PHILADELPHIA — Although they might have never been challenged, the Braves still savored the thrill of capturing a sixth straight National League East crown. They sprayed champagne and began aiming for a long postseason run after claiming a 4-1 victory over the Phillies on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park.
“They’re all special, and they’re all really hard,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You should enjoy every time you get a chance to do this. It’s like I told them, ‘Don’t forget how this feels’ because it’s a really good feeling that lets you know your hard work is for something.”
- Games remaining (16): at MIA (3), vs. PHI (3), at WSH (4), vs. CHC (3), vs. WSH (3)
- Standings update: The Braves are currently the top NL division leader, meaning they would receive a first-round bye and face the winner of the No. 4 and No. 5 Wild Card teams in a five-game NL Division Series starting on Oct. 7.
Austin Riley hit a two-run homer in the first and added a third-inning sacrifice fly to back Spencer Strider, who limited damage during a 36-pitch first and ended up allowing just one run over seven innings. As soon as Kirby Yates recorded the final out of the night, the Braves began celebrating their latest division title on the field where their 2022 season unceremoniously ended.
“It feels good regardless of how we do it,” Ronald Acuña Jr. said. “The job is not done.”
The Braves increased their MLB-best division title total to 23. This matches their second-earliest clinch date. The 1995 club also sealed the NL East on Sept. 13, and the 2002 team clinched on Sept. 9.
But winning the division was just the first goal for the Braves, who could face the Phillies for a second straight year in the NL Division Series. Regardless of whether this rematch materializes, they’ll be aiming to reintroduce themselves to the euphoria felt in 2021, when they won the World Series.
“There’s something special about this group,” Riley said. “We believe in each other. We work hard every day. It’s just so much fun to come to the park every day.”
Benefiting from the MVP-caliber seasons provided by Acuña and Matt Olson, the Braves have owned MLB’s best record for much of the season’s second half. They are four wins away from a second straight 100-win season, which is remarkable given they spent at least three months without Max Fried and Kyle Wright, two of their top starting pitchers. They also spent the season’s first month without reliever Raisel Iglesias.
But courtesy of Bryce Elder’s breakout, the rotation stayed strong and benefited from one of the most powerful lineups baseball has seen. The Braves were in first place at the end of every one of their games, minus April 2, when they sat a half-game behind the Mets, who had played an extra game at that point. But they didn’t really get rolling until June 3, when they began a seven-game win streak that included a sweep of the Mets.
“This team has been incredible,” said Fried, who missed three months because of an inflamed left forearm. “We’ve had some injuries throughout the year, but this group is a special one. Everybody has been able to pick each other up when we need to. It’s just been a lot of fun to enjoy in the success of our season and to know it’s not done yet. It’s just getting started.”
The Braves have gone 63-26 going back to June 3. They exited May with a four-game lead, June with a seven-game lead, July with an 11-game lead and August with a 14-game lead. They ended the race with a 17-game lead over the Phillies.
“We come to Spring Training, and the first thing we say is we want to win the [NL] East,” Strider said. “I think when you verbalize something and make that your goal, and you’re so committed to it, it affects your preparation and your focus. It allows you to really narrow in on it and really weather any kind of adversity.”
Strider has posted a 1.56 ERA over 40 1/3 innings (seven appearances) against the Phillies. But it had been hard to forget about the third-inning struggles he had while starting Game 3 of last year’s NLDS, despite remaining sedentary most of the previous three weeks because of an oblique strain.
Strider’s ability to tally just 74 pitches after his rough first inning in Wednesday’s win was reminiscent of how the Braves quickly distanced themselves from potential trouble this year. Strider and Elder became All-Stars in the absences of Fried and Wright. As for Charlie Morton, he proved there was still magic in his 39-year-old arm.
But what makes this arguably the best team in Braves history is the incredible offense, which has hit a NL record 282 home runs and is on pace for 312, which is five more than the AL/NL record. Riley (35) joined Olson (51) and Acuña (37) as the team members who have hit 35-plus homers. Marcell Ozuna’s incredible rebound season has put him one homer from this club. Ozzie Albies is a homer from making the Braves just the second team to ever have five players hit 30-plus homers in the same season, joining the 2019 Twins.
So, it hasn’t been just about the MVP candidates. But as Acuña approaches a 40-homer, 40-steal season — and possibly a previously unforeseen 40-70 season — and Olson bids to set both the franchise homer and RBI records, they are adding to the spectacularness of a season that could be celebrated a few more times this year.
“Every division title feels different, but it’s the next one every year that feels the best,” A.J. Minter said. “This is what we expect when we put on an Atlanta Braves jersey every year, to be here every year. That’s what makes this team and organization so special.”
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