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Decisive deadline: Moves made in July to revamp outfield pulled Braves out of mediocrity, propelled them in October

Decisive deadline: Moves made in July to revamp outfield pulled Braves out of mediocrity, propelled them in October


HOUSTON — At the same ballpark his current team will start a World Series, propelled through October by moves he made in July, Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ former team once sat in the clubhouse, peeved and disenchanted by his inaction when they had a chance to contend.

Seven years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays opened a road series at Minute Maid Park at the trade deadline. They’d swept Boston on their way to a six-game winning streak, had a hold on a wild-card berth and were within three games of the division lead. They earned a boost. As the afternoon deadline struck, though, Anthopoulos did not make a significant trade. He “made excuses” and talked himself out of adding a third baseman and a starting pitcher because money, long-term planning, something, something.

All the way back in Toronto, he sensed the frustration in Houston. The Jays lost their next four, slipped from the race.

“Our players were crushed,” Anthopoulos said Monday evening, sitting in the visitors dugout at Minute Maid. “I didn’t truly understand. I know with experience and being around players more — these guys grind so much, they fly, they’re away from their families, they’re beaten up. ‘If I’m going to lay it on the line and we have a chance to win, and you’re not going to do your part to help with that? Why am I here?’ They didn’t say it that way. But that’s kind of how it feels. You owe it to them.”

It’s a lesson he carried with him — to the Braves’ benefit.

Atlanta opens the 117th World Series on Tuesday night against Houston. For the Astros, it’s their third World Series in five years. The Braves, a National League dynasty in the 1990s, are in their first World Series since 1999. From reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman in his first World Series to baseball royalty Dusty Baker managing in his first since 2002, the best-of-seven series is rich with history. And with its first batter the jolt a team can receive from midseason moves will be present.

Eddie Rosario, one of the four outfielders the Braves traded for in July, is likely to lead off, coming off his record turn that won the NLCS MVP.

“We were in need of an outfield boost,” manager Brian Snitker said. “And I told them, ‘It’s like we’ve got four everyday major-league outfielders.’”

When Atlanta visited St. Louis in early August, the Braves and Cardinals were in similar spots — orbiting .500 in the standings, grasping for help at the deadline. The Cardinals were without their opening day starter, Jack Flaherty. Atlanta had one of the best talents in the game, center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr., out for the rest of the season with a torn knee ligament. The NL’s home run leader in 2020, Marcell Ozuna, was on administrative leave due to domestic abuse charges. During the series in St. Louis, a Braves official was asked about how the team twice had to recast its outfield on the fly.

“Three times,” the official corrected.

Despite the uninspiring record and mounting absences, Anthopolos recalled his experience in Toronto and received some timely advice from Oakland’s Billy Beane. The A’s vice president urged him to “be at .500 or close to .500 at the deadline — a bunch of teams are going to peel off. Look, you’re in this. If you’re close, two months is a long time, 60 games are a lot of games. You just need to be close.”

What the Cardinals did for their ragged pitching at the deadline, the Braves did for their outfield. Both teams were trying to survive as much as thrive. While the Cardinals sought and acquired two veteran lefties who could shoulder innings — in good times, bad times, and worse times — the Braves traded for Joc Pederson in mid-July and three more outfielders at the deadline. They acquired Adam Duvall from Miami, Jorge Soler from Kansas City and Rosario from Minnesota. Rosario was injured at the time and spent time in the minors before storming through September.

“We were in this position because we didn’t have any depth,” Anthopoulos said. “We didn’t have any outfielders we felt good about. We had some guys who did a nice job for two weeks, three weeks. If you go get three and then one of those guys gets hurt, you’re in the same boat. In the month of September and August you can’t go get anybody else. So let’s try to get four, and if anything your bench will be stronger.”

Atlanta swept that three-game series at Busch Stadium, and that got them to .500. It wasn’t until the day after leaving St. Louis, in their 111th game of the season, that they surpassed .500 for the first time. After the July 30 trade deadline, the Braves had the fourth-best record in the National League, at 37-19. Just ahead of them was the Cardinals at 38-21. Both teams found fuel for a postseason run from their moves at the deadline.

Atlanta pushed ahead to win the NL East as Rosario had a .916 OPS, Duvall hit 16 home runs and is a finalist for the Silver Slugger Award. Soler hit 14. And Pederson donned a pearl necklace and became an Atlanta sensation.

They give away plastic pearl strands at Braves games.

Like the Cardinals and their “churn” for pitching, Atlanta had nine different outfielders get at least 100 plate appearances. Acuna still ranks first with 360, and he hasn’t played in 3 ½ months. There at ninth was Rosario. He got into 33 games for Atlanta during the regular season, most toward the end as the Braves needed an outfielder to tag in. They had the depth this time. Rosario hasn’t stopped. He has at least a hit in every postseason game he’s played this season. Against Los Angeles, the defending champ, he had two four-hit games and finished the NLCS 14 for 25 (.560) with nine RBIs and as many homers (three) as strikeouts (three).

That helped an 88-win Atlanta team topple the 106-win Dodgers. The Braves of summer were different by October because of decision not to stay idle in July.

“No one in a million years,” Anthopoulos said. “If I had told you guys that we’re getting these four and they’re going to do this, this, this, and we’re going to win the division? And they did it. It’s just a reminder to get in. Get in, and anything can happen.”

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