Braves advance to first NLCS since 2001

©TheAtlantaJournalConstitution

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

HOUSTON — As Harry James and Kitty Kallen so famously expressed, “It’s been a long, long time.”

That long, long time between 2001 and 2020 felt like an eternity for the Braves, the community and passionate supporters nationwide. The franchise most recently experienced October goodness when it swept away the Astros in the 2001 National League Division Series. Little did the Braves know that would be their last time capturing that feeling in nearly two decades.

Two waits have ended in the last week. Exactly one week after earning their first postseason series victory in 19 years, the Braves are moving on again. They advanced to the NL Championship Series by defeating the Marlins 7-0 in Game 3 of the NLDS on Thursday, completing their second consecutive postseason series sweep. It was the first time the Marlins have lost a postseason series (7-1).

The series was held in Houston as part of MLB’s 2020 postseason bubble. The Braves, who are 5-0 since the regular season concluded, will move on to Arlington to face the winner of the best-of-five Dodgers-Padres NLDS. The Dodgers lead the series, 2-0.

Ronald Acuna, naturally, was the Braves’ spark plug, drawing a lead-off walk off Sixto Sanchez in the third. Freddie Freeman, who might soon be named the NL season MVP, followed with his own single. Marcell Ozuna singled home the game’s first run.

Catcher Travis d’Arnaud was chosen the NLDS MVP. For the third consecutive game, he had a key hit, slamming a double to center that scored two more runs and put the Braves up by three. He later scored on Dansby Swanson’s sacrifice fly to complete the four-run frame.

Ozuna and d’Arnaud might be the most offensively productive free-agent duo in Braves history. Ozuna led the NL in homers and RBIs in the regular season and has knocked in five runs this postseason. D’Arnaud homered in each of the Braves’ first two games against the Marlins and provided the key hit of Game 3.

The Braves would tack on further insurance, unleashing their frustrations on an inferior team that likely lost hope in the third inning. Despite their pristine postseason record, the Braves exceeded five runs in only one of their previous four playoff games, which ranked below the club’s lofty standards.

Braves starter Kyle Wright labored early yet pitched his way out of jams. He settled in to cover six innings, striking out seven, walking two and holding the Marlins to three hits. It was his first postseason start and the Braves’ first playoff game started by a pitcher other than Max Fried and Ian Anderson. Wright gave the team what it needed before turning it over to a stellar bullpen, which will now have ample rest before the NLCS begins Monday.

Wright and Anderson became the first teammates to pitch six or more scoreless innings in their playoff debuts across one single postseason. Because of Fried, Anderson, Wright and the bullpen, the Braves have shut out opponents in four of five playoff games.

Over the last week, the Braves moved past what felt like endless postseason horrors since they were ousted in the 2001 NLCS by the eventual champion Diamondbacks. There were a bevy of eliminations at Turner Field, Craig Kimbrel standing cross-armed in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium and a 10-run first inning to be beaten in the most embarrassing fashion imaginable.

That made Thursday a significant step forward for the franchise. Consider the landscape in 2001, when the Braves last participated in the NLCS:

— At the beginning of the year, George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd president.

— Apple released the iPod and iTunes program.

— Wikipedia, which has since been the lifeblood of college students, was created online.

— It was a crowning year for fantasy films, including “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Shrek,” “Jurassic Park III” and “Planet of The Apes.”

— Ronald Acuna was 3 years and 9 months old (or 1,394 days), and Brian Snitker was managing at High-A Myrtle Beach.

— Mark Richt guided Georgia to an 8-4 record in his first season. Georgia Tech was 8-5 in George O’Leary’s eighth and final season.

— The Falcons traded up to draft Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick at No. 1. It was also their final year under the Rankin M. Smith family, as they were sold to Arthur Blank in 2002.

— The Hawks selected Spanish big man (and future Hall of Famer) Pau Gasol with the third overall pick and traded his rights to the Grizzlies.

Since that busy year, the Braves have endured their share of painful postseason losses. Much of their regular-season results haven’t been stellar, either. They’ve sometimes had the starters, but lacked the bullpen. Sometimes they would ‘fix’ the bullpen only for the rotation to be an issue. Their offense fluctuated, from adding players such as Gary Sheffield and J.D. Drew during the Chipper Jones era to bringing in the Upton brothers during the early Freddie Freeman era.

In 2020, it came together despite a deteriorating rotation. Through two rounds, the Braves’ glaring weakness — the back end of the rotation — hasn’t even come into play. They’ll deal with that when the time approaches next week.

For now, the Braves should celebrate as much as one can under MLB’s health and safety protocols. It took empty stadiums and a neutral-site series, but the Braves avoided the letdown so many have come to expect.

While the team has greater goals, the trials and turmoil of the past 19 years should be put at rest after the past week. The Braves no longer have to hear about their postseason horrors, at least for a few more days. They’re headed to the NLCS, within striking distance of the NL pennant for the first time since 1999.

Whatever unfolds during the remainder of the playoffs, the Braves established themselves as a true World Series contender again. It’s no longer a rebuild or feel-good story. It’s not even about being a multi-time division champ.

The Braves are a legitimate title threat that’s fulfilling aspirations while striving to meet higher expectations. It’s been a long, long time, but the grandest stage is only four wins away.

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS