fewer wins during the regular season than the nine other teams in the playoffs. In other words, this was not the season that anybody with the Braves would have drawn up before the season. However, it finished the way they wanted, so how exactly did the Braves win the World Series in 2021?
Of course, Atlanta’s journey to the World Series began last winter. The Braves headed into last offseason wounded after letting a 3-1 lead against the Dodgers in the NLCS slip away. But after coming so close to reaching the World Series, they were undeterred and got to work quickly.
In November, the Braves signed three free-agent pitchers, most notably Charlie Morton, who had been a huge part of Houston’s rotation in recent years and won a World Series with the Astros in 2017. Atlanta also added Josh Tomlin and Drew Smyly to fortify a pitching staff that’s filled with young, blossoming stars.
When it came to adding to their lineup, it took the Braves until early February to make a big move. Knowing that their lineup was lacking at least one big power bat, the Braves re-signed Marcell Ozuna to a four-year deal. Ozuna hit .338 with a 1.067 OPS during the 60-game season in 2020, and so the Braves knew that they couldn’t afford to lose him from their lineup if they were going to compete in 2021.
Slow out of the gate
Atlanta’s season got off to a frustrating start with the Braves losing their first four games of the season. Granted, Atlanta won four in a row to quickly get back to .500. But that was followed by another four-game losing streak.
About halfway through the Braves were at .4 percent to win World Series. That’s 250-1! https://t.co/NKXrLWxVVH
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 3, 2021
The month of April ended with the Braves 12-14 and never being able to get over the .500 mark. April also saw the Braves place Smyly and Max Fried on the IL. That’s on top of would-be ace Mike Soroka, who never pitched in 2021 after re-injuring the Achilles he tore in 2020.
Let the bad times roll
The month of May brought even more misfortune for the Braves. The biggest blow came when Ozuna was placed on the IL after breaking multiple fingers. A few days later, Ozuna would be arrested on domestic violence charges, effectively ending his season right then and there while putting his baseball future in jeopardy.
Atlanta’s pitching staff, already without Soroka, suffered another big loss in May when Huascar Ynoa was placed on the IL after breaking his hand. At the time, Ynoa was 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA and appeared to be an important part of the rotation moving forward, especially with the Braves missing other starters.
The injuries continued to pile up through May with Guillermo Heredia, Cristian Pache, Alex Jackson, and Travis d’Arnaud all going on the IL in either May or June. With both Jackson and d’Arnaud hurt, the Braves had to dig deep into their organization depth for catching help. Atlanta also saw Fried return to the IL for a second time this season, further hurting the team’s rotation depth.
The rise from rock bottom
On the eve of the all-star break, Atlanta’s season appeared to be all but over. For starters, the Braves climbed back to .500 and 44-44, only to lose the final game before the break to slip below the .500 mark yet again. More importantly, the team lost star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. to a torn ACL that ended his season. Before the injury, Acuna had been hitting .283 with an OPS of .990, potentially putting him in the MVP race.
With everything that had gone wrong during the first half of the season, the injury to Acuna could have been an insurmountable loss for the Braves. It didn’t help that they kept bouncing back and forth between wins and losses for the rest of July after the all-star break. During the second part of the month, the Braves never won back-to-back games, failing to gain any traction or get above .500.
No Ronald Acuña.
No Mike Soroka.
No Marcell Ozuna.
No Charlie Morton at the end.
It felt like a lost year at times.
Enjoy every single second of this, Braves fans. You never know when the next time will be.
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) November 3, 2021
However, the front office didn’t give up on the Braves. Rather than give up on the season, the team pulled off a series of bold moves before the trade deadline. The entire outfield was overhauled with the Braves parting ways with longtime center fielder Ender Inciarte while also trading for Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall, and Jorge Soler. The Braves also traded for reliever Richard Rodriguez to give their bullpen a boost.
Those moves paid immediate dividends for the Braves, who won four of their first five games in August, finally going above .500 for the first time on August 5. In the middle of the month, the Braves went 9-0 on a road trip against the Nationals, Marlins, and Orioles, going from two games under .500 after losing on August 1 to 12 games over .500 at the end of the road trip on August 22. It was a swift turnaround that was also unlikely based on Atlanta’s play during the first half of the season. Yet, it put the Braves in the driver’s seat to return to the playoffs.
A little help from friends
Of course, Atlanta’s turnaround wouldn’t have been possible without some outside help. The Braves benefitted from their division rivals all having disappointing seasons. The Marlins failed to maintain momentum after reaching the playoffs in 2020. Washington’s triumvirate of pitchers that led them to the 2019 World Series championship faltered. The Phillies also underachieved amidst injuries and a lack of pitching depth.
Finally, the Mets deserve almost as much credit as the Braves for Atlanta’s turnaround. New York spent a majority of the season atop the NL East, spending more than 100 days in first place. However, the Mets failed to build a substantial lead in May, June, and July while the Braves and others were sputtering. As a result, the Braves were still within striking distance in late July, inspiring them to make the trades that turned their season around.
After going 18-8 in August, the NL East was Atlanta’s for the taking. Despite enduring some ups and downs, the Braves won 12 of their last 15 games to close out the regular season, clinching the NL East for the fourth straight year, setting up a date with the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS.
• 1st round pick
• top Rockies prospect
• developed case of yips and anxiety
• out of baseball
• released by White Sox, Mariners, D-Backs
• 2 seasons with Texas AirHogs (Independent League)
He's now a World Series champion. pic.twitter.com/nW4zDuPcj4
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 3, 2021
Following a 2-1 loss in Game 1 of the NLDS, Atlanta’s pitching took over, orchestrating back-to-back shutout victories and taking Game 4 of the series 5-4 to win the series and reach the NLCS for the second straight season. In a fitting twist, the Braves got their rematch with the Dodgers in the NLCS. After letting a 3-1 series lead get away from them last year, the Braves took the first two games of the series in dramatic fashion, eking out a 3-2 win in Game 1 and a 5-4 win in Game 2.
After a 9-2 win in Game 4, the Dodgers were back where they were a year ago, leading Los Angeles 3-1. The Dodgers put some fear in Atlanta with an 11-2 win in Game 5, sending the series back to Atlanta. But the Braves stood tall, getting another strong performance from their bullpen in a 4-2 win in Game 6 to close out the NLCs and return to the World Series for the first time since 1999.
Win it all
Pitching and power turned out to be Atlanta’s formula in the 2021 World Series against the Astros. The teams split the first two games of the series before Atlanta seized control at home with a 2-0 win in Game 3 and a 3-2 win in Game 4. With Morton leaving Game 1 with a broken leg, the Braves leaned heavily on their bullpen, getting great performances from the likes of Kyle Wright, Tyler Matzek, Will Smith, A.J. Minter, and others.
While Atlanta’s pitching kept Houston’s lineup off-balance, the Braves ended up beating the Astros at their own game by hitting home runs. In six games, the Braves slugged 11 homers. Duvall, d’Arnaud, Dansby Swanson, and longtime first baseman Freddie Freeman all hit two home runs each. However, Soler hit three home runs, including the leadoff home run in Game 1, the go-ahead home run in Game 4, and a three-run blast to open the scoring in a 7-0 win in Game 6 to close out the series on his way to winning World Series MVP and bringing a championship to Atlanta.
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