• Exclusives

    A Brief Visit to an Empty Ballpark as the Braves Right the Ship in Miami

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Wow, it’s been a minute since I’ve typed that dateline. It almost feels normal on a summer Sunday.

    Of course, it’s been a minute since anything has felt normal.

    I rolled down to Dunwoody this morning with my wife to meet a friend of hers from work for socially distanced coffee and conversation. He works in her company’s IT department and we share plenty of common interests, from security to sports. He’s from Long Island and lost his father to COVID-19 this spring, and had to watch the funeral via an online stream.

    It’s been a rough year for him, but hopefully things are turning around a bit. His Islanders are providing some joy right now; he had to leave early to finish errands in time for today’s noon puck drop, New York taking a 3-0 series lead over Washington with an overtime victory in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

    So with some extra time on our hands mid-morning and being a few miles from Truist Park, I looked at my wife and told her I needed to see my second home.

    Silent Sunday: An empty Lot 29 along Circle 75 Parkway on Sunday morning.

    And that we did, driving past a desolate Lot 29 at a time when on many a Sunday morning, I already would be en route from my North Georgia home toward the home of the Atlanta Braves. It’s been more than five months since I’ve visited Truist Park and The Battery. My wife had planned a surprise birthday party for me at The Battery for the second Saturday in March, three days after my March 11 birthday.

    Of course, March 11 is the night the NBA closed down, hockey and college hoops shuttered the next day, and by that Saturday our world was completely changed. But on this warm August Sunday morning, I spent a few minutes wandering through The Battery, wearing my blue road jersey … and my mask.

    I stood in front of the Chop House Gate, the new Trust Park sign hanging overhead, and another new sign on the gate with a stark reminder.

    A Different World: The Chop House Gate at Truist Park on Sunday.

    A sign of the times, I guess.

    It felt good to be there, even if only for a few minutes. I could almost hear Casey Motter, the public address announcer. I could almost feel the buzz of the gathering pregame crowd. I could almost see the masses in Lot 29, gathering together for good food and good beverages before cheering on this baseball team that’s become so good in recent years.

    In recent days? That ballclub has not been so good. As we return our thoughts from what will be the sweetest day imaginable when we all can gather at the ballpark on gameday, let’s assess where the Braves are after they salvaged a difficult road trip with back-to-back victories in Miami to close the weekend.

    One Ace Remains: Let’s go ahead and say it, even if it’s a small sample size in a wacky year – Max Fried is pitching like an ace. Four times in his first five starts, the 26-year-old has taken the mound following an Atlanta loss. The Braves are 4-0 in those contests, helped substantially by the left-hander giving up three runs on 12 hits in 22 innings with eight walks and 21 strikeouts in those outings.

    If you wonder how Fried’s beginning to 2020 matches up with injured ace Mike Soroka’s first five starts of 2019, they’re really similar:

    Soroka 2019: Five starts, 29 2/3 innings, 20 hits, six runs (four earned) 11 walks, 31 strikeouts, 1.21 ERA, .183 opponents batting average.

    Fried 2020: Five starts, 29 innings, 17 hits, four runs (four earned), nine walks, 28 strikeouts, 1.24 ERA, .173 opponents batting average.

    Looks like ace stuff to me.

    Get well soon, Ronnie and Ozzie: In case you haven’t noticed, the Braves are without their two sparkplugs at the top of the lineup, with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies on the injured list with wrist injuries. There’s no two ways about it – it’s a massive hole that has impacted the Atlanta lineup. So much so, first baseman Freddie Freeman made his second career start hitting in second in the batting order Sunday.

    The Braves were a mess offensively for much of the road trip, despite scoring five runs in four of the nine games, but Dansby Swanson extended his hitting streak to four games in the leadoff spot with two knocks Sunday. Travis d’Arnaud, who has hit second before he earned Sunday off, is hitting .333 while collecting seven extra-base hits and 12 RBIs in 48 at-bats. Nick Markakis, who hit cleanup (lord) Sunday, came through with two hits and three RBIs in a 4-0 victory.

    I’m sorry, Robbie: My reaction was not optimistic when the Braves announced that journeyman lefty Robbie Erlin – who saw the first pitch he delivered in an Atlanta uniform belted for a grand slam by Didi Gregorius on Monday in Philadelphia – would start Sunday. I didn’t even spell his name right in my various tweets from the lake Sunday afternoon.

    But the 29-year-old delivered in a big way. If you predicted Erlin would give up just one hit while striking out five with no walks in four sparkling innings Sunday, you somehow had faith in a pitcher who posted a 5.37 ERA in 37 appearances with San Diego a season ago before being released by the Pirates following two games this season. Erlin filled up the strike zone and kept the Marlins off stride, and most importantly chewed up valuable innings early at a rate we’ve seen very seldom from anybody not named Fried.

    Nice work, Robbie. I predict he’ll get another start. I also predict I’ll learn how to spell his last name between now and then.

    A Black Hole at the Hot Corner: I know Johan Camargo is logging time at second base while Albies is out, but he and his third-base partner Austin Riley are taking turns seeing who can look worse at the plate. Camargo struck out four times Sunday and is hitting .190 on the season, while Riley fanned twice as his average plunged to .150. One could make the case Camargo and Riley were the two hottest Braves hitters before COVID-19 shuttered spring training. They couldn’t be colder now, combining for 44 strikeouts in 123 at-bats.

    That’s not sustainable, and you have to wonder at this point if the duo wouldn’t be better served with a night or two off, meaning Adeiny Hechavarria would man third and Charlie Culberson – who has six at-bats through 23 games – get the nod at second.

    Hey Freddie, do you still have your third baseman’s glove from 2017?

    The Ender Conundrum: Ender Inciarte jump-started the three-run seventh Sunday with an opposite-field single. He’ll need a lot more of that and a lot less roll-over-grounders-to-the-right-side – not to mention no more signs of continued regression in center field – to hold off top prospect Cristian Pache much longer.

    Here’s the problem: Inciarte is out of options, so stop tweeting begging the Braves to send him to the minors (which, by the way, really don’t exist in 2020). He’s owed $8 million next season; he’s not getting DFA’d, so stop tweeting that, too.

    Alex Anthopoulos isn’t cutting that type of loss without getting something in return (most likely as part of a bigger offseason deal where the Braves will have to eat a substantial portion of the 2021 money). So the Braves are stuck, in a way, and must hope the former Gold Glove winner can regain some semblance of his prior form across the final 37 games of the season.

    Honestly, if Atlanta wants to add Pache (who already is on the 40-man roster), the likely move to clear a spot on the 28-man active roster would be releasing Culberson – which I’m sure would make plenty of those screaming for Ender to disappear none too happy.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.