The Atlanta Braves Were So Close
11:15 AM EST on February 17, 2021
This essay appears in the Atlanta Braves chapter of the 2021 Baseball Prospectus Annual. The Annual is available for purchase now, and you should go buy it!
By the third inning of the fifth game of the National League Championship Series, it felt as inevitable as a playoff game can feel. Atlanta was up 3-1 in the series, and they looked good. The bats were hot, the fielding was quick, the energy in the dugout was dry kindling just waiting for a match to explode in a roar that would take down the Dodgers once again, and propel Atlanta into the World Series. The inning started with promise. Atlanta was up by two runs already and bing, bang, boom the first two runners hit singles. A groundout moved them to second and third. Isn’t that beautiful? When good baseball is played, and a professional sacrifices being the hero to move his buddies into scoring position. It felt good.
I sat up from my reclined position on my couch, moved the scorebook I’d been using all season to try and focus on the games to the coffee table, and leaned forward, elbows on my knees. It just needed a match. One measly match. You could feel it in the air, even through the television. You could see it in the quick bounce of Dansby Swanson’s batting stance. Did he feel it too? He must, because here came the first pitch out of Joe Kelly’s hand, swirling down toward the plate, and he had the green light. Swanson swung and his bat arced through the zone, no radiation on his hands, all firm contact on that breaking pitch, so that it ricocheted away from the batter’s box and far over Kelly’s head. A Texas Leaguer! It was falling so quickly, popping right into that no man’s land that no shift can fully cover between the infield and the outfield. A softball slap of a hit, rocketing right toward the ground. I sat up straighter.
But he was gaining ground quickly: the new Dodger, Mookie Betts. His arms unfurl as his legs sprint, faster, faster, toward the infield. He throws the arm with his glove down toward the green turf, his legs still moving him forward, and somehow the ball plops right into the leather, the force of it throwing him a bit off-balance as he continues to run. “Oh shit!” I yelled on my couch, because on the other side of that gray Dodgers jersey is the even more terrifying right arm, which was plucking the ball from the lattice of the glove and side arming it in a perfect arc to the plate where it arrived… late. “SAFE!” I yelled, throwing my arms out to the side and almost knocking over my beer bottle. And he was safe. He’d beaten the ball with plenty of time.
Except Betts was walking toward the dugout and several people were morphing their hands around invisible baseballs and pressing them into their ears emphatically, their fingers poking their heads. They wanted a review, and they got one. The video replay showed that Betts was simply too fast, and Ozuna from the other side of the field, timed his tag incorrectly. He had been several feet off the third base bag when Betts made his catch, and so it was a double play. The inning was over, the kindling doused with water.
I marked it as a baserunning error in my scorebook that I’d started keeping for televised games. It was October, but it didn’t feel like it. The players were in Texas in a dome and not wearing jackets and I was on my couch like I had been for (at that point) seven months. What I wanted more than anything was to escape into the play. I wanted to get mad about a slider that hung, to scream about a bunt that popped right up into the pitcher’s mitt. I wanted to roll my eyes at a poorly timed throw over to first or a kicked ground ball. My own team (the Washington Nationals) had proven to be a ball of trash rolling downhill since early August, so I decided to pick the good team in the division. I chose Atlanta.
Really, I chose Atlanta because they seemed like they were having fun and I wanted to have fun. On Oct. 8, in the middle of Game 3 of the NLDS, Ronald Acuña Jr. danced his way to the dugout between innings. He held his hands over his head, the ball in one, and shimmied his hips. He spun in a circle at the top of the dugout steps. His teeth are so white and so straight, his smile as bright as the full moon. I forgot for a moment that all of the fans behind him were cardboard cutouts. I smiled back at him from my couch. This was nice. This was what baseball should be. Smile at your teammates, baby, because you’re going to the NLCS. In interviews, the Atlanta players said they were dancing in the dugout, that no one could talk because the music was so loud.
I miss that, not being able to talk because it is so loud and everyone is having so much fun. I miss the feeling of a friend’s hand cupped around my ear screaming something I still can’t hear. I miss being able to celebrate successes, to dance around and spray champagne. Maybe, I thought, the Atlanta players could be my friends. They had something I didn’t have, but I’d watched them absolutely ruin the Nationals all year. They were scrappy and smart. They had an energy that felt wholesome but mature. There were no ethical concerns for me about them being underpaid. This would work, I told myself going into the NLCS. I would yet again pick the World Series winning team for my essay in Baseball Prospectus. I was the good luck charm. Atlanta was going to WIN. IT. ALL.
You know how it went, but let’s relive it anyway. Atlanta defeated the pesky Marlins easily in the Division Series. Three games in a row, and none of them felt like a problem. Only Game 2 even felt close. By the time Acuña Jr. was dancing on the top step of the dugout, an Atlanta win felt as sure as the sun setting. But even though I couldn’t focus on the 2020 season at all, I was pretty sure that the Dodgers were a different animal. The Dodgers are shiny. They have players whose names people who don’t watch baseball know. They all seem to have necklaces that have been very recently polished. They are Los Angeles. They are tan. They are not so easy to beat.
