Atlanta Braves Clinch 14th Straight Division Title
Despite a string of injuries to their starting pitching rotation, their free agent closer acquisition being a huge bust, and more than a dozen rookies on their roster, the Atlanta Braves have won their 14th consecutive division title.
Champs pour it on (AJC)
They were soaked in champagne and beer, running through their clubhouse laughing and partying like it was the greatest night of their lives. And for some Braves, it probably was. The Braves clinched their 14th consecutive division title Tuesday night, the first such title for a bunch of them, but a special one for even the one player who’s experienced all 14.
“Best feeling I’ve ever had,” said right fielder Jeff Francoeur, the rookie sensation who won four state championships at Parkview High School, but nothing to compare with this. “Awesome. Incredible.” Francoeur was at a loss for words after the Braves pounded Colorado 12-3 at Turner Field, but veteran pitcher John Smoltz was not. “No way you could predict what happened with this team,” said Smoltz, who has been with the Braves for the entire division title run, but never saw anything quite like this. “I don’t think people realize what an unbelievable accomplishment this is. This truly is a dream team.”
Eighteen rookies melded with a core of veterans and marched to perhaps the Braves’ most improbable division title since the run began in 1991.
“We persevered, and here we are,” said second baseman Marcus Giles, who hit two home runs to help the Braves and Tim Hudson (14-9) roll past Colorado and touch off an uncharacteristic show of emotion in the clubhouse of a team often accused in the past of being too button-down professional for their own good. “To be able to experience this with this group of guys, this mix of guys, really makes it special,” said Hudson, who got the win on the biggest night Ã¢€” so far Ã¢€” of his first season with the Braves. “A lot of people didn’t think we could do it,” he said. “Now we’re just going to get keep it going.”
Braves general manager John Schuerholz, usually dapper and reserved, was drenched in his oversized Braves division championship T-shirt, while players and wives and girlfriends partied all around him in the clubhouse. “It’s like which of your children do you love most,” Schuerholz said when asked which division title was the most special. They’re all satisfying. This one is special. It’s joyful, it’s energetic, it’s smiles Ã¢€” it’s a lot more enthusiasm and jumping around than we’ve had some years.”
“No one will ever do it again Ã¢€” ever,” Smoltz said of the streak, which began in 1991, his fourth season with the Braves. “And this year Ã¢€” so many people doubted it. … I didn’t think we could get it done in May.”
Thomas Stinson explains how improbable it was:
The Braves challenged history again Tuesday night, winning their unprecedented 14th straight divisional title, to some merely a September rite around here but still enough to make a city unconvinced by pennants and suspicious of October consider the qualities of the local team once again.
It began 24 weeks ago with a lot of doubt. With a shaky outfield and even shakier bullpen, the Braves appeared in over their heads. Eleven prime players from the 2004 club had moved on. Payroll was stagnant. Attendance was in a seven-year decline. The NL East elsewhere had been refortified. No one wins anything 14 years in a row, not the Globetrotters, not the Starship Enterprise. Vince Lombardi only coached Green Bay for nine seasons.
It required the best performances of some players’ lives to achieve it. Andruw Jones broke the franchise home run record (51 and counting), becoming the first center fielder to reach 50 in seven years. Shortstop Rafael Furcal, hitting .323 in the second half, stole his career-high 46th base Tuesday night but more importantly has played the best defense of his life, his 15 errors less than half his total from just two years ago.
Jayson Stark believes there are a lot of factors at work but that the steady hand of manager Bobby Cox is the primary reason the Braves win despite an ever-changing roster. Indeed, pitcher John Smoltz–who himself has alternated from starter to closer and back again–has been on the team the whole run. Stark’s piece is long and I won’t bother to excerpt it here. But it makes a pretty compelling case that Cox is indeed “the best manager in baseball.”
Entering each of the last two seasons, I thought the Braves’ run was likely over. Their payroll is too low, the division rivals too strong, and most of the star players sign elsewhere once they’re eligible for free agency. This season, with all the kids up from AA playing key roles, was almost surely a “rebuilding” year. Having won with them, though, chances are quite good that the Braves will be able to contend for the division title for many more seasons to come.
Update: The venerable Furman Bisher weighs in.