Freddie Freeman is getting all the praise after hitting the homer that put the Braves back into the NLCS, and he deserves it. Josh Hader had been one of the best relievers in all of baseball this season and up until he hung a slider to Freddie Freeman with the first pitch that he threw him, he looked the part. Eddie Rosario and Dansby Swanson both looked utterly befuddled in those first two ABs, so Freddie deserves every bit of the acclaim and praise that’s coming his way after he took advantage of Hader’s mistake pitch and sent it soaring.
With that being said, Freddie Freeman wasn’t the only Braves player coming up big last night. In fact, I’d say that ones who should be showered with roses right now is the bullpen as a collective. Last night, the bullpen regulars continued what has become a theme since the run in to the Postseason began. Since my oft-repeated and oft-mentioned date of August 1, the Braves have had one of the best bullpens in the National League and a very solid relief corps when compared to the rest of the baseball landscape. They hit another gear when September hit and have found yet another gear now that the Postseason is here.
Granted, a lot of this may have just been Milwaukee’s lineup being worse than advertised, but it has to be noted that the usual relievers didn’t give up a single run during the NLDS. Braves relievers only gave up two earned runs over those four games and the two runs were given up when Huascar Ynoa hung a first-pitch slider of his own against Rowdy Tellez. Other than that, the combined crew of Jesse Chavez, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith basically turned into a clampdown crew. Those five guys combined for 13.2 innings, 17 strikeouts, nine hits, six walks, and zero unearned or earned runs allowed. Yeah, the Brewers may have been scuffling but it’s partly due to the fact that these dudes were doing some daggone dealing.
It also helped that Atlanta’s starters basically did what was asked of them in a Postseason situation. Raised expectations come with the playoffs, and the rotation lived up to those expectations. Other than Charlie Morton pitching on short rest (which, CFM or not, is always going to be a risky move [and hat-tip to FanGraphs for those links]), each Braves starter pitched at least five innings and gave up two runs at the most. Both times it happened during Morton’s starts, while Max Fried was dominant and Ian Anderson gutted out five fruitful innings. This wasn’t a masterclass in pitching that brought back memories of those early-90s Braves starters who basically carried the Braves to glory. Instead, it was just a matter of these guys doing everything they could to keep their team in the game before passing the baton off to the relievers.
As you just saw, the relief corps took the baton and sprinted with it. This series basically came down to getting to the late innings and letting Atlanta’s bullpen do the work. The biggest example of this occurred in the series clincher for the Braves, which is when the bullpen shined when it mattered the most. Outside of giving up that lone hit to make it 2-0 Brewers in the fourth inning, Jesse Chavez was able to clean up the mess that Charlie Morton left behind and kept the Braves in the game.
We’ve seen it a few times this season where a mess turned into a disaster for the Braves and Chavez did well to make sure that this mess stayed where it was for the most part. He kept it at 2-0 and the Braves tied it up in the bottom half of the inning, so he definitely deserved a hat-tip for his work in the top half.
The next three relievers for the Braves were all-business. A.J. Minter entered the game for his first Postseason appearance since last season and picked up from where he left off there. He had a huge three-inning stint during Game 5 of last season’s NLCS and then proceeded to throw three strikeouts during his first and only stint of the 2021 NLDS. While that 2020 Postseason campaign wasn’t perfect and Minter’s 2021 itself has been a bit up-and-down, it would be huge if Minter continued to pitch well coming out of the bullpen here in the Postseason.
Then we got the two stars of the show: Luke Jackson and Tyler Matzek. They pitched in each one of the four NLDS games and for the most part, they were lights out. Both of them did give up six hits combined during this series, but none of them came during two-thirds of the seventh inning and the entire eighth inning in Game 4 of the NLDS. When the Braves needed shutdown innings the most, those two were consistently able to provide them and Game 4 was a prime example.
According to Baseball-Reference’s cWPA (Championship Win Probability Added), Matzek was worth 3.35 percent and Jackson provided 1.46 percent in that regard. For comparison’s sake, Max Fried’s lone start of the NLDS was worth 3.42 percent cWPA on its own — the highest number from any Braves player not named Freddie Freeman (5.59 percent cWPA). Tyler Matzek coming in first place among Atlanta’s bullpen in this series shows just how much of an impact his 4.1 innings had in the NLDS.
However, the Braves reliever who came in second place was none other than Will Smith and his 3.02 cWPA. As a matter of fact, it has to be said that Will Smith has been pretty good for his past few save attempts — and not in a “Oh he gave up a million baserunners but he still got the job done!” type of way, either. He’s been pretty good in a totally conventional sense, which is shocking considering how he looked for most of the final two months of the season. It’s almost as if those two back-to-back heart-attack saves against the Padres and the Phillies “fixed him” and got him back on track.
Smith was nails in the NL East clincher, then made a real good save in a low-stress game against the Mets. That regular season-ending success translated into Postseason success, as his three saves in the NLDS were downright comfortable. He dealt with three baserunners over three innings and dispatched them just as quickly as they got on base. Simply put, Will Smith completed his assignment and did so without hitting any major potholes or any other bumps in the road. He was competent and looked like he was under control instead of basically just throwing mid-90s fastballs right down the middle and daring hitters to whiff on it. Needless to say, having an effective Will Smith to finish off games would be a godsend for the Braves and also wonderful for the collective blood pressure of Braves Country.
While this pitching staff figures to have a massive test on their hands no matter who comes out of the NL West Thunderdome that is the Dodgers-Giants NLDS, this series against the Brewers is an undoubtedly good sign. It also helps that these pitchers have basically been pitching as well as anybody you can think of since the season entered its stretch run. This is the same crew that turned Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto into non-factors in that division-clinching series against the Phillies. If they could keep that particular version of Bryce Harper in check, then I’d say that they’re up for the task that awaits them in the NLCS. The bullpen itself is proving to be especially trustworthy, and that’s a crucial piece of the puzzle for a Braves team that now has their eyes on an appearance in the World Series.