• Exclusives

    Play Ball: Plenty to Watch as Braves Open Spring Slate

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN WATERLOGGED NORTH GEORGIA – Some 