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    With East All but Secure, Braves Turn Attention to Greater Goals

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Once upon a time, back in the early days of spring when the prognosticators were offering their forecast for the 2019 season, there was little national regard paid to a defending division champion. A 90-game winner the previous season. A team awash with young talent, with more on the way. A team with money to spend.

    And yet, everywhere from MLB Network Radio to armchair experts on Twitter, the view was pessimistic surrounding the 2019 Atlanta Braves. Yes, the defending National League East champion, the team in the division (we exclude the Miami Marlins from this conversation because, well, they’re the Marlins) that did the least in the offseason. The term “financial flexibility” was deadpanned from coast to coast, and a season-opening sweep at the hands of the buffed-up Phillies did nothing but fan the flames of discontent.

    Fast forward to Sunday morning. Walking into SunTrust Park for the finale of a series we all circled months ago, and there was a strange feeling. One of finality. One of arrival. One of … dare we say, calm?

    The Atlanta Braves lost Sunday to the Washington Nationals, the 9-4 final score not indictive of the type of day it was for the home team. Max Scherzer pitched like an ace, Yan Gomes homered twice, Braves pitchers gave up 17 hits. And yet …

    It felt like it didn’t matter.

    Because it didn’t.

    Certainly, a victory Sunday would have made for the perfect bow on top of the perfect package, but the real story was what the Braves did in the three games leading into Sunday, the nine games leading into Sunday and, in a sense, the four months leading into Sunday.

    Imagine the preseason pundits now, pulling up the MLB app on their phone and gazing at the NL East standings. The Braves, trashed and torched far and wide throughout the winter and spring, sitting nine games clear of the Nationals with 18 games to go, a magic number of 11, a breakneck pace that looks unstoppable on its way to another Choptober.

    Those vaunted Phillies and Mets? Not even worth the keystrokes to mention how far back that pair of preseason darlings sit from first place.

    What the Braves did this weekend was deliver the loudest of statements. We’ve seen it happen time and time again since May 10, when in the midst of a four-game losing streak featuring an overwhelming sweep by the Dodgers and a walk-off loss in Arizona, manager Brian Snitker shook up the lineup. He re-deployed Ronald Acuna Jr. to the leadoff spot, moved newly acquired Josh Donaldson to cleanup, slotted Ozzie Albies lower in the lineup and elevated Dansby Swanson to the two-hole.

    Since that moment the Braves are 71-35, a .669 winning percentage that over the course of a full season equates to a 108-win season. It’s featured a 20-win June, a 19-win August, victories in six of their first seven games in September, series victories over the Twins and Dodgers, a split at Wrigley Field, and wins in nine of their past 13 meetings with the Nationals.

    Those last three triumphs most likely buried Washington’s shot of contending for the division title with two weeks left in the season. It started, as always, with pitching, and Atlanta starters Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran combined to allow one run in 19 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. It ended with solid work from the bullpen, two games closed by Mark Melancon and one by Shane Greene. It featured the lethal top of the Braves lineup unleashing its deadly duo of speed and power, from Acuna’s assault on 40/40 to Albies homering in consecutive games to the steady Freddie Freeman to Donaldson bringing rain and dancing with an umbrella in the dugout.

    These Braves have morphed into something very few of us saw coming this soon. Yes, there was a prevailing feeling in spring this team could be really good, but I doubt many of us saw them being a 100-win squad. But here we are, a new era dawning right before our eyes.

    Last year’s Braves took the baseball world by surprise. From listening to the national media this spring, you would think those 90 wins and a division crown were a fluke, a feel-good story that wasn’t sustainable. That line of thinking, while popular, was foolish … even more so in retrospect.

    What we have here is an elite team, one that has seen its goals shift. It’s been 18 years since the Braves won a playoff series. It’s been two decades since they won a pennant. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since they won it all.

    This team is capable of accomplishing all of that. It doesn’t fit the national storyline. Even to this day, there still remains the “yeah, but they didn’t do much in the offseason” narrative. And that’s fine. It’s worked out, from the lineup changes to the midseason acquisitions to the fact that, to a man, this baseball team has played like champions.

    They soon will be champions of the East, yet again, pundits be darned. And they have a better chance than anybody outside of Braves Country will give them of being champions of far, far more.

    —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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —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.

    Bullpen Stumbles Aside, Braves Country Should Be Excited As Big Week Begins

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Monday’s off day for the Atlanta Braves came at a much-needed time for a squad wrapping up 17 games in 17 days with Sunday’s victory at Miami, concluding a stretch that included pulling off several trades at the July 31 deadline.

    The respite also provided the well-meaning-yet-sometimes-maniacal denizens of Braves Country with a chance to do something it doesn’t do nearly enough – breathe.

    Then around lunchtime, Major League Baseball dropped the 2020 schedule right into our turkey sandwiches and side salads. Immediately, thoughts turned (albeit briefly; there’s a division title and hopefully more to pursue in the here and now) to how each week next season will unfold. It gave me a chance to think back to last winter, when the prematurely-bursting-into-prominence Braves were looking toward this 2019 season.

    It wouldn’t take long back in those cold December days to look at the second full week of August, spy three home games with the Mets, followed by the Dodgers for three, to realize that, “aye, that’s going to be a big week.” And here we are, that big week arriving with the first game against the red-hot fellas from Queens unfolding Tuesday night at SunTrust Park, when Max Fried takes the ball against the pride of East Paulding High, the almost-traded at the deadline and unscored-upon-since Zack Wheeler.

    On those cold winter nights, sipping on a beverage while watching Jets hockey or Hawks basketball, you think about where your team will be at certain points in next season’s schedule. Nobody could have foreseen the Mets rolling into the ATL winning 15 of their past 17 games after being nine games under .500 and rumored to trade everybody not named Pete Alonso in the days leading to the end of July. Certainly, most figured the Dodgers would sit atop their perch above the Senior Circuit, a juggernaut that looks hell-bent on rolling to a third-consecutive NL pennant and hoping a third trip to the World Series will be the charm three-decades plus in the making.

    As for these Braves? We thought they would be good. And they have been. But mercy, it’s been a bumpy ride at times, especially once the late innings arrive. The acquisitions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline were supposed to smooth the final two to three innings, pushing closer-by-circumstance Luke Jackson back into lower-leverage situations. And yet, there was Jackson, battling through what remains unworldly bad BABIP luck to escape Miami with a save in a 5-4 victory Sunday that salvaged a series split to send Atlanta into its off day with at least a less-foul taste in its mouth.

    On to this week. As the kids say, it’s about to get lit. One may say the Braves bullpen has been in a perpetual state of getting lit up. The first 11 days of the Martin-Greene-Melancon era (which sounds like a law firm advertising on local TV at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning) have not fostered any feelings of confidence and calm. Quite the opposite. Their struggles have fanned the flames of relief discontent, although Sean Newcomb did his part in an inadvertent way to put out the fire in the visitors clubhouse of Marlins Park after Saturday’s train wreck finish.

