Braves’ Spencer Strider: Changing rhetoric is a lesson learned from postseason collapse

ATLANTA — An hour after the Atlanta Braves’ Game 4 loss at Philadelphia, the second consecutive October in which the Braves were upset by the Phillies in the National League Divison Series after surpassing 100 regular-season wins, Braves pitcher Spencer Strider voiced his disgust.

“We’re going to have to change or improve the way that we focus and prepare for the postseason,” said Strider, standing in a somber visitor’s clubhouse. “There’s just no other way around it. It’s a tough reality to confront, but it’s the only way we’re going to change the results.”

It’s been 3 1/2 months, and Strider said he and other Braves have spent a lot of time hashing out what the six-time defending NL East champions can do to avoid early elimination again, assuming they return to the postseason.

“That’s all I’ve thought about,” Strider said of being sent home by the division-rival Phillies, who won 90 games in the 2023 season and 87 in 2022. “You know, that’s the conversation that we’ve had as a team, whether it’s in groups or one-on-one throughout the offseason, is just how do we put ourselves in a position to have a better outcome in the postseason?

“I’m not saying we have the regular season down; I’m certainly not insinuating that. You never know what’s going to happen. But we’ve got to make the most of everything that happens throughout the regular season so that we’re in the best position possible in the postseason. And I think that last year was a big learning experience, for me and for everybody.”

So, did they come up with ideas about avoiding a similar fate?

“Absolutely — I think rhetoric is one,” said Strider, an analytical thinker who doesn’t speak in platitudes or use a lot of words to say nothing. “Especially when we clinched so early in September, I think just changing the way we talk and the goals we set and what we verbalize into existence, that’s going to be important for us. I think that there should be no acceptance of anything less than winning a World Series in this organization.

“I said it a little bit ago, and I believe it. I’m biased, but it’s the most talented team in baseball. And we need to set our bar as high as possible, and anything less than that is an underachievement for us.”

Immediately after the second straight unceremonious NLDS exits by the Dodgers and Braves — each team won at least 100 games in 2022 and 2023 – there was renewed talk about the randomness of postseason baseball, but also discussion of whether a five-day break hurt teams with first-round playoff byes.

These were explanations the Braves were looking for in their offseason texts and phone calls with one another or discussions among some training together in Atlanta.

“I think everyone’s going to look at last year and ask themselves what they could have done better personally,” catcher Sean Murphy said at Saturday’s Braves Fest. “I can only speak for myself. You know, it could be randomness, but I also think maybe there could be some adjustments made by guys, maybe increased urgency. Again, I don’t know. But we’ll see.

“Hopefully we put ourselves in that situation where we’re a high seed (again).”

The Braves led the majors in almost every offensive category in 2023, tying the single-season homer record (307), averaging nearly six runs per game and hitting an MLB-leading .276 while becoming the first team ever to slug .500 (.501) for a full season. In the NLDS, they hit .186 and had four extra-base hits and eight runs in four games.

“Whoever’s the hottest team usually does the best in the playoffs,” veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I mean, the Phillies were hot. They beat us, they were hot, and then all of a sudden the Diamondbacks got hot and they ended up beating the Phillies (in the NLCS). But Texas stayed hot the whole time towards the end of the year. They had a little funk in the middle, but they were hot (late) and rode it out and ended up winning it all.”

The Braves were not hot in October. They also dealt with injuries and rust to starting pitchers for the second straight postseason. Atlanta’s bullpen showed some fatigue, while one Phillies reliever after another came out firing upper-90s fastballs.

Meanwhile, Phillies sluggers Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos and Trea Turner combined for nine homers and 11 RBIs in the series, with Harper homering twice in Game 3 and staring down Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia as he rounded the bases on each. Harper heard about the “Ha-ha, atta-boy Harper” comment Arcia made following Harper’s base running blunder on a game-ending double play in Game 2, the only Braves win. Arcia hadn’t expected a couple of out-of-town reporters to overhear and report the comment.

“I think there’s obviously a lot of noise and a lot going on in the postseason that’s not essential to performing on the field,” Strider said, not getting more specific than that. “We dealt with that a little bit last year, and it was a learning experience. I mean, that’s the best thing about failure is at least it gives you the opportunity to improve. There’s no guarantee of anything happening this year, we only have the opportunity. But like I said, we’ve got everything that we need to achieve what we want to.”

