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‘This is the player he was supposed to be’: Travis d’Arnaud finds home, success in playoffs with Braves

ARLINGTON, Texas — There’s just one player who in the past two seasons played for three of the four teams still vying for a trip to the World Series, which says plenty about the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves and their never-ending quest to get better.

It also says a lot about Travis d’Arnaud.

Now 31, he’s in a heady place, vying for his second trip to the World Series in five years. He bats cleanup in a Braves lineup stacked with power throughout and featuring MVP candidates like Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna.

Behind the plate, d’Arnaud has guided a young and emerging Braves staff through a historic playoff run: Shutouts in four of their first five playoff games, a feat not accomplished since 1905. The nasty young starters, led by Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson, and a veteran bullpen with Mark Melancon at the back end, could not be better aligned for the National League Championship Series, which begins Monday at Globe Life Field.

His massive contributions in their NL Division Series sweep of Miami – six hits in 10 at-bats, including homers in Games 1 and 2 and a go-ahead double in Game 3 – sent him more than once to the postgame podium, a practically unimaginable place given his travels just 15 months ago.

Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud celebrates after doubling in a run in the third inning of Game 1 against the Miami Marlins. (Photo: Thomas Shea, USA TODAY Sports)

After just five starts and 23 at-bats, he was released by the New York Mets on May 3, 2019, ending a seven-year run with the organization.

Two days later, he was snapped up by the Dodgers, who could keep him only long enough for one plate appearance, given the complexities of their always-deep 40-man roster. So on May 10, he was sent to the Tampa Bay Rays for cash.

Three franchises, one week, a veritable whirlwind for a veteran player.

Yet, given the pedigrees of the Rays' and Dodgers’ talent evaluators, it was also an unlikely boost of self-esteem.

“It made me feel like I was doing something right,” says d’Arnaud. “Something was right in my mindset. I had to just keep continuing that and good things would come.

“It’s crazy how things worked out, but all you can do is keep moving forward and if anything bad happens, keep learning and keep trying to do the best you do.”

Since then, things only keep getting better.

D’Arnaud stuck with the Rays for the rest of 2019, equaling a career-high with 16 homers in just 92 games, for a club that won 96 games and reached the AL Division Series. A free agent for the first time, he and the Braves fell quickly for one another, with them committing $16 million to d’Arnaud over two years, based largely on a half-season of production.

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Yet despite an up-and-down career that included Tommy John surgery, it’s safe to say d’Arnaud has always been valued.

He’s been traded for two Cy Young Award winners, a key to the 2009 deal that sent Roy Halladay from Toronto to the Phillies, who had drafted d’Arnaud 37th overall in 2007. In 2012, he and Noah Syndergaard were shipped from Toronto to the Mets in a seven-player deal highlighted by R.A. Dickey.

But injuries and poor performance – he had a .297 on-base percentage from 2016-2018 – took the sheen off his Mets stint after their surprising 2015 World Series run, to the point he, at least publicly, shifts no blame to the franchise for his 2019 dismissal.

“I went 1-for-22,” he says, actually shortchanging himself a hit. “You can’t blame them. I didn’t play well.”

Or perhaps he wasn’t deployed properly. The Dodgers pounced on him quickly, a brief dalliance that nonetheless centered a player who grew up in nearby Lakewood, California, attending the rival high school of Justin Turner, for one.

“Growing up a Dodger fan,” says d’Arnaud, “it reminded me of who I was, where I’m from, and why I play baseball.”

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos traded for d'Arnaud as Toronto's GM, and despite Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann being on Atlanta's roster, inquired about him when the Mets released him last year. His track record made it easy to make an aggressive, early pitch in free agency.

"Everything we’re seeing now, he’s shown in the past and just hasn’t been able to stay on the field and put it together from a consistency standpoint," Anthopoulos said Sunday. "For me, this is not a surprise. This is the player he was supposed to be. He just got derailed by health and injuries.

"When we were trying to sign him, we told his agent, 'we think you’re about to hit your peak and your prime, and these will be the two best years of your career.' Again, small sample, but we’re thrilled with everything he’s done for us."

To say the least. D’Arnaud posted career-bests in batting average (.321) and OPS (.919) over the shortened season, hitting nine homers in 44 games.

He says it “takes a village” to keep him pointing in the right direction, citing a “loving wife and adoring daughter” that are always reminding him of his best self.

“Just an amazing offseason pickup for us,” says Freeman, the NL MVP favorite.

And not a bad turn of events for d’Arnaud, who, instead of game-planning against the vaunted Braves lineup, is instead helping them do damage.

“I know playing against them, calling a game against them, I wouldn’t go to bed until 5 a.m.,” he says, thinking of his Mets days. “Now I sleep a little better, knowing I’m on that team.”

One that’s afforded him a permanent residence, and another shot at the World Series, to boot.  

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