    No, Greene was not going to pitch to a sub-1.20 ERA all season. No, Melancon is not the guy who saved 51 games for the Pirates a few years ago. Yes, Martin is not too far removed from working in a warehouse and thinking a chronic shoulder injury had derailed his big-league dreams permanently. In a vacuum, that statement doesn’t spark a lot of optimism, just like the vacuum of 11 days and sub-par performance makes one think, “why couldn’t we do more?”

    The steadier view is all three guys are better than they’ve showed in their initial forays with a tomahawk across their chest, that four days in their new “home” city right after being uprooted from their previous ports-of-call, followed by a week-long road trip, hasn’t allowed for the settling that has to happen anytime somebody transfers for a job with less than 24-hours notice.

    The thought here is all three will settle in this week. Their team needs them, too. This is an important week. The Mets are carrying a New York-sized dose of attitude, and rightly so. This series is a chance to shove it to their cynics, who fairly point out most of the work during their spellbinding surge came against some of the dregs of 2019 big-league baseball. Then the Dodgers arrive, a team that swept the Braves out of Chavez Ravine with little regard in May, a team that dominated the plucky-yet-overmatched Braves in last season’s NL Division Series.

    And now, a word regarding the hometown nine. Atlanta leads the NL East by six full games over Washington, eight over the hard-charging Mets, nine over the stupid-money Phillies. When the Braves take the field at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, 48 days will separate them from the end of the regular season and a potential second-consecutive division crown. While nobody is suggesting Atlanta try to sit on the lead and run out the clock (we all know the scar-inducing disaster that unleashes), the fact remains the Braves are a half-dozen games in front of the Nationals.

    It’s a very good team. Ronald Acuna Jr. has exploded into the transcendent star we all believed he could be, as the first 30/30 season since Ron Gant on the worst-to-first 1991 Braves is a mere formality, and baseball’s fifth-ever 40/40 season is a possibility. Ozzie Albies has found his stroke from the left side, locking down the second spot in the order moving forward, even upon Dansby Swanson’s return from a bruised right heel that has shelved the Marietta High product far longer than any expected.

    Freddie Freeman is Freddie Freeman. Mike Soroka continues to make the “Maple Maddux” moniker seem more realistic every fifth day. Fried has steadied himself after a rough stretch in early summer. Julio Teheran, the quiet veteran who’s seen the awful days, keeps shoving and shining. A nod to Ender Inciarte, burned at the stake by Braves fans on social media, who is healthy and contributing; Brian McCann, and his solid homecoming season; and Josh Donaldson, who with each passing day makes the front office seriously consider if paying for his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons would be a worthwhile investment (for the record, I’m far more onboard with this than I was two months ago).

    The path to October never is easy (well, unless you’re the Dodgers, and you’re clearly better than anybody else in the league). There are fits and starts, struggles and injuries, along with plenty of “did you see THAT” moments. That’s what makes baseball so great. It’s every single day. Win? Lose? Process it, go to tomorrow. That cadence is why, even on a day off, you see a clean slate for a season that doesn’t start for another 7 ½ months and begin pondering the possibilities.

    And that’s why, for the hiccups and finding of roles from the relief corps, you should look to Tuesday and the week to come with excitement. When you’re losing 90 games and trading assets at the deadline for prospects, these games in August and September don’t matter. That was the Braves of 2015, 2016, 2017.

    That’s not these Braves. They’re clearly in the window now. Sure, the glass gets smudged at times. Sometimes there is dust (or residue from a fire extinguisher) that blows in and makes things messy. But beyond the calamity of the moment the view remains glorious, one this team has a chance to bring into full focus starting with this homestand.

    —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.

    Braves at the Deadline: AA Says Enough ‘Bull,’ Positions Braves for Deep October Run

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Since taking the reins of the Atlanta Braves as general manager in November 2017, Alex Anthopoulos has followed a measured approach, one that belied his aggressive reputation and track record from his days leading the Toronto front office.

    Fans rubbed their hands together in frustration, screamed from every social media mountaintop, and vented to any and all who would listen as last year’s trade deadline and a full offseason passed with a few notable moves, and many more opportunities – perceived or real – missed.

    But there would be no such consternation Wednesday as the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline passed, almost simultaneous with the Braves concluding a 4-2 road trip with a hair-raising victory at National League East rival Washington. The finale saw Atlanta follow a script recited far too often during 2019, the Braves bullpen coughing up a late lead before its offense saved the day to ensure a lead in the division standings of no less than six games.

    Now, that team will be better when it takes the field Thursday at SunTrust Park for the first of four games with Cincinnati.

    Much, much better.

    At the very moments Anthony Swarzak, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb were trying to tip-toe through the eighth and ninth innings, Anthopoulos was putting the finishing touches on two deals that immediately transforms Atlanta’s biggest vulnerability into one of its strengths. The Braves authored two trades for proven veterans with closing experience, acquiring All-Star closer Shane Greene from Detroit and moments later landing former All-Star Mark Melancon from San Francisco.

    Add the Tuesday night trade that netted Texas setup man Chris Martin, and the Braves suddenly have a trio of high-quality, impactful relievers at the back end. How impactful? Jackson – the default closer who admirably has given his all in the role while walking the tightrope for large portions of the season – now slides to at least fourth on the big-league depth chart. His stuff will play outstanding in a setup role. He’s not a closer.

    The deadline’s aftermath was a stark contrast from what Braves fans are accustomed to, as the praise rang in from the national media talking heads that never hesitate to bash Anthopoulos and the franchise at every turn. Several reporters traveling with the team reported cheering in the locker room when news of the Greene and Melancon deals broke. Even Braves fans on social media universally treated the news like someone stumbling across a water fountain in the desert.

    In some respects, who can blame them? A very good team, one that many pleaded with to be aggressive at the deadline, did just that. The Braves now have a bullpen as capable of mixing and matching in the middle of games as anybody, a strategy that plays in October when starters don’t go as deep and quality arms in the middle innings can swing the balance of playoff series.

    With no waiver-wire trade deadline in August, teams entered the dying days of July knowing they had one shot to get it right. It brought about some weirdness, such as the Mets dealing for Marcus Stroman and the Reds (the Reds!) trading for Trevor Bauer, who incidentally will make his Reds debut in Atlanta this weekend. Some of the names speculated about the most, such as Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, and Rangers hurler (and former Brave) Mike Minor, stayed put. Some of the deals pulled off Wednesday would have been executed in August if the waiver-wire deadline still existed, the Braves acquiring catching depth by trading for Arizona backstop John Ryan Murphy as an example.

