Saturday , July 2 2022

Inside the closed-door meeting that got the Braves playing like champs again

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker was feeling restless. The defending champions were keeping him up at night.

When his team dropped the first two games of a series against the Arizona Diamondbacks to close out May, the Braves had fallen four games under .500 and Snitker decided something needed to be done.

“I was rolling around, not sleeping,” he recalled. “Then I started jotting some notes down in my hotel room and I needed to get in front of them. We weren’t ourselves.

“I was getting texts, ‘Are you going to blow these guys up?’ No. Players don’t respond to that.”

So Snitker consulted with his bench coach, Walt Weiss, and decided they needed to act now, calling a closed-door meeting in the visitor’s clubhouse when his players entered Phoenix’s Chase Field facing a potential sweep.

“Snit is not going to get in front of a club and rant and rave,” Weiss said. “It was a very simple message.”

The message: relax. The aftermath: 14 straight wins.

By the time the Braves finally lost for the first time this month Friday, they had cut the Mets’ NL East lead from 10½ games to 5½. They had gone from 4½ games out of a wild-card spot to owning the National League’s fourth-best record.

“One event doesn’t make 14 wins happen,” new Braves first baseman Matt Olson said. “But it was nice to hear Snit get up there and tell everyone to relax a little. We were not playing great baseball as far as the complete package, so it was just a ‘take a deep breath’ type of meeting.”

Some of this felt rather familiar: The Braves got off to a similar slow start a season ago and eventually won a championship, becoming the first team to even reach the World Series after not having a winning record until as late as Aug. 6, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

In fact, Snitker acknowledges winning that 2021 title might have had something to do with the sluggish start. A season that went into November, followed by a winter of the appearances and ad campaigns and further time commitments that come along with being champions — not to mention a work stoppage that lasted into March — might have weighed on the players. Baseball has not crowned back-to-back champs in more than two decades — and the Braves’ slow start only amplified talk of a World Series hangover.

“Takes about a month to feel normal. It does take a lot out of you,” Snitker said. “I don’t know if hangover is the right word. The effort was there but there is an effect of a deep, long playoff race.”

Third baseman Austin Riley added: “I don’t know about hangovers. We were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to do too much. Stuff that was kind of outside ourselves.”

The Braves’ resurgence has come on both sides of the ball. Since June 1, Atlanta’s team OPS of .870 ranks third in the majors and only the Yankees have more home runs than the Braves’ 39. Meanwhile, the pitching staff’s 3.61 ERA is seventh in baseball during that stretch. Getting that kind of contribution will be even more crucial as the schedule ramps up with series against the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers this week.

In the offseason, Snitker studied the physical toll and mental pressure trying to repeat can have on a team. He took note of one that did go back to back: the 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays.

“I think they had 14 new guys the second year,” Snitker said. “I look back at the 14-year run we had [in the ’90s]. I think there were 10 new guys every year.

“You are not going to carbon copy this thing.”

From the beginning of the winter, the Braves were clear that they wouldn’t try — a combination of offseason moves eventually saw the team say goodbye to Freddie Freeman and hello to Olson.

Snitker’s locker room call came June 1, after the Braves lost their second game of the series to the Diamondbacks in extra innings the night before. From there, it was a complete turnaround. First the team won the series finale against the Diamondbacks. Then came sweeps of the Rockies, Athletics, Pirates and Nationals. Sixteen days later, Atlanta finally lost, dropping two of three to the Cubs over the weekend.

“We’ve hit a groove,” outfielder Adam Duvall said. “Everyone is doing their job. Everyone is contributing. … Sometimes it’s good to get together and make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

“There are only so many things you can control,” rookie Spencer Strider said. “When you call attention to things, you make them a priority. There was no panic or major urgency to change how we were working.”

It’s impossible to say how much of that streak really had to do with the message Snitker communicated to his team three weeks ago — but at least he’s sleeping better at night.

“It’s probably about me more than it is them,” Snitker said with a smile. “I felt like I needed to get it off my chest.”


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