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It’s go time for Braves

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

It’s easy to play the “what-could-have-been” game with the Atlanta Braves.

While there have been a few down years since 1991 when they put together their magical last-to-first season, the past three decades have been mostly kind to the Braves.

Yet despite knocking on the door so many times in the postseason, the Atlanta Braves have one lonely World Series win on their resume, and that came in 1995, more than 25 years ago.

The Braves probably should have more, a lot more honestly.

Especially in the 90s, how many years were they clearly the best team, only to come up short, often in excruciating fashion.

Those losses were painful, some more than others (I’m looking at you 1996 World Series).

While it is disappointing there haven’t been more championships, I’m grateful that, for 30 years now, I’ve had a (mostly) winning ball club to follow.

There are a bunch of other fan bases that would love to be in that same position.

With rare exceptions, they’ve played meaningful games into October for 30 years, and while the playoff losses hurt, it beats being an irrelevant team by the time July 4th comes around.

I grew up watching the Braves in the 80s, and while we had Dale Murphy, that was about it.

In those days, it was all about losing teams, small crowds, and zero hope (but I still watched).

It all changed in 1991, and that remains my favorite year as a Braves’ fan, or as a sports fan period.

The Braves came from nowhere to chase down the Dodgers and win a division title before beating the Pirates to reach the World Series.

The Braves ultimately fell short and lost to the Twins in a World Series that is an all-time classic, but for me, there are nothing but positive memories from that year.

For a kid from the 80s to see his beloved team in the World Series meant everything.

That brings us to the 2021 season.

There hasn’t been this level of optimism surrounding the Braves since those heady days in the 90s.

A year ago, the Braves were one victory away from returning to the World Series for the first time since 1999, but they couldn’t finish off the Dodgers.

Is it a flawless team? Nope.

The bullpen could be better, and while there are some serviceable players on the bench, there don’t appear to be every-day players waiting in the wings if one of the starters goes down.

Those are the negatives.

As for the positives, there are plenty.

Let’s start with the lineup, and it’s going to be fun to watch these men go to work. Ronald Acuna Jr. is a legit 40-40 threat at the top of the lineup, and Ozzie Albies is a threat in the number two hole.

Freddie Freeman, the number three hitter, is one of the best players in the game and is coming off an MVP season, and he’ll be protected by having Marcell Ozuna in the cleanup spot.

Travis d’Arnaud was one of the game’s best hitting catchers last season, and Dansby Swanson is solid if unspectacular.

There are question marks at the bottom of the lineup.

Austin Riley has ridiculous power, but he’s inconsistent, and Christian Pache is unproven, although clearly the potential is there.

Still, that’s a lineup that shouldn’t have any issues putting runs on the board.

Let’s look at the starting pitching.

Maybe it’s not the mid-90s Braves with three future Cy Young winners in the rotation, but it’s a formidable staff.

Returning young guns Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka and Kyle Wright are joined by free-agent signees Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.

The Morton signing was particularly valuable because of the postseason experience he brings to the team.

Those pitchers are backed up by a defense that is elite.

Ozuna is the weak spot in left field, but with Pache and Acuna surrounding him in the outfield, the Braves can overcome that.

Leading the way is manager Brian Snitker, who has his detractors, but the players appreciate him and the Braves don’t have the clubhouse issues that other teams have.

The bullpen lost some key pieces from the 2020 team, but Will Smith and Chris Martin are dependable, veteran arms who have a history of success, and that’s an area that could be strengthened through trades.

As for the bench, it’s not great.

The “best” player on the bench is Ender Inciarte, and he’s a few years removed from his prime.

Again, the bench can be improved through trades, and if everyone stays healthy (knock on wood), it shouldn’t be a major issue anyway.

So here we are.

It’s time for another ride, and while there are no guarantees in sports, the Braves are loaded, and they are the team to beat in the National League East.

Whatever happens in October will happen, for better or worse.

Before then, I’ll enjoy having a team that should be among the best in the game, and that’ll make for some fun summer nights, and we actually get to watch them in person this year.

Let’s play ball, and go Braves.