    In the final 72 hours before the deadline, experts repeatedly talked about teams trying to “thread the needle” and balance cost effectiveness with acquisition impact on this season and, for some teams, next season. Anthopoulos pulled it off flawlessly, striking the right balance of addressing the team’s most glaring need while not sacrificing its future:

    • Martin (3.08 ERA, four saves, 43 strikeouts, four walks – no, that’s not a typo – in 38 innings) was acquired for Kolby Allard, the Braves No. 10 prospect according to MLB Pipeline who had been leapfrogged by one group of arms and was close to getting passed by another batch.
    • Melancon (3.50 ERA in 43 games, 183 career saves) cost Tristan Beck, ranked No. 17 and one member of a deep core of Atlanta pitchers, and reliever Dan Winkler, who battled inconsistency this season while toggling between the majors and Triple-A.
    • Greene (1.18 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings, 22 saves) was secured for promising lefty Joey Wentz (No. 7 prospect) and Travis Demeritte, an infielder-turned-outfielder who was acquired from Texas for Lucas Harrell during the depths of the Braves rebuild and did not have a clear path to the majors at any position.

    While some fans may be shocked Anthopoulos did something to this scale, the real stunner is the cost – or rather, the lack thereof – to Atlanta’s vaunted farm system. The Braves have horded prospects like canned goods to the point where their minor-league pantry is overflowing. Some of that depth needed to be thinned out, and the time was now to do it.

    Mission accomplished. The crown jewels of Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson and Drew Waters remain in the system. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, William Contreras and Kyle Muller are still here, too. Only 10 percent of the Braves Top 30 was sacrificed to add three arms that could take the ball in the ninth inning for a playoff team.

    Landing a starting pitcher would have put the cherry on top of this day, but Anthopoulos told reporters late Wednesday it was pretty clear there wasn’t a match as the deadline approached. He pivoted quickly, ensuring the bullpen was fixed with a double-barrel approach that addressed the source of so much frustration not just for this year, but moving forward as both Greene and Melancon are signed through 2020.

    There is delicious symmetry in the fact these moves occurred in tandem with what could have been the two most devastating losses of the season. Atlanta sprinted to a 9-0 lead Tuesday and all was well when the Martin news broke, but the Braves bullpen leaked for six runs with three walks and five hits in 2 1/3 innings of an 11-8 triumph, a game in which Jackson had to be summoned to throw 27 pitches and survived despite giving up three hits and a walk in the ninth.

    Then came Wednesday when Jackson – inexplicably brought on by Brian Snitker to start the ninth with a two-run lead – surrendered two tough-luck hits to begin the frame. Enter Newcomb, who has shined as a reliever this season but gave up a hit and a walk in allowing the two inherited runners to score. A nod here to the big lefty, who got out of the inning with the winning run on third, an escape that allowed Josh Donaldson – one of the few big moves Anthopoulos has made since arriving in town – to launch a 10th-inning homer for the winning margin.

    It came down to Josh Tomlin, a 10-year veteran pitching in his 220th career game, surviving a hit and a walk to earn his second save of the season – and of his career. It capped a scary roller-coaster ride that could have ended with the Braves lead whittled to 2 ½ games in the East.

    Suffice to say Tomlin, or Jackson, won’t be closing games for this team moving forward.

    Anthopoulos has taken his share of criticism, in some respects warranted. But at this moment, he deserves kudos. He’s given Snitker multiple viable options in the late innings, and in turn a team poised to reach October again has a much better chance to do serious damage once it gets there.

    —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 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.

    Braves at the Deadline: The Ring is The Thing, and The Time is Now to Go for It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — Imagine for a moment it’s the night before Thanksgiving, and you are in the car, off in search of that one last item to make the holiday meal absolutely perfect.

    The highways are as congested as the Downtown Connector on a Friday afternoon. Finding what you need is as easy as securing that last gallon of milk in the hours before a Southern snowstorm. And when you finally do return home with the missing piece, the one element you hope makes this family gathering the moment they rave about for decades to come, you also shutter at the price you paid.

    Sounds fun, right?

    Welcome to the next two weeks of Alex Anthopoulos’ life.

    When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this November, how we view the Atlanta Braves 2019 season likely will be shaped by what their general manager accomplishes between now and the July 31 trade deadline. That’s not to minimize what these Braves have accomplished to this point, sitting in first place in the National League East as the Washington Nationals head to town for a key four-game series starting Thursday at SunTrust Park. But make no mistake about it: while the results through the first 97 games of this season may not have altered the overall master plan, it should flip the short-term narrative.

    These Braves are very good. These Braves are close to being great. These Braves are on the verge of being something incredibly special.

    These Braves need to go for it.

    Now.

    (Let’s take a step back for a little perspective – because the masses that read this likely will want to stop here and grab their pitchforks, convinced I’m advocating trading everything not nailed down in Lawrenceville and Pearl and Kissimmee for one swing at the summit.)

    No more than I would advise somebody blowing the January mortgage in order to buy the greatest Christmas present ever, I do not think Atlanta should take dynamite to its carefully calculated, painfully executed plan for returning to long-term prominence in exchange for one lone shot at October glory. Even with no moves at this year’s deadline, the Braves are as well situated as any team in the majors to contend year-in, year-out, for the foreseeable future.

    But that doesn’t preclude you from realizing the metamorphosis of this team the past two months, the dynamics of this year’s roster and the sum of its parts, measured against what you think is possible with an addition or two. That must be weighed against the current and future cost, of course, and the impact such moves would deliver to the current roster.

    None of this is anything new for Anthopoulos. He developed a gun-slinging reputation as general manager in Toronto, dealing prospects by the boatload in pursuit of a title. And while the Blue Jays never reached the World Series under his watch, they did play for the pennant twice. Ironically, the two most painful players lost in the bevy of deals Anthopoulos pulled the trigger on north of the border may be on the move at this year’s deadline: Detroit starter Matthew Boyd and Mets star Noah Syndergaard.

    The thought that a player with Syndergaard’s talent and pedigree could be available (I personally do not think he will be traded) speaks volumes to the fascinating, and – for a team wanting to buy, like Atlanta – frustrating landscape in which teams find themselves with two weeks left before deals must be done by 4 p.m. ET on the final day of the month. The sense of urgency is heightened because of a rule change that dictates no waiver trades are allowed in August, plus a glut of teams that reached mid-July with at least a puncher’s chance to stay relevant over the season’s final two months.

    Consider this: Entering play Wednesday, there were seven teams in the National League within four games of the second and final wild-card spot. In the American League, two teams sat tied for the final wild card, with three teams within 4 ½ games of that position. Twenty-two of the 30 teams in the majors began play Wednesday within five games of a playoff spot, adding to the urgency to play well in the final days of the month.

    Certainly, some of those teams will struggle leading up toward the deadline and will elect to sell. Others caught in the mired mess of the wild-card pack will realize their franchise benefits more from selling than trying to leapfrog the pile for the guarantee of one game – especially in the NL, where the winner of the wild-card game likely draws the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It’s a seller’s market, indeed, and many of the top teams like the Braves find themselves seeking the same two commodities: a starting pitcher for one of the top spots in the rotation, and a dependable closer. Pitching at the deadline does not come cheap, especially this year, with so few sellers and plenty of buyers seeking the same thing.

