Braves catcher Brian McCann celebrates with teammates after Atlanta clinched the NL East title on Sunday. McCann is the only current Braves position player that was on the team’s roster for its previous division championship in 2005. (Reuters)
CHICAGO — The Braves franchise played 1,292 regular-season games between division titles and the team that finally ended the drought not only wasn’t favored to overtake Washington when this season began, but also absorbed repeated blows and season-ending surgeries along the way.
All the better, they said.
The 2013 Braves are National League East champions after clinching the title Sunday when the Marlins beat the second-place Nationals. At the time, the Braves were still in the sixth inning of a 5-2 win against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said catcher Brian McCann, the only current Braves position player on the last Atlanta division-title team in 2005, along with injured pitcher Tim Hudson. “Time flies. You can’t take things for granted. This feeling right here is what you play for.”
If overcoming adversity has become a cliche uttered by too many teams that didn’t overcome much at all, it’s genuine with this team. The Braves overcame again and again, which made it sweeter when they completed the first of their goals.
“It’s unbelievable,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman, who staked the Braves to a 2-0 lead in the first inning Sunday with his 23rd home run, giving him 105 RBIs. “This is just one of four (celebrations) hopefully.”
Three more would mean they won the World Series. And if that sounds far-fetched to some pundits, the Braves know most people didn’t pick them to win the division even before their string of injuries left a young team even younger.
“It’s awesome, something to be proud of,” said Hudson, who’s recovering from a broken ankle, but smoked a cigar and got drenched with teammates in a champagne-and-beer spraying celebration inside a cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse. “What we’ve gone through as a team this year, guys stepping up for guys like myself and (Jason) Heyward and different people that’s gotten hurt throughout the season, it’s a sign of a championship-caliber club.
“I feel like when you have a group of guys that are really good, it doesn’t really matter how young you are.”
Third baseman Chris Johnson added, “People have gone down and people have stepped up. So yeah, it definitely makes it a lot more enjoyable.”
The Braves had six season-ending surgeries, losing three key members of their pitching staff and a big piece of their bench in Ramiro Pena. Yet they never wavered, leading the division for all but one day, building a 15-game lead by early August, then hanging on as injuries mounted.
“That’s why we play this game, to have that opportunity to get to the World Series,” closer Craig Kimbrel said. “Bottom line: that’s why we play. And it is exciting to know that we’re going to have that.”
Freeman said persevering made the division title more satisfying and should also benefit the Braves in October.
“It kind of helps going through it all, because we’ve been down before,” he said. “We might not have had our starting eight in there all the time, but we found a way to win.”
The injuries began before the Braves left spring training, when reliever Jonny Venters blew out his elbow and had to have a second Tommy John surgery. They lost their other top left-handed reliever, Eric O’Flaherty, to Tommy John surgery in mid-May.
There were more season-ending surgeries for reliever Christhian Marinez (elbow), utility players Pena (shoulder) and Tyler Pastornicky (knee) and Hudson after a gruesome ankle injury in July. Two days after Hudson went down, the Braves reeled off a 14-game winning streak.
“This might be the best group of guys, in terms of resiliency,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
Along with the season-ending surgeries, the Braves lost outfielder Reed Johnson for six weeks with Achilles tendinitis and only got five starts from Brandon Beachy due to elbow inflammation.
There were two surgeries and DL stints totaling more than two months for outfielder Heyward, who had an appendectomy in Denver in April and got his jaw broken in two places by a fastball in New York in August.
Just when Heyward had stepped in as a potent leadoff hitter and led an 18-4 Braves surge, he sustained the facial injury that made all of baseball wince and led to immediate speculation that he was through for the year. And so could be the Braves. He returned to the lineup Friday and led off Sunday’s game with a single, two batters before Freeman’s homer.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to happen for me, 30 days back playing after being hit in the face,” Heyward said. “But God works in his own ways. I worked hard to get in shape and here we are. We worked hard as a group to get here. Every time someone went down, someone stepped in and I’m really proud of this team.”