Braves first baseman Matt Olson led the majors in home runs (54) and RBIs (139) while setting franchise records in both categories. He was 4-for-16 with no extra-base hits or RBIs in the NLDS for a Braves team that got three homers and five RBIs from Austin Riley and d’Arnaud, and one extra-base hit (a double) and two RBIs from everyone else.

“Obviously it’s going to be a really sour taste with how it ended, especially after the year we had — and more so offensively, the year we had,” Olson said. “And how it happened in the playoffs there. The playoffs are a different ballgame. It’s who can get hot and stay hot. It definitely wasn’t our best series by any means. You know, it wasn’t all on us. They threw some good arms at us and they pitched really well, too.

“But yeah, it sucks when you have the collective year that we had as a unit and then you go into the playoffs and it’s kind of a speed bump at the wrong time,” Riley said. “You can look at it two different ways. You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself, or you can try to learn from what happened and try to get better. And I think that’s the way that I’ve personally looked at it this offseason, just trying to improve some stuff from the hitting side, defensive side. I think that’s a lot of the mindset of guys we have, is just continue to, one, try to win a division, and then get to that point (in the playoffs) and know what we need to do to take care of business.”

At Saturday’s event, Braves players faced plenty of questions about the postseason collapse. The line of questioning did nothing to deter a positive mood among Strider, Olson and everyone else in a uniform. This remains a highly confident and optimistic team, one that’s again a consensus pick to win the division, despite the Phillies’ recent postseason upper hand.

“I’d throw our lineup against anybody in baseball,” Olson said. “And I think that’s kind of how everybody views it. We got a lot of confidence and hopefully we can repeat and put up some good numbers. Try to win a bunch of games in the regular season, and like I said, be that team that’s hot in the playoffs this year.”

The Braves return every hitter from their loaded lineup except in left field, where the Braves believe they got better with a trade for former Mariners prospect Jarred Kelenic, after declining an option on left fielder Eddie Rosario’s contract.

Atlanta returns the starting trio of MLB strikeout leader Strider, ace Max Fried (coming off an injury-plagued season and entering his final year before free agency) and 40-year-old Charlie Morton, who missed the NLDS with a finger-ligament injury.

The Braves fortified the rotation by trading for former White Sox/Red Sox ace Chris Sale, who made seven straight All-Star teams and was in the top-six of Cy Young Award voting in each of those seasons before Tommy John surgery and several other injuries in the past four years.

After making 11 starts during 2021-2022, the lefty had a 4.30 ERA in 20 starts last season with Boston, including a 3.16 ERA in the last 15 of those with 95 strikeouts and 19 walks in 79 2/3 innings. The lanky 34-year-old has a fiery reputation for being ultra-competitive, working hard and having an edge about him, and Sale also has been praised as a great teammate everywhere he’s been.

Braves GM and president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos made a bevy of changes to the bullpen, bringing in several hard throwers led by lefty Aaron Bummer and his former White Sox teammate Reynaldo López, though the righty with the triple-digit fastball will be stretched out to start in case the Braves want to use López in the fifth rotation spot to begin the season.

“Obviously you saw the Philly series with a lot of high-velo guys,” Olson said, referencing the Phillies bullpen. “And just being able to get the refresher day (between postseason games), I just feel like it’s a little different than the regular season grind because we’re going all out (in postseason). So, the velo absolutely adds a little element to it. But we’ve got a great staff. Whatever these guys are sitting (velocity-wise), they know how to pitch, which I think is a lot more important than just going up and throwing hard.

“But, as far as who Alex has brought in, all the new names that we brought in, it’s been incredible.”

As for the offense, Braves players say there’s no reason they can’t have a similar output at the plate, with everyone returning including NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr., who had a staggering 41-homer, 73-stolen base season from the leadoff position while batting .337 with a 1.012 OPS.

“I definitely think so,” Riley said. “I think guys are still hungry and ready to get after it. Anything can happen, you just got to go out there and play your game. I think we’ve got a really good, special group again, really talented. The pieces that Alex has brought in is, it’s great.”

Strider was asked if the Braves, after the addition of power arms in the bullpen, plus Sale and Kelenic, might be more talented than a year ago.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “The sky is truly the limit for us. You know, all the things we were able to do in the regular season, last year are pretty special. I think we’d gladly trade some of it for a World Series. But the pieces are there, 100 percent, to maximize what we can do in that short sample size of the postseason.

“And starting on Day 1 of spring training, that’s going to be the goal, is putting ourselves in a position every single day to be successful in that arena.”

(Photo of Spencer Strider: Bill Streicher/USA Today)

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