    Under normal circumstances, it might be plausible for the Braves to shoot lower, avoid the most crowded, expense parts of the store. But these are not normal times. The Braves have blossomed, going 40-19 since early May and establishing themselves as the second-best team in the National League. Were the playoffs to start today, they would be favored to beat the Cubs or Brewers or Cardinals in the NLDS, and clearly are more of a threat to the Dodgers in a playoff series than last season, when the emerging Baby Braves of ’18 battled gamely but were vastly overmatched in a four-game NLDS defeat.

    Anthopoulos knows this. Joking with a member of the Braves Radio Network while standing outside the press box at Wrigley Field pregame last month, I laughed as we discussed the constant drumbeat on social media for the Braves GM to “do something!” I get it, though. Since coming to Atlanta, Anthopoulos has followed a more measured approach than in his ultra-aggressive Toronto days. Perhaps a byproduct of the lessons learned after leaving Toronto and spending time in the Dodgers front office. Perhaps a byproduct of learning the Braves loaded minor-league system and not wanting to make the wrong move, while still getting up to speed on the value of all the assets at his disposal.

    And yes, perhaps a byproduct of nondisclosed constraints applied to the team by Liberty Media’s corporate ownership. The “shop in any aisle” and “financial flexibility” comments have been deadpanned to death by Braves fans, and with good reason. But this team has soared in the past nine weeks, and signing free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel in early June provided a positive jolt throughout the locker room and the fanbase.

    If that was a jolt, it’s time for a thunderbolt, one that vaults the Braves shoulder-to-shoulder with Los Angeles at the top of the Senior Circuit. Yes, it will be costly. Yes, it will hurt. Yes, there will be criticism, and it will be harsh. But step back a second and consider this: Atlanta has five prospects in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. Several of the prospects ranked 6-to-15 in the Braves Top 30 would sit in the top five of many other organizations. If Atlanta has to part with two or three of its top five to land the pieces needed to make it a honest-to-goodness World Series championship contender in 2019, the time has arrived to do so.

    It must be the right deal, and for the right asset. For example: I’m not dealing Cristian Pache for two months of Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith – truth be told, I’m not dealing Pache for anybody. But if a controllable elite closer (Felipe Vazquez and Brad Hand, for example) or a starter with at least one more season of control after 2019 (Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Mike Minor and Boyd are names that jump out) becomes available, pieces that would push the Braves into the short group of elite MLB teams, nobody outside of Pache should be off limits.

    Because while we all love prospects, face it: The Braves can absorb those types of moves as well, if not better, than any team in the sport. Nobody wants to see Ian Anderson pitching for another organization. Or Kyle Wright, or Kyle Muller, or Joey Wentz, or Bryse Wilson. Nobody wants to see Drew Waters wear a major-league uniform missing a tomahawk across the chest. The list goes on and on. Many teams could not recover from dealing just one of those guys. Honestly, the Braves could deal multiple members of that group and still be OK.

    For all the criticism of Anthopoulos’ conservative approach in his first 20 months on the job, the fact remains the Atlanta farm system is stocked with tremendous talent, and a lot of it is not too far away from knocking at the major-league door. There simply isn’t room for all of them. It’s time to cash out on some of the exceptional young talent the Braves have spent the past half-decade aggregating.

    Sometimes, it takes just an extra sprinkle of spice to make a blue-ribbon recipe. On Aug. 25, 1995, the Braves pulled off a mostly unnoticed waiver-wire deal, acquiring outfielder Mike Devereaux from the White Sox. All the veteran did was play in 13 postseason games, hit .308 in the NLCS en route to MVP honors, and provide the missing piece to the only World Series champion this city has known.

    This time around, the missing piece or pieces require a far, far heavier investment. But the Braves have the payroll flexibility beyond this season and a pantry full of high-end prospects to make the right deal before this month ends. It would not cripple the future, and could result in this year’s team ending October in a place none of us dreamed it could reach even a few short months ago:

    Standing alongside its 1995 counterparts, as World Series champions.

    It’s worth the shot to try and get there.

    Now.

    —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.

    Braves at the Break: Standout Performances Have Atlanta on Top in the East

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The All-Star game is in the rear-view mirror, a few quiet hours remain until baseball’s second half kicks off, and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a very, very good spot.

    The defending National League East champions shook off getting run over in that season-opening series at Philadelphia, kicked the offense into high gear in late May, and arrived at MLB’s four-day summer pause six games clear of Washington in the division race. Those Phillies? Nestled in third place, 6 ½ games in arrears.

    As we look toward the second half, let’s first pause and grade the roster, coaching staff and front office through the first 91 games of this remarkable season.

    Braves 2019 All-Star Break Report Card

    The Roster

    Freddie Freeman (A+): What else to say about the Braves captain, who is authoring an MVP-worthy season while setting the tone offensively and defensively. Perhaps the most underrated player in the game today, one who doesn’t turn 30 until September and looks locked-in to lead his team into the NLCS for the first time.

    Mike Soroka (A+): The Kid from Calgary has established himself as one of the top young pitchers in baseball. In a playoff series, he gets the ball in one of the first two games. Unflappable, poised beyond his years, he is unquestioned a legit ace sooner rather than later.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. (A): A few hiccups with manning center field aside, it is hard to fathom a better first full season in the majors for the 21-year-old. A transcendent, generational star whose talent only is exceeded by his love for the game and his teammates. The most impactful leadoff hitter in the sport.

    Dansby Swanson (A): We wondered what would happen if the Cobb County native was healthy and grew into the game offensively. We have our answer: a foundational piece who has blossomed into a critical offensive cog while batting second and playing great defense.

    Charlie Culberson (A): One of the top pinch-hitters in the game, with versatility to play all over the diamond – his ninth-inning throw to home from left field Sunday was arguably the most exciting play of the first half – and, yes, a fastball in the 90s. Charlie Clutch leads one of the best benches in all of baseball.

    Brian McCann (A-): Hollywood-esque storybook return home for the North Georgia native who has guided a young pitching staff while reaping the benefits of a healthy knee to excel offensively. Simply could not have authored a better first half.

    Josh Donaldson (A-): He got off to a slow start, but as his body has agreed to playing every day the Bringer of Rain has turned on the waterworks at the plate while providing outstanding defense. Moving him to the cleanup spot has paid tremendous dividends, and his leadership has sparked the team in the right way.

    Luke Jackson (A-): The unlikeliest story of the first half. It sometimes isn’t easy and often isn’t clean, but a guy DFA’s more times than I care to remember is pitching in – and often, succeeding in – the most difficult inning for a pennant contender.

    Anthony Swarzak (A-): Unheralded upon arriving from Seattle via trade, but found his groove and has been arguably the best bullpen piece on the team. Veteran guy who has rediscovered his outstanding slider. Watch the shoulder inflammation that sent him to the IL before the break. Braves need him healthy.

