ATLANTA -- For most of the past eight years, the Braves have been characterized as "The Big Train That Didn't." This year, they enter the postseason as "The Little Train That Could ... Prove Everybody Wrong."
Whether the Braves lose in the Division Series for the fourth time in the past five years or actually duplicate the miraculous run their 1991 team made to the World Series, they'll be able to look back at this season and know they've already proven almost everybody wrong.
"I think the Atlanta Braves fans should be filled with anticipation and the excitement of not knowing what to expect," Braves closer John Smoltz said. "I don't think if we were to lose this year that the disappointment should be as great as when the expectations were so high."
Entering this season, expectations were that finally the Braves would be onlookers when the playoffs began. But that was before this bunch proved resilient by rising from the depths of despair to capture that 13th consecutive division title that nobody thought was possible.
Now, as the Braves prepare for another postseason, they are drawing comparisons to that 1991 team -- the one that ended a string of three straight last-place finishes and advanced all the way to the World Series, where they lost Games 6 and 7 in extra innings.
Anguish caused by that heart-breaking conclusion was erased with the reality of what the Braves actually had accomplished. Now that season seems all the more special, because it marked the beginning of this unprecedented run.
"The excitement, the joy and just the unbridled enthusiasm that was in this town in 1991, I'll never forget," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "This season is very similar to that because the expectations were at level zero, or one or two, in a world of 10."
While the fans and media might not have expected much from this Braves team, Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox at least verbally remained confident before the season and on June 23, when the Braves were a season-high six games below .500 and 6 1/2 games out of first place.
While some chuckled at the seemingly unwarranted optimism, Cox and Schuerholz have had the last laugh, again.
On July 23, the Braves claimed sole possession of first place, and they never shared or lost it again the rest of the year. Along the way to this latest division title, they overcame a number of significant early-season injuries and managed to claim 16 last at-bat victories.
In other words, it's easy to realize why Chipper Jones believes this fighting spirit might be what the Braves need to end their recent postseason woes.
"I expect us to perform the way we have in the second half," Jones said. "We're not going to blow anybody out -- that's obvious. We're going to have to scratch and claw, come from behind and play good defense to be successful. We're used to doing that because that's how we survived."
While Smoltz has been present throughout this run, in which the Braves have advanced to the World Series five times, Jones' first full season came in 1995, when the Braves won a world championship -- the only one they've captured during this long run of success.
Chipper Jones / 3B
Weight: 210 lbs
Bats: S / Throws: R
"When we won in 1995, everyone said that we wouldn't win again because we'd have the 'Fat Cat Syndrome,'" Smoltz said. "That was completely wrong. It's like the worst drug in the world when you win."
Longing for that euphoric feeling that only a world championship can bring, Smoltz has been devastated during each of the past five Octobers. Since advancing to the 1999 World Series, the Braves have advanced past the Division Series just once (2001).
Heading into last year's playoffs, Smoltz preached that it could be the Braves' last chance to win. But he, like almost everybody else, didn't realize how dominant Jaret Wright and John Thomson would be on the mound; or that J.D. Drew would prove to be a good replacement for Gary Sheffield; or that some guy named Charles Thomas would bring so much energy to the club.
"I'm a lot more excited about this year," Smoltz said. "There's not going to be a dull game, from the standpoint where a lead's not big enough or a deficit isn't great enough. We've proven that we can come back."
Whether it's been overcoming the adversity of injuries, late-inning deficits, or significant preseason and midseason doubts, this Braves team has proven to be one that won't go away.
Thus they're back in the playoffs for the 13th consecutive time and hoping to prove their doubters wrong once again.
"I've always thought if we keep giving ourselves opportunities, one of these days we're going to get it right," Jones said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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