By KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON (AP) — Not since the days of John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine had the Atlanta Braves pitched like this in the playoffs.
And even those future Hall of Famers didn’t throw the way these Braves have this postseason.
“What those guys did on the mound is almost mind-blowing,” manager Brian Snitker said.
Rookie Kyle Wright dazzled for six innings in his postseason debut, and the Braves rode their superb pitching to beat the Miami Marlins 7-0 Thursday for a three-game sweep and their first trip to the NL Championship Series since 2001.
Wright (1-0) was sharp despite not pitching since Sept. 25, allowing three hits and walking two with a career-high seven strikeouts. A.J. Minter, Jacob Webb and Shane Greene finished the five-hitter.
Atlanta became the second team in history to throw four shutouts in the first five playoff games, joining the 1905 New York Giants behind Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity.
After two rounds the Braves have already pitched the most postseason shutouts in franchise history, besting the 1996 and 1991 teams that threw three each as both lost in the World Series.
They are one shutout shy of tying the MLB record for most in a postseason set by the 2016 Indians over 15 games.
“It’s pretty cool to have that many shutouts, and it points to how good we’ve been as a staff,” the 25-year-old Wright said, perhaps not fully grasping the team’s place in history.
Atlanta had lost eight straight Division Series, including in each of the previous two seasons, before outscoring the Marlins 18-5, including 11-0 in the final two games. The Braves are 5-0 with a 0.92 ERA in the postseason, allowing five runs in 49 innings after ranking 15th in the majors in the regular season with a 4.41 ERA.
The staff has fanned 59 batters and walked nine with just 30 hits in the postseason.
“It’s been fun,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “They’ve just been executing.”
There were only a few scattered cheers as the Braves wrapped up the series in an almost empty Minute Maid Park, where the only fans allowed were players’ friends and families.
They will play the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Diego in the NLCS starting Monday in Arlington, Texas. They had not advanced to the NLCS since they were led by Chipper Jones and the Big Three pitchers, a team managed by Bobby Cox.
First baseman Freddie Freeman, who has spent his entire 11-year career with the Braves, understands more than most what finally returning to the Championship Series means.
“A lot of these guys don’t know much of the history in that clubhouse but now we get to start our own and hopefully it’s a good run for us,” Freeman said.
D’Arnaud doubled twice, with the first one driving in two runs in Atlanta’s big third inning. The veteran, who bounced around three teams in a tough 2019, helped steady Atlanta’s young starters, was 6 for 10 with three doubles, two home runs and seven RBIs in the sweep.
The Marlins, who lost 105 games last season, were the feel-good story of this postseason after overcoming a coronavirus outbreak among 18 players following the opening series in Philadelphia that forced the team from the field for a week. They reached the postseason for the first time since 2003 and with a front office led by Derek Jeter and and a dugout headed by manager Don Mattingly, they came in confident after sweeping the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card round.
But the young team was overwhelmed and lost a playoff series for the first time after entering 7-0 with titles in 1997 and 2003.
“We’ve taken another step forward,” Mattingly said.
Rookie Sixto Sánchez (0-1) walked Ronald Acuña Jr. to start the third, and Acuña stole second before advancing to third on a single by Freddie Freeman. Marcell Ozuna laced a single that scored Acuña.
D’Arnaud knocked a double off the bullpen in right-center to send two home and extend the lead to 3-0. The Braves tacked on another run on a sacrifice fly by Dansby Swanson.
Sánchez, who threw five scoreless frames in Game 2 of the wild card round, was done after that inning, allowing four hits and runs with three walks as he tied his shortest outing of the season.
The Marlins had a chance to cut into the lead in the bottom of the inning when they loaded the bases with two outs. But Jazz Chisholm grounded out to end the threat.
It was a theme throughout the day for Miami, which went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position.
“At the end of the day, we have to be happy but not satisfied with what happened,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said of the season.
Atlanta added a run in the fourth when Acuña scored from first after centerfielder Magneuris Sierra committed an error on a single by Freeman.
The Braves continued to pour it on in the fifth when Swanson had an RBI single and Adam Duvall sent him home with a double to make it 7-0.
Atlanta’s win overshadowed a terrific catch by Corey Dickerson in the second that helped Sánchez escape a bases-loaded with no outs jam. Sánchez struck out Adam Duvall for the first out before Dickerson dived to catch a ball hit by Nick Markakis just before it hit the grass that likely saved multiple runs from scoring.
Dickerson’s catch came a day after Markakis made a perfect throw to pick Dickerson off at second in the eighth inning of Game 2.
“We know it’s not where we want to go, but we did give ourselves an opportunity this year,” Mattingly said. “I think that’s a step forward for us.”