    Austin Riley (B+): Forget the power surge and the offensive jolt for a minute. His defense in left field has been pretty good. Add in the immense, powerful impact at the plate, and you have a guy who is here a bit early but is winning games for a first-place team. Wise beyond his years and here to stay.

    Ozzie Albies (B+): His May struggles against right-handers notwithstanding, he was a hands-down All-Star. Has owned the eighth spot in the lineup since moving there on a regular basis in mid-May, with great defense, game-changing speed, immense power, and a spirit that defines this team.

    Jacob Webb (B+): Has been consistent pounding the strike zone with a fearlessness the Braves desperately need in the late innings. The next man up internally to close. Has to keep attacking the zone.

    Matt Joyce (B+): Under-the-radar acquisition that has helped solidify the bench. Provides power from the left side. Valuable veteran piece that will serve this team well in a pennant race and postseason.

    Dallas Keuchel (B): Signed in early June and has improved with every start, capped by a dominant performance Sunday. Former World Series champion and Cy Young winner whose ability to pitch deep into games will pay huge dividends in the second half and October.

    Max Fried (B): An All-Star candidate after the first month, we’ve seen the ups and downs as he’s struggled with command. When all three pitches are on, he’s an upper-echelon starter. When he’s not, he has to find a way to grind through lineups.

    Josh Tomlin (B): Steady veteran bullpen piece who throws strikes and fills any role from mid-innings length to high-leverage outs. His experience cannot be overstated with young arms sprinkled in the bullpen.

    Sean Newcomb (B-): Banished to the minors and moved to the bullpen, all he’s done is throw strikes and attack the strike zone upon being recalled. A starter long-term, his spot right now is in a set-up role, where he has excelled.

    Julio Teheran (B-): His eight-start stretch from early May to mid June was one of the best of his career. There were enough struggles before and after to cast doubts. Which Julio shows us for the second half?

    Nick Markakis (B-): The regression monster is real with the 35-year old, but there are worse things than a guy who has reached 1,000 career RBIs and is approaching 500 career doubles. Seems to have lost a step in the outfield. Have to watch his production closely in the second half, but finished the first half with a strong two weeks.

    Jerry Blevins (C): Has struggled with command at times, but gives Atlanta a veteran lefty in the bullpen. If the Braves add to the relief corps, he’s likely the first to go.

    Johan Camargo (C): Not entirely all his fault, as his lack of playing time early scuttled most of his first half. The bat has come along lately as his playing time has increased. Has to spell guys more in the second half.

    Touki Toussaint (C): Has saved the Braves with a couple of outstanding long-relief performances. Command remains an issue. If he throws strikes, he’s fantastic. Could be a huge factor in the bullpen in the second half.

    A.J. Minter (C): Questionably high grade, but I give him the benefit of the doubt for time lost in spring training. He was awful at the start of the season, and while the walk rate remains higher than I’d like, his recent outings have been good.

    Chad Sobotka (C-): Control remains an issue with a guy who has closer’s stuff, but his recent work since being called back to Atlanta has been encouraging. Watch him as the second half begins; could be an impactful part of the Braves bullpen, or could end up back in Gwinnett.

    Bryse Wilson (C-): Positive progressions in starts against the Cubs and Phillies before the break. For now, has earned a turn after the break at Milwaukee, and another opportunity for him to stake claim to a rotation start. Another key young player who could impact the second half in a big way.

    Ender Inciarte (D): Harsh considering the three-time Gold Glove winning center fielder has missed most of the past two months with a back injury. But he was a liability in the lineup and a notch below his stellar defensive self before the injury. Fourth outfielder upon his return.

    Tyler Flowers (D): Taken a clear step back defensively and has struggled offensively following a hot start. Hopefully the break gives him a chance to recharge for the second half, as McCann can’t play every day.

    Kevin Gausman (D-): One of the unquestioned biggest disappointments of the first half. Final three starts before going on the injured list were awful. May be a bullpen piece or spot starter once he returns, but leash will be very, very short.

    Mike Foltynewicz (F): A first half to forget for the now-demoted to Triple-A former All-Star. Disturbing regression with managing pitch-to-pitch emotion. Can he overcome that? The stuff is there. A return to form would be massive in the second half, but no guarantees.

    Grant Dayton (INC): Has pitched well in limited duty. Deserves more innings in the second half.

    Kyle Wright (INC): Did not impress in three major-league starts, but future still looks bright for the former Vanderbilt standout. Will it be with Atlanta?

    Wes Parsons (INC): Like Dayton, pitched well when called upon early in the season. Could get another shot in the bullpen at some point.

    Alex Jackson (INC): Brief cup of coffee when McCann was sidelined for 10 days in April. Did not record a hit, but managed the pitching staff well.

    The Staff

    The Manager (B+): The only knock on Brian Snitker here – other than some of the tactical in-game decisions that sometimes make us shake our head – is the mismanagement of Camargo’s super-utility role, especially in the first two and a half months. But he’s the right man to run this team, and last year’s NL Manager of the Year just might win it again this season.

    The Coaching Staff (A): The addition of pitching coach Rick Kranitz has been a boost to an already excellent staff.

    The Front Office (A-): For all the whining about lack of activity last winter, it’s hard to fault Alex Anthopoulos so far. The Donaldson, McCann and Markakis signings have worked to this point. Trading two unusable assets (Arodys Vizcaino, Jesse Biddle) for Swarzak looks like a steal. Bolstered the team by signing Joyce and Tomlin. Landing Keuchel was huge and showed everybody the Braves aim to play deep into October. Now, it’s up to him to get the right deal done between now and month’s end.

    —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.

    Culberson’s Perfect Throw Provides Perfect Exclamation Point to Stellar First Half

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – I’m not sure what moved me to move, but move I did.

    Let me explain.

    Typically, when I am on deadline with a preview of the next day’s Braves game and I’m at SunTrust Park, I will leave my partial-season seats in Section 431, navigate down a stairwell, and take my place standing on the concourse at the top of section 131, just a quick sprint up a small set of stairs to the third-base gate. That gets me out of the stadium as soon as the game ends ahead of the crowd, and sets me on the way to Lot 29, where I finish my preview and file before pulling out of the parking lot.

    But I faced no such deadline pressure Sunday afternoon, not with it being the final day before the All-Star break and no game Monday to preview. But still, something was bugging me in the eighth inning, after Chad Sobotka got a bit too much of the plate with a fastball to Miami’s Garrett Cooper, who launched the pitch for a three-run homer to trim the Braves lead to 4-3.

    Up to that point, the day had been quite comfortable, although it felt like watching baseball in a sauna thanks to a few scattered North Georgia rain showers that raised the heat index to somewhere near the surface of the sun. Dallas Keuchel looked every bit like the veteran ace in his fourth Atlanta start, effectively mixing his cutter, sinker and changeup to keep the pesky Marlins off stride during a stellar outing that carried him into the eighth inning. Josh Donaldson brought his own type of rain, belting another soaring laser over the fence in right-center field, his 200th career blast capping a three-run third inning.