But Atlanta showed up. Hell yeah. They won Game 1 by four runs: no problem. Then they won Game 2. Lost Game 3, sure, that’s fine. Won Game 4. Atlanta was up 3-1. That’s a hitter’s count. If I were the manager (which I am not) I would tell everyone to calm down. Just play smart, good baseball. Don’t do anything stupid, and we’ll win this. All we have to do is win one of three games. In fact, I did tell the team this. I told it to them through my television. I was invested now. I applauded.
But as you already know, they didn’t play smart, and they didn’t play carefully. Immediately after Mookie Betts made his incredible catch and Ozuna made his silly error, Corey Seager came up to bat in the fourth and absolutely smashed a home run. Atlanta was still up 2-1, but something had shifted. They managed to score a run in the eighth, but it never felt hopeful. They lost Game 5 and Game 6 and now the odds were much worse.
By the beginning of Game 7, I could barely see the embers of the team I’d lost in Game 5. But all they had to do was win this one. Win one game. We know, of course, that they did not. We also know that it was the baserunning that got them again. But I would have sworn, before I started writing this piece and looked up the details of that dreaded play, that the baserunning error that soaked the Atlanta team with a firehose and ruined their chances for good came in the eighth or ninth inning. That’s how absolutely damning it felt to me.
I remembered it wrong. Memory is a funny thing: superimposing what we know is coming on top of what we know happened. In reality, it was only the fourth inning. The game was tied 2-2. Dodgers relief pitcher Tony Gonsolin led off the fourth inning by walking two batters and giving up an RBI single. There was optimism streaming through the television screen. Maybe my new adopted team could still pull it off. You could see the players sitting up a little bit taller in the dugout.
But the players were distracted. Or maybe they were given bad signals by coaches. With runners on second and third, Justin Turner easily scooped up a rocket of a grounder at third and when he looked up (probably to check on the runners) Dansby Swanson was halfway down the baseline. His head wasn’t tucked down. He was running, but it didn’t even really seem like he was sprinting. Did he think there was someone on first and he had to? I stood up from my couch with my hands on my head. Turner side-armed it to the plate and began a textbook rundown with the catcher, Swanson shuffling sideways between them down the baseline. Turner stretched, and with Swanson just out of reach dove. He was out. An error. But what’s this? Turner hops up from his belly where he landed to his knees, pivots toward third and rockets the ball to the bag. Austin Riley, for some unknown reason, had decided to also make a baserunning error. On the replay, you can see Riley hesitate. He’s going toward third, then he’s not. He’s halfway down the baseline and he chickens out, swallows some bravery and tries again. But he didn’t commit soon enough. Riley tucked his legs in a figure four. He didn’t even slide face first into the third out of the inning. 5-2-5-6. The inning was over. Atlanta was up by a run, but they might as well have handed the trophy to the Dodgers then.
I wanted to be mad at him. I wanted so, so badly to be mad. Were this a normal year, I would have been yelling at the television. Who cares that this was a team I adopted for the playoffs! They were making silly, little-league mistakes in not one but two games, and giving up a 3-1 lead in the series. It was only the fourth inning. I should have been furious, but instead I just felt defeated. It was hard for me to feel mad at Swanson for taking off from the bag when he didn’t need to, or at Riley for stealing during a risky rundown. It was hard for me to even feel mad at the coaches. They showed the replay over and over again. Swanson was just out of reach and then Turner dove, laid himself all the way out to brush the pant leg with his glove. It was an incredible effort, and one I could barely believe. Who had that kind of energy in this kind of year, to do something unbelievable?
When I think about the playoffs, I think about those two plays. I’m sure the players do, too. The frustration of those plays is that we, the fans, (even me a temporary one) know that the team is better than that. They know it, too.
I’ve thought a lot about those two innings since they happened, replaying the failure in my mind, but that’s not really fair. The Atlanta players had a hell of a season. They had a 58.3 win percentage. They won the National League East by four games and crushed the next best team (the Marlins) immediately in the playoffs. Without the errors, they looked good on the field and in the batter’s box. Those two mistakes loom large because of their consequences, but they don’t define that team. There were five more innings after that baserunning error to come back and win the game. I can’t blame them for not being able to mount a comeback. This is a hard year to do anything! In the back of my mind all season I’ve heard a low but constant hum reminding me that this was just a game in a year where games felt frivolous and unnecessary and dangerous. There will be an asterisk next to this short, weird, awful season for all of history. Those mistakes don’t really matter, after all.
This is a year for giving grace where we can afford to. Everyone is working really hard. Everyone is trying their best. Everyone is being given less to work with than a normal year and asked for the same output in return. Sure, there were two mistakes in that series that could have saved Atlanta, but they did have a good season. They had optimism, and dance moves, and only lost to the World Series champions because of mental errors. That’s a team that under more normal circumstances, will thrive. And I for one, am really looking forward to watching them again and feeling just a little bit more.