Battle-tested Braves begin quest to repeat as Series champs

ATLANTA (AP) — With their postseason curse eradicated, the Atlanta Braves have every reason to believe this could be another stellar October.

They aren’t lacking for confidence, that’s for sure, after chasing down the New York Mets in a captivating NL East race.

Heading into their NL Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Braves are playing with the swagger of a playoff-hardened team that won it all a year ago.

“Experience in the playoffs is huge,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “The only way you can get it is to go through it.”

Atlanta has sure gone through it.

The franchise that put together an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles in the 1990s and 2000s is on another memorable run that began with the first of five straight NL East championships in 2018.

Two years ago, the Braves snapped a nearly two-decade-long drought without a postseason series victory. Last season, they finally returned to the pinnacle with their first World Series title in 26 years.

No more dragging around all those playoff flops.

“I’m very thankful and appreciative that we’ve been able to go through it and been able to kind of climb the ladder each year,” Swanson said.

The Phillies are in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, finishing far behind the Braves and the Mets in the NL East but good enough to claim the final wild-card berth.

They are making the most of their return to the postseason, sweeping a first-round series in St. Louis to earn another shot at their division rival.

No one will remember that 14-game deficit in the regular season if Philly can pull off a shocker in this best-of-five series, which begins Tuesday with Braves ace Max Fried (14-7) facing Phillies left-hander Ranger Suárez (10-7).

The Phillies already overcame the firing of manager Joe Girardi in early June and several major injuries.

“We’re definitely not afraid of a challenge,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “We’ve been faced with a few obstacles … and it just makes it sweeter.”

Atlanta appeared headed for a wild card, at best, after falling 10 1/2 games behind the Mets at the end of May.

Since then, the Braves have been the best team in baseball with a 78-34 record. Most memorably, they swept a three-game series from New York on the final weekend of the regular season, claiming another division title on a tiebreaker — and a first-round bye — when both teams finished 101-61.

The importance of that bye became apparent when the Mets were knocked off by the San Diego Padres in a wild-card series.

NO MORE MR. INTERIM

Rob Thomson, who took over as interim manager after Girardi’s firing, was rewarded for the Phillies’ turnaround with a two-year contract through 2024.

Philadelphia was 22-29 when Girardi was sacked on June 3. The club went 65-46 the rest of the regular season to break their 11-year playoff drought.

The move was officially announced Monday, two days after the Phillies won their first playoff series since 2010.

President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski said it was apparent for a while that the 59-year-old Thomson deserved to have interim removed from his title.

“I’ve been continually impressed on how he’s handled everything throughout the year,” Dombrowski said.

AILING BRAVES

Ozzie Albies has gotten his cast off after sustaining a broken finger, but it seems unlikely the second baseman will rejoin the Braves for this series.

Manager Brian Snitker said Albies is focused on regaining strength and flexibility over the next several days, which likely means his sights are set on the NL Championship Series if the Braves advance.

The outlook was more optimistic for pitcher Spencer Strider, the hard-throwing rookie who became the first pitcher in baseball history to allow fewer than 100 hits while registering 200 strikeouts.

Strider hasn’t pitched since Sept. 18 because of an oblique injury. If he’s cleared to return for this series, he could remain a starter or be used out of the bullpen to give him a chance to rebuild his arm strength.

“Everything is an option, quite honestly,” Snitker said. “We’re still kind of mulling over what’s the right thing for us and him and how to use him.”

The Braves did announce Monday that Strider has become the latest of their young stars to agree to a long-term contract — a $75 million, six-year deal.

SHERIFF SWANSON

Swanson’s leadership qualities and no-nonsense approach with the team’s younger players have earned him a nickname in the clubhouse.

Sheriff.

Swanson chuckled at the moniker.

“The young kids, they just started calling me sheriff for whatever reason,” he said. “They act like I run this, like, strict, tight ship, which is just like not the case. I’m like the biggest lover on the team, I think.”

But, he added, “I do get on them occasionally because they’re young and stupid.”

RANGER’S RISE

Suárez started the 2021 season as a long reliever in the Phillies bullpen, focused mainly on keeping his spot on the roster.

Now, he’s starting Game 1 of a playoff series.

The 22-year-old Venezuelan certainly appreciates the journey.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been dreaming about this moment,” he said through an interpreter. “Knowing that the team trusts me enough to do this, it’s very special to me.”

HITLESS FRIED

As one of baseball’s better-hitting pitchers, Fried wasn’t thrilled to have the bat taken out of his hands.

But he’s grown to appreciate the NL adopting the designated hitter rule.

“I really like handling the bat,” Fried said. “But having this be my first year of just focusing on pitching with no hitting or anything like that, I’ve noticed that it’s kind of allowed me to get deeper in the games with feeling a little bit less fatigue.”

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