    Perhaps it was restlessness, or just a desire to beat the traffic, but whatever the reason, I took to my typical last-inning outpost for the top of the ninth. And it was the absolutely perfect move, because I got to watch the absolutely perfect play – maybe THE play of a first half chock full of “my goodness, did you see THAT” moments for the NL East leaders.

    Luke Jackson navigated his way into deep trouble in the top of the ninth, although very little of it was of his doing. Jorge Alfaro nubbed one slowly to third base and Donaldson initially appeared to throw him out by a step; replay correctly overturned the call on the field. Harold Ramirez’s single up the middle just eluded the glove of a diving Dansby Swanson, who undoubtedly took the field with an extra spring in his step on this day after his girlfriend, Mallory Pugh, and her U.S. Women’s National teammates captured the World Cup in France a few hours prior.

    Yadiel Rivera then bunted so poorly it turned out great for the Fish, the ball flying above the heads of a charging Donaldson, Jackson and Freddie Freeman, nestling on the grass behind the pitcher’s mound. The perfect lob wedge loaded the bases for the Marlins with no outs, and unbeknownst to us at the moment, set the stage for the latest chapter of Braves Magic, circa 2019.

    Ten-year veteran Neil Walker lofted a line drive to left field. Defensive replacement and team utility knife Charlie Culberson scooted to his left, caught the ball and unleashed his throw as he left his feet. The ball took one hop and settled in the glove of catcher Brian McCann just an eyelash before Alfaro slid for home, McCann making the tag for a 7-2 double play that sent the 30,514 inside SunTrust Park into sheer hysterics.

    (Well, make that 30,513. Check out this picture of McCann unleashing a primal scream after making the tag, and the young gal in a Braves bucket hat seated directly behind home plate. Her reaction is the direct opposite of McCann’s; maybe she was following the advice of Pugh’s soccer teammate, Alex Morgan, and merely sipping the tea.)

    The rest of us were losing our minds. When the ball left Walker’s bat, I immediately looked at Alfaro, glanced briefly at McCann, then turned my eyes toward Culberson. Alfaro tagged up with third base almost directly in front of my vantagepoint, and at that point I muttered aloud to nobody in particular: “well, that probably ties it.”

    Nope, not a chance. I should know better by now. I should know these Braves, as they’ve proven time after time after time through the first 90 games of this season, as they would prove Sunday in game No. 91, always seem to find a way. Sometimes, it’s by blunt-force trauma. Sometimes, it’s by a thousand cuts. Sometimes, it’s surgical.

    And sometimes, like Sunday, it’s magical.

    You know how this story ends. Jackson finishes off the Marlins, the Braves win another series and register their 54th victory of 2019, then scatter to various ports of call for four days of R&R with a six-game lead over Washington and a 6 ½ game advantage over Philadelphia in the East standings. They own the second-best record in the National League and the fifth-best mark in all the majors. Freeman and a pair of the superkids – Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mike Soroka – head to Cleveland for the All-Star hoopla. They’ll be joined there by their skipper, Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave a part of the NL coaching staff, a noble gesture by Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts.

    Roberts’ bunch bested Snitker’s squad in the NL Division Series last October. There’s a long way between now and the 10th month of this year, but you start to sense there is a collision course setting up here between those two teams. Especially after games like today, when you move physically for no rhyme or reason, and end up seeing a play unfold before your eyes that move you – and an entire fanbase – on a completely different level.

    —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.

    Red-Hot Braves Soar to Chicago After Another Wild, Winning Weekend

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The avenues by which the Atlanta Braves find victory lane continue to pile up in a manner that leaves so many of us scratching our heads on an almost nightly basis, we find ourselves repeating the same word over and over again:

    “How?”

    How did that happen?

    How did they find a way?

    How in the world are they where they’re at, given some of the things that have – and have not – transpired?

    Consider the view this evening as the Braves fly toward Chicago and a four-game mid-summer set with the Cubs. The National League East lead, a sizable 6 ½ games as the charter flight wings its way toward the Windy City, sits safely tucked in the overhead bin. The rest of the division has melted down with the grace of a 7-year-old denied a second cookie at the Publix bakery, from Philadelphia’s stunning nose-dive toward .500 to the Mets physically and verbally threatening a media member.

    And in Washington? The Nationals welcomed Atlanta into town this weekend having won 17 of their previous 24 games to nudge within two games of .500 for the first time in two months. There was the thought a series victory could propel Washington into another favorable stretch of their schedule with a real shot to nudge within striking distance of the Braves by the time the two teams meet in Atlanta in mid-July.

    Yeah, about that.

    It figured the Braves would lose the one game in the series that drew the hottest glare of the spotlight, that being Friday’s series opener, when Dallas Keuchel’s Atlanta debut was marred by a pair of glitches by the otherwise-sparkling Braves infield defense. That was followed by another jarringly disappointing start by Mike Foltynewicz in Saturday’s middle game. In the city where he pitched in the All-Star game 13 months ago, Foltynewicz gave up eight runs in four-plus innings, thereby earning a ticket to Lawrenceville and the International League.

    And yet, somehow, the Braves won a game they had no business winning. Stop me if you’re heard that before. They trailed twice by four runs – a 5-1 deficit after three innings; an 8-4 gap entering the seventh – and pulled away for a 13-9 triumph, the fourth time in 2019 Atlanta has won a game in which it trailed by four or more runs. Entering Sunday’s series finale, there had been 79 instances this season in which a team trailed entering the eighth inning and prevailed. More than 10 percent of those victories – eight – are by the boys from Atlanta.

    Sunday brought another wild twist, albeit a scary one when young ace Mike Soroka was hit in the right forearm while batting in the third inning. The baby-faced Soroka grew up playing hockey in Canada, and The Kid from Calgary bore the look of a guy wanting to drop the gloves as he trudged to first base. His day over for precautionary reasons (absolutely the right call) left the much-maligned Braves bullpen, which despite solid work of late remains stoned nightly in the village square of public opinion, forced to cover seven innings.

    As it turned out, eight innings were required, and eight was enough. Josh Tomlin cruised through four of those innings on 43 pitches, but had not covered that many frames since May 7. The Braves saw Washington tie the game in the seventh, but their forgotten man impacted the game for a second-consecutive night. Johan Camargo, relegated to bench bat duty instead of super-utility, start-three-or-four-days-a-week status courtesy of mismanagement by Brian Snitker in the season’s first three months, blasted a two-run pinch-hit homer in the 10th. It came one night after a pinch-hit double tied Saturday’s contest at 9-all, setting the stage for Dansby Swanson’s go-ahead blast that put the Braves ahead to stay.

    The 800-pound gorilla in the room remains the final three outs, and far be it from me to criticize the job Luke Jackson has done in evolving in one year from three-time DFA to de facto closer. But a closer he’s not, even if he found a way on this day to get the final outs of a 4-3 victory that earned Atlanta yet another critical series triumph and certainly put a halt to the rising momentum Washington brought into the weekend. It is clear Alex Anthopoulos must address the back end of the bullpen, something he wasn’t able to do in the offseason.

