After NLCS heartbreak, Braves’ hope rests on young starters

ATLANTA (AP) — There were pained admissions of heartbreak and declarations of hope from players and manager Brian Snitker after the Atlanta Braves fell one win shy of the World Series.

The heartbreak was obvious after a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series on Sunday night. The Braves led the series 3-1. They held leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in the decisive game and still were denied their first World Series appearance since 1999.

“I hate that,” Snitker said. “I want to go to the World Series so bad.”

Freddie Freeman offered a balanced perspective when he spoke of the pain of the present and the promise of the future.

“It hurts right now, it really does,” Freeman said. “This moment (stinks), but the Atlanta Braves organization is set up for success for a very long time. This group of guys we have this year is the start of something special.”

The hope is bolstered by the emergence of young starting pitchers Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. The three seized opportunities during the pandemic-shortened season as Atlanta’s rotation was depleted by injuries and poor performance.

Opening day starter Mike Soroka made only three starts before he was l ost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Cole Hamels made just one start. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb were demoted, and midseason addition Tommy Milone hit the injured list after three poor starts.

Max Fried, who excelled as the staff’s fill-in ace, tweaked his ankle in his final regular-season start. Fried’s injury left even more reason to question the Braves’ ability to put together a rotation for a postseason series of any length, especially a five- or seven-game series with no off days.

Fried recovered and the Braves threw four shutouts in sweeping the Reds in the NL wild-card series and the Marlins in the Division Series. Now the Braves can look forward to Soroka, Fried, Anderson, Wright and Wilson in 2021 and beyond.

It’s little wonder Freeman, only minutes after the crushing loss, said “We’re looking forward to next year already.”

The Braves have won three consecutive NL East titles and, with a lineup led by Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, should be strong next season. Still, there will be important decisions to make this offseason.

OZUNA PAYDAY

Marcell Ozuna led the NL with 18 homers and 56 RBIs after signing an $18 million, one-year deal with Atlanta. He was a perfect fit in the lineup, especially with the designated hitter in place, and he joins Freeman as NL MVP contenders.

Ozuna now is eligible for free agency.

Veteran outfielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers, closer Mark Melancon and relievers Shane Green and Darren O’Day also can become free agents.

FUTURE IS NOW

Cristian Pache, the team’s top position prospect, started only one regular-season game after spending most of the year at the alternate training site. He made the NLCS roster, ahead of veteran Ender Inciarte, and became a starter when Adam Duvall sustained a season-ending left oblique injury in Game 1.

The 21-year-old Pache hit .182 with a homer in the series. His strong defense in center field, with Acuña moving to right, makes him a candidate to open next season as a starter.

DROUGHT ENDS

Though they fell short of their World Series goal, the Braves ended a 19-year postseason drought. Before this year, Atlanta’s last win in a postseason series or wild-card game was against Houston in 2001. The Braves had lost in 10 consecutive postseason appearances.

“We changed the narrative for sure for what’s gone on the last 19 years here,” Freeman said.

ROOKIE WONDER

Anderson was 2-0 with a 0.96 ERA in four postseason starts. He threw 17 2/3 scoreless innings — the second-longest streak by a rookie in the past 100 years — before giving up a two-run single to Will Smith in the third inning on Sunday night. Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha pitched 18 2/3 scoreless innings in 2013.

In six regular-season games, Anderson was 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA. The 22-year-old righty was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Anderson said he thinks the postseason experience “is going to be huge” for his development.

IAN IN GOOD COMPANY

Anderson’s run of scoreless innings was the third-longest by a Braves pitcher in the postseason. Lew Burdette had a streak of 24 innings in the Milwaukee Braves’ 1957 World Series championship run. Tom Glavine threw 18 consecutive scoreless innings from 1995, when Atlanta won its only World Series title, to 1996.

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