• Exclusives

    As Braves Close In On East Clinch, A Moment To Appreciate The Journey Here

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two years ago today, I stopped by a cigar shop and liquor store on a bright autumn Saturday morning. I bought two expensive stogies, four bottles of champagne, and cruised toward what was then called SunTrust Park.

    A few hours later, Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field, the Braves raced out of the first-base dugout, and tears of joy fell as Atlanta celebrated the 2018 National League East championship. Amid the mosh pit behind the pitcher’s mound, hugs were exchanged, T-shirts and hats were handed out, and Braves Country exploded in joy as the long five-year nightmare had ended.

    The rebuild was over.

    My, how things have changed as we sit here on this Tuesday in late September, the Braves potentially being able to clinch a third-consecutive division crown in just a few hours. I won’t be inside what’s now called Truist Park. You won’t be, either. We haven’t attended a Braves game all season, but while the pandemic has kept fans at home throughout this truncated 60-game season, we can take solace in two things:

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

    The “we” in the previous sentence isn’t just applicable to the Braves, but all of Major League Baseball. I certainly had my doubts and fears in the early days of this season like no other, especially after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experienced outbreaks in the initial weeks of this campaign. But here we are with six games left to go, a four-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins!) in the East standings, and another date with October looming on the horizon.

    It pales in comparison to what so many have endured the past six months, but these Braves have relied on a ton of resiliency to reach this point. They watched their pitching rotation fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane – the latest shoe dropping Monday when Cole Hamels, the biggest mistake of the Alex Anthopoulos era, landed back on the injured list and being done for the season after getting 10 outs in a Braves uniform. He joins the laundry list of hurlers who won’t help the Braves moving forward, a list that if you knew in mid-July would be a thing, nobody would blame you for wanting Atlanta to tank the season or just forget it altogether and move on to 2021.

    But these Braves had other plans. We wondered how the offense would look with Marcell Ozuna replacing Josh Donaldson, with the platoon of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo playing every day, with Adam Duvall and the ageless Nick Markakis getting some semblance of regular playing time. It’s turned into arguably the best Braves lineup top-to-bottom since the team moved to Atlanta 55 years ago, Ozuna earning himself a big payday on the open market this winter and Duvall looking like an extension candidate and Acuna and Ozzie Albies overcoming injuries to shine and Dansby Swanson – a recent slump notwithstanding – continuing his offensive progression and Travis d’Arnaud looking like the steal of last winter.

    And of course, Riley winning the third-base job and showing a much better approach at the plate. He’s never going to hit .280 in my opinion, but the power is real and the plate discipline has been much better and he’s showed he can play above-average defense at the hot corner. Duvall is a legitimate comeback player of the year candidate, ranking among the league leaders in homers. Were it not for the massive focus the front office must have (that’s not negotiable at this point, Alex) on starting rotation in the offseason, the Braves would be justified to hand Ozuna a huge four-year deal.

    But as always, the story of these Braves centers not on the prolific offense, the swagger of Acuna, the emergence of Riley and Duvall, the lock-down bullpen, or the way Max Fried has developed into a co-ace with the injured Mike Soroka. No, this story circles back to a tall first baseman from California who has been the one constant in the Atlanta lineup for a decade.

    Freddie Freeman didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball less than three months ago, stricken with COVID-19 and a 104-degree fever. We laughed when he took 30-plus at-bats in a five-day span across intrasquad games and two exhibitions against the Marlins, attempting to ramp up for the season opener. He struggled through the first 13 games, hitting .190 with a .656 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

    Since then, the Braves captain has slashed .382/.492/.711 for a scorching hot 1.202 OPS in 41 games, with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 41 games. The DH coming to the NL spurred manager Brian Snitker to move Freeman to the second spot in the batting order, where the 31-year-old is hitting .407 with a 1.233 OPS and 20 walks in 102 plate appearances.

    Freeman has placed in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times in his career; in my opinion, he should finish no lower than first this time around. The list of Braves who have helped move Atlanta to the verge of another East title is lengthy, but as always, steady Freddie stands front and center.

    Two years ago today, as Acuna gloved the final out of the division clincher, my enduring memory was of Freeman walking away from first base, both arms extended in the air, an expression of unbridled joy and relief awash across his face. He’ll soon have an opportunity to revel in another division crown, another punched ticket to the postseason.

    Who knows what awaits come October? We’ll worry about that soon enough. The moment that will come in the next day or two is one we wondered if we’d see. But it’s here now, as it was each of the past two Septembers. At least that hasn’t changed.

    For Freeman, for the Braves, for their legion of fans, the moment in and of itself is worthy of celebration.

    —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.