    The feeling here is he will get it done leading up to the trade deadline.

    He has no choice. This team’s grit and resiliency demands it.

    Forty-eight hours of summertime, division-battling baseball. The Braves won two of three. They very easy could have swept. They also very easy could have been swept. Such is the narrow ledge teams walk as the weather heats up, the games get tight, and the lens on the standings comes with an increasing sharpness as the days fly off the calendar.

    The Braves could not have picked a better time to catch fire. Since Ronald Acuna Jr. and Swanson ascended to the 1-2 spots in Snitker’s lineup, Atlanta is 28-12. Since the morning of May 15, the date of Austin Riley’s big-league debut, the Braves have made up a staggering 10 games in the standings on Philadelphia, which has lost seven in a row and are 2-11 in its past 13 games after being swept at home by the Marlins.

    Stupid money never looked so dumb.

    In 40 years of watching Braves baseball, I’ve seen quite a bit, good and bad. What this team has done in the past 40 games ranks right up there. And the manner with which it’s winning games is so compelling. Some nights, it’s exhilarating. Some nights, it’s suffocating. Some nights, it’s exhausting. Regardless of the route, the nightly journey most often ends with another tick in the W column.

    So, it’s off to Chicago, where the Braves will meet the Cubs nearly three months after sweeping the north-siders in a three-game series at SunTrust Park. The Cubs have righted the ship since and enter the series holding a ½-game lead over Milwaukee in the NL Central. Were the playoffs to begin now, the two teams would match up in the NLDS, thereby avoiding the monsters from Los Angeles in the opening-round five-game set.

    Chicago’s hold on that spot is far more tenuous than Atlanta’s. The Cubs split a weekend series with the Mets, but own the second-best home record in the NL (only trailing the aforementioned Dodgers). Wrigley Field not only is a tough place for visiting teams to extract victories, it also is a hallowed hall of ball that sits on every baseball fan’s bucket list.

    I get to place that checkmark this week, attending my first regular-season Braves games outside of Atlanta. I’ll join the boys and plenty of good denizens of Braves Country in Chicago come Tuesday afternoon. It’s a personal footnote to what otherwise is the next chapter of what feels like a special season.

    The calendar tells us it’s far too early to start contemplating autumn, that the East is far from secured. But with each passing day, and each varying path to the latest victory, this team tells us otherwise.

    —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.

    Braves Rule the Stage in Latest Act of NL East Saga

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The battle for division supremacy unfolds during a six-month passion play that carries teams from coast to coast, from the warmest enclaves in the heat of summer to far-flung ports of call amid the brisk winds of late winter or early fall. Though the drama presents itself in 162 neatly packaged portions across 187 days of the calendar, some acts carry more weight than others.

    Such was the case as the lid lifted on the 2019 season, an opening chapter that saw the Atlanta Braves play second-fiddle to the Philadelphia Phillies – a three-game sweep in eastern Pennsylvania during which the Phillies showed off all their shiny new toys, many acquired with “stupid money,” with the goal of wrestling the National League East title out of the grasp of the we-arrived-a-bit-earlier-than-expected-in-2018 Braves.

    Eleven weeks have elapsed since the Braves left the cradle of our democracy in the dying hours of March, wearing an 0-3 record around their necks as the cries of the Philly faithful rang in their ears. Three games doth not make a season, especially before the dawn of April, but any Braves fan who watched those 27 innings couldn’t help but wonder if Philadelphia’s massive measures of addition would result in a summer spent chasing them for the East’s catbird seat.

    Look who’s chasing who now.

    The Braves spent much of the past 2 ½ months trying to sort out and properly stack a group of misfit, unknown and forgotten parts comprising their bullpen, hoping veteran starters in their rotation could match the early accomplishments of their shining young arms, and waiting for an offense that looked better on paper to translate that improvement from the stat sheet to the batter’s box. And after their first meeting since that opening series in Philly, a weekend set in Atlanta that saw the Braves capture two of three games – the finale a 15-1 thumping on a warm Sunday afternoon at SunTrust Park that extended Atlanta’s cushion in the East to 2 ½ games – we have our response:

    Game. On.

    Sunday was devoid of any sorts of drama after a pair of passionate, stomach-twisting paths to resolution in the opening two meetings of the series in front of jammed-packed crowds at the meeting point of Interstates 285 and 75 along the northwestern rim of the capital city. Friday night, Atlanta authored a comeback for the ages, a 9-8 victory on Brian McCann’s ninth-inning walkoff that brought many fans to tears. One night later, the Braves carried a lead into the ninth, only to see Luke Jackson stumble as the Phillies even the series, activating the “doom-and-gloom” button of Braves fandom even though that 6-5 defeat ended an eight-game winning streak.

    On the scale of edge-of-your-seat emotion, Sunday would’ve been canceled shortly after Josh Donaldson continued his torrid week with a two-run homer in the third to push the Atlanta advantage to 5-0. The former MVP, who has hinted at going off on a huge run only to be humbled by a steady diet of breaking balls and liners smoked right at defenders, recorded his second straight three-hit game to raise his average to .370 with four homers and eight RBIs since a Joe Musgrove pitch ticked his jersey Monday, leading to a benches-clearing, hold-me-back-bro session that resulted in the Braves third baseman receiving an ejection and a one-game suspension.

    Good thing he’s appealing that mandated day off to MLB’s high court, because Donaldson is riding quite the wave at the moment. And his teammates are along for the ride, while adding plenty of logs to the roaring offensive fire. Ronald Acuna Jr. extended his hitting streak to eight games Sunday with a 4-for-4 performance, and in 16 games dating to May 31, the 21-year-old center fielder is batting .375 with 14 runs scored, five doubles, five homers – including an opposite-field laser into the Braves bullpen amid a five-run seventh on Sunday – and 16 RBIs.

    That production is a far cry from that opening series, when Atlanta mustered just 11 runs in the three games while allowing 23 to the Phillies and being totally dominated in every facet of the game. The finale of that series, played on a raw, cold night and broadcasted for the nation to see on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, saw Acuna hit cleanup, Donaldson penciled into his preferred two-spot in the order, and shortstop Dansby Swanson slotted in the eight hole. Rookie hurler Kyle Wright struggled to find his grip on a night where the wind chill slid into the 30s, walking five in 4 2/3 innings, and reliever Shane Carle walked two en route to allowing two runs in one inning of relief.

    Acuna – who hyper-jumped the Braves to last season’s NL East title once he moved to the leadoff spot after the All-Star break – slid back to the top of the lineup on May 10 at Arizona. Swanson bumped up to second that night. Leading into that game, Atlanta had averaged 4.8 runs on 8.8 hits through its first 38 games, owning an 18-20 mark and riding a four-game losing streak into that Friday night contest in the desert. The Braves responded by winning seven of their next eight, and in 34 games since Acuna and Swanson set up anchor in the 1-2 spots, Atlanta is averaging 5.9 runs on 9.6 hits.

