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Friday, April 23, 2021

Turning the Braves’ season around was nothing short of a miracle

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Out of nowhere, the Atlanta Braves have broken through to the top of their division — while the St. Louis Cardinals appear to be losing steam with the start of the N.L.C.S. playoffs.

Atlanta’s 4-1 win on Sunday — which ended up being the rest of the team’s season, with the Cardinals’ slumping Noah Syndergaard and Jake Arrieta unable to finish off the Braves’ lineup over four innings — was a massive reversal of fortune.

The Cardinals entered that weekend just five games ahead of the Braves in the N.L.C.S. race, meaning the two are now 7.5 games ahead of each other. The implications aren’t huge for either side, but it’s an incredibly decisive performance for Atlanta, a team whose season seemed to be in limbo for most of August and September. The Braves then added numerous and timely pieces to their roster in a rather frantic play for the final two months of the season, with the front office now saying goodbye to some of their cornerstones, including Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson and Ronald Acuna Jr.

Atlanta brought back Eric O’Flaherty, Jaime Garcia and Arodys Vizcaino in late August, plus Jacob Turner late last month, making for a relatively large number of changes for manager Brian Snitker as the team ran out of roster spots. But all were extremely important pieces to an arsenal that now is composed of a few young pieces with important experience, and plenty of veterans.

Turner, who was acquired in a late July trade with Toronto, pitched a scoreless inning in his debut on Saturday, limiting St. Louis to just one run — a leadoff single by Paul DeJong. His story is well-known, having missed most of 2017 due to Tommy John surgery. He returned to the majors last season with Arizona and clearly did his rehab work well, working back on top of his game quickly. Now, Turner brings an imposing force to Atlanta’s bullpen, but it was shown just how well he could pitch on the mound again by the way he set up Swanson on Saturday.

Vizcaino had arguably the biggest impact of the Braves’ additions. Known as a closer before needing Tommy John surgery in 2015, Vizcaino bounced back well in his first year as a starter — a role he’ll probably continue to fulfill for Atlanta — but his presence ended up being almost as big as anyone else’s.

Vizcaino, who has had three different surgeries since 2015, gave the Braves one of their 10 no-hitters this season, working through 105 pitches in Atlanta’s 2-0 win over the Phillies on Sept. 14. Many experts said Vizcaino was well on his way to needing Tommy John surgery again, but despite his well-documented history, the 32-year-old didn’t seem bothered by the idea in recent weeks. And now, Vizcaino is almost back in his old form.

It seemed as if the remaining pieces were on the cusp of coming together before Atlanta’s offense faltered down the stretch. And then, the team’s young core took the series from the Cardinals — a team widely considered the best at baseball — handily on Saturday. That victory sparked a complete turnaround in the Braves’ season, as they outscored St. Louis 20-6 over two games.

Now, everyone in Atlanta can breathe a sigh of relief.

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