Braves win second straight NL East title, now they're hoping for an October upset

Mark TownsendYahoo Sports Contributor

The Atlanta Braves have a long way to go to match their division dominance throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. But they stand a chance to do what only one of those 14 straight division championship teams could do: win a World Series.

With Friday’s 6-0 victory against the San Francisco Giants, the Braves took the first big step toward achieving their ultimate goal by clinching the National League East title for the second straight season.

The Braves had already clinched a postseason berth. Now they join the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees as division clinchers.

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As it has been throughout most of the season, the clinching victory was the Ronald Acuña Jr. show. The 21-year-old outfielder reached base three times, including hitting his team-leading 41st home run. Acuña is three stolen bases away from becoming the youngest member of MLB’s 40-40 club.

On the hill, Mike Foltynewicz pitched eight scoreless innings. The Braves have been winners in each of his past 12 starts.

The Atlanta Braves have clinched their second straight National League East championship. (AP Photo/John Amis)
The Atlanta Braves have clinched their second straight National League East championship. (AP Photo/John Amis)

How the Braves won the NL East

We've asked before and we'll ask again: Is there a more overlooked contender than this Braves squad?

Few are willing to put them in the same tier as the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Houston Astros. But it's a conversation they've earned the right to be in.

All season long the Braves have been consistent and balanced. The numbers bear that out as they enter the stretch run with a top-10 offense and a top-10 pitching staff. The Braves posted a winning record in every month but March, when they started 0-3. They also lead the NL in road wins and wins against teams over .500.

The Braves lineup is loaded with firepower. Freddie Freeman is the stalwart. Ronald Acuña Jr. brings the thrills. Ozzie Albies is a superstar in the making. While Josh Donaldson has regained his MVP form from four years ago. They’ve all been exceptional and are capable of dominating a series.

The rotation is solid with Dallas Keuchel, Mike Soroka and Mike Foltynewicz pitching well. Their longtime ace, Julio Teheran, has struggled of late. That’s had some questioning his postseason roster spot. Nonetheless, most playoff teams would love having a No. 4 who’s had the success Teheran has had over his career. And Max Fried is a solid No. 5 as well.

What the Braves have to do to win the World Series

First and foremost, they have to win a playoff series. That might sound obvious or harsh depending on your viewpoint. But it’s also a fact that Atlanta hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001. That’s despite making five postseason appearances since then.

No offense to the wild-card contenders, but if the Braves do advance, their journey to the World Series will likely have to go through Los Angeles. The Braves were 2-4 against the Dodgers this season, but were outscored in those meetings 37-19. That suggests the lower scoring the games are, the better chance Atlanta would have to get past L.A.

That said, the Braves have a lineup that’s capable of carrying them. If the offense clicks in October, they will be a difficult team to eliminate.

Lingering questions

Freddie Freeman recently admitted he’s dealing with a bone spur in his right elbow. He’s been able to play through it and continue producing at an elite level, but acknowledged there are some days when it’s more sore than others. The Braves had to hope the discomfort remains at a manageable level.

Shane Greene got off to a rough start in Atlanta, but he’s back looking like one of the best closers in MLB. That’s the good news. The bad news is Atlanta’s bullpen will have to get big outs from other guys. Manager Brian Snitker’s task will be figuring out which of those guys gives him the best chance to get those key outs.

Braves lefties Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins and A.J. Minter all have good arms, but have all also struggled. With matchups against Cody Bellinger. Max Muncy and Joc Pederson potentially on the horizon, that situation is a valid concern.

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