    The Phillies had no business losing Friday’s game. The Braves had no business losing Saturday’s game. That raised the stakes coming in Sunday, a contest that figured to favor the Braves slightly only because Philadelphia opted to go with Vince Velasquez – a starter banished to the bullpen – as an opener. Atlanta countered with Mike Foltynewicz, who struggled mightily after missing a month with an elbow injury, but had provided flickers of hope that the hard-throwing, All-Star right-hander may have found something. And on this day, the advantage stayed with Foltynewicz throughout, thanks in part to ample support from his offense.

    By the time the Phillies cracked Foltynewicz, the Braves led by a touchdown. They would add another trip to the end zone and two-point conversion by the time the seventh inning closed. The day concluded with Philadelphia deploying former Braves utility infielder Sean Rodriguez to the hill for the eighth inning – S-Rod throwing seven of his nine pitches for strikes in a perfect frame – and Atlanta giving Huascar Ynoa his big-league debut, the flame-throwing 21-year-old who started 2019 at High-A Florida giving up a hit in two innings, but striking out two while consistently spotting three pitches for strikes.

    As dire as those moments after their first meeting felt for Braves fans late on the final day in March, the fading hours of Father’s Day bore just as much hope. There won’t be anywhere near the wait for the next act in this battle, as the Phillies return to Atlanta on July 2 for a three-game series concluding on the Fourth of July.

    Summer is here, and the race is on. The fireworks that will light up the North Georgia sky on the first Thursday night in July won’t be the only salvos fired, as these two newly renewed NL East rivals play out the next act in the race to October.

    —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.

    Keuchel Debut Leaves Strong First Impression

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ROME, Ga. – About 25 minutes before 7 p.m. Monday, Logan Brown walked out of the Rome Braves clubhouse, took the field near the left-field corner at State Mutual Stadium, and spent a few moments crouched along the foul line some 30 feet shy of the warning track. The 22-year-old Single-A catcher certainly goes through this routine on a regular basis, wearing uniform No. 99, collecting his thoughts in the moments before that night’s starting pitcher emerges from the locker room.

    But this was no ordinary night for the 35th-round pick in the 2018 draft. He would be on the receiving end of a former Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion, upon whom the eyes of a championship-starved fanbase would hang upon every pitch, every moment. This was not your typical Monday night in the South Atlantic League.

    Then again, it’s not every day somebody like Dallas Keuchel rolls through this Northwest Georgia town.

    Keuchel, four days removed from inking a one-year, $13-million deal with the Atlanta Braves, emerged a few minutes later, wearing his customary No. 60. As a near-capacity crowd filed in for the series opener against the Charleston River Dogs, one of the free-agent market’s biggest fish made his Braves organization debut on a humid, yet pleasant night. The rains that washed away Keuchel’s scheduled debut Saturday at Triple-A Gwinnett had disappeared, and for the first time since last season’s American League championship series with Houston, the 31-year-old pitched in a competitive contest.

    The results: Predictable, yet impressive.

    Keuchel allowed just one hit across seven strong innings, walking one hitter, striking out nine, and leaving a 0-0 game after throwing 55 of his 77 pitches for strikes. Yes, a veteran of 183 major-league starts with 51 2/3 innings pitched in the postseason figures to fare well against a lineup comprised mostly of players drafted in 2017 and 2018. And the stuff did overwhelm at times.

    But what really stood out to me was just how crisp Keuchel was in his first game action in 237 days.

    Keuchel was efficient. He got 10 ground-ball outs. He went to a three-ball count on one hitter – a seven-pitch walk to Canaan Smith with one out in the seventh. He induced plenty of weak contact. He threw 10 pitches or fewer in each of the first six innings. His rhythm on this night was akin to sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, waving at folks creeping by on the dirt road out front. Nice and relaxed and smooth. Easy, breezy.

    There were plenty of swings and misses, sure. And that was to be expected. But Keuchel dotted both sides of the plate with an impressive frequency given the layoff. The breaking stuff was heavy, low in the zone, hard to square up. He spent plenty of time the past two months throwing simulated games, but nothing simulates taking the field for an actual contest. Would he struggle with command? How would he handle working in and out of situations?

    Keuchel showed it from the onset, getting Brandon Lockridge to roll over a breaking ball and hit a harmless three-hopper in front of the pitcher’s mound on the game’s third pitch. Lockridge stumbled coming out of the batter’s box. It would be clear on this night, there would be no stumbles from Atlanta’s newly minted rotation linchpin.

    In the second, Keuchel gave up a one-out single to Max Burt, which was a good thing in that it gave him a chance to work out of the stretch. He induced a force out on a grounder to second and a three-pitch strikeout. He struck out six over the next four innings, the only ball hit in the air in that span a deep flyout from Anthony Seigler, the Yankees’ top pick in last year’s draft who hails from Cartersville, Ga. – which I drove through en route to Rome.

    Keuchel needed 17 pitches to get through the seventh, rallying from a 2-0 count to strike out Seigler leading off the frame, and after walking Smith, getting a deep fly ball for the second out and a rolled-over grounder to short to end the inning and his night.

    The question now is what’s next? Keuchel’s next turn would come Saturday. There is no need for him to pitch again for Rome. Gwinnett is on the road at Syracuse this weekend; big-league teams want their big-league talent pitching at home when getting tuned up in the minors. Double-A Mississippi is home with Mobile, however. Certainly, a big part of determining the next step is how does Keuchel feel when he wakes up Tuesday, when he wakes up Wednesday.

    Throwing to hitters in a simulated game is one thing. Pitching against an opposing lineup – even in Northwest Georgia on a Monday night in June – is something different. Conventional wisdom dictates Keuchel will get one more start in the minors before making his Atlanta debut. Braves manager Brian Snitker said as much before Monday’s 13-7 victory over Pittsburgh at SunTrust Park.

    But allow me to close with this thought, one that certainly is being mulled over by Braves fans near and far as Monday night approaches Tuesday morning. Kevin Gausman could not escape the third inning in Atlanta’s series opener against the Pirates, making it three awful outings in a row for the right-hander. The Braves will awaken Tuesday morning tied for first place in the NL East, having pulled even with Philadelphia following their 19th victory in the past 28 games and the Phillies’ 13-8 home loss Monday to Arizona.

    Guess who visits the capital city of the Peach State this weekend? The aforementioned Phillies, who dismantled the Braves in the first three games of the season in Eastern Pennsylvania the final weekend of March. Gausman’s next turn in the rotation? Saturday, a 7:20 p.m. first pitch against those Phillies at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75.

    Facing Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins is far different from facing a Sally-League lineup, yes. But you can’t help but think that Braves fans aren’t the only ones at least wondering about a Keuchel debut start for the Braves coming under the Saturday night lights with the NL East race squarely in focus.

    Whether it happens or not, Keuchel will be here soon.

    And after his performance Monday, we can’t wait.

    —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 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.