There is something warmly familiar about the makeup of this Braves postseason roster. A fond faraway memory stirs. Something mindful of really good days bygone.
There are so many young players in high places. So much uncertainty — and yet, a sense of anticipation — about how all of this youth will handle the playoff stress. Such a strong reliance upon the unproven.
Those of a certain age can squint real hard and see traces of 1991 in this mix.
“A lot of similarities with that team in general, but particularly with the starting rotation,” said Tom Glavine, a key player in the worst-to-first season of ’91 that began a Braves run of postseasons that stretched over two decades.
“You’ve got a situation where you’ve got a bunch of talented guys who are relatively inexperienced — certainly in a postseason atmosphere,” Glavine said. “I think there’s a lot of curiosity from people about what these guys are going to do or how (the inexperience) is going to influence the team’s chances.”
In ’91, the worst-to-first turnaround was largely accomplished by a young and restless core that introduced itself by winning a (different than today) divisional race on the next-to-last day of the regular season. It then went to the seven-game limit in both the NLCS and the World Series.
A 21-year-old, pitcher Steve Avery, was the MVP of the NLCS. The rest of the postseason rotation consisted of 24-year-old John Smoltz and 25-year-old Glavine. The team leader in home runs and RBIs was 26-year-old Ron Gant.
Of course, none of them had postseason experience. They were Braves, weren’t they? They mostly were the homegrown products of a franchise that had lost an average of 96 games per season the previous six years.
Another turnaround, maybe not quite as dramatic, is required now, for the Braves have but a single skinny postseason victory in the past eight years. Their previous playoff series win came a dozen years ago.
And here we go again with a rotation of callow pitchers. As for the everyday crew, the team leaders in home runs and RBIs, as well as its cornerstone defensive player, are all 26 and under.
The question of experience, or the lack thereof, will once again dominate the lead-up to a Turner Field October.
Of the pitchers who have separated themselves as probable postseason starters, Kris Medlen is the only one with any firsthand knowledge of the pressures involved. And that was a loss in the one-game wild-card mutation of a year ago.
Along with him at the top of the rotation is Mike Minor, 25, and Julio Teheran, 22, neither with any experience in the peculiar pressures of the win-or-else series.
There has to be a first time for everybody. Even Derek Jeter. It’s not like he just one day inherited five World Series rings.
“Everybody who has had playoff experience has had their first time. …,” Medlen said. “Obviously there’s pressure, but I think we have guys in here who can handle that kind of pressure. I know they can.”
Speaking for the pitchers, Glavine acknowledged there is a temptation for the young first-timer to try to do too much. It feels a little like the first time on the mound after being called up from the minors, he said.
“In your mind, you go out there and think, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to be better. My curveball’s got to be better. My slider’s got to be better. My control’s got to be better.’ There is a trust and confidence factor — and when you haven’t been in a situation, it’s tough to trust sometimes.”
He was the Game 1 pitcher in the 1991 NLCS and took the loss, giving up four runs in six innings. Looking back, he realized he needed to do a better job keeping his emotions in check. He had to get himself out of a mindset that “takes you from trusting yourself and being aggressive and making pitches to get guys out to not quite trusting yourself, being a little more tentative and just trying to not make mistakes.”
Glavine can’t say for sure what to expect of the Braves’ new Big 3 come their first full dose of the postseason. But he certainly seems willing to give each of them the benefit of the doubt.
Glavine on Minor: “I’m obviously partial to him, being left-handed. I’ve really enjoyed watching him bring his game together and coming to understand what he does well.”
On Teheran: “He has been a great story, particularly after last year. He at least took a step sideways last year. And going into the winter, it might have been 50/50 as far as who the Braves fans thought should be traded, him or Randall Delgado. Here we are a year later, and I don’t think anyone is arguing we kept the wrong guy.”
On Medlen: “I love his game. I love his attitude. That’s the attitude I would try to have but was never capable of. He just seems to go with the flow. I envy his ability to put a bad start behind him.”
There is a gracious plenty of youth afield, too, but how could you tell if you weren’t holding their birth certificates?
Jason Heyward, whose broken jaw has cast doubt on what he can give to this postseason, is only 24 but has the features of a 10-year vet. He’s got 523 major league games in his quiver, too. Freddie Freeman’s the same age, but already has three 20-home run seasons to his credit.
Even the 24-year-old shortstop, the one with less than 200 major league games worth of experience, plays with the smoothness of well-worn leather.
“I look around and everyone seems young,” Andrelton Simmons said. “‘Oh, we’re too young’ is not an excuse. It’s a job. If I’m playing shortstop, that’s my job. Doesn’t matter how old you are, you got to do it well. I feel that’s how everybody goes about their business.”
There are a couple of handy facts coming from the regular season that advance the argument this team is mature beyond its years. The final tally was they finished second in the majors in both come-from-behind wins (45) and last at-bat wins (25). They were 12-5 in extra-inning games.
“Seeing how we play late in games, especially when we’re down late, how often we come back, it seems like we’re a pretty mature team. Even though we’re young, I feel like we know what we’re doing,” Simmons said.
As it always has, October will decide who may call themselves all grown up as a player and a team. It is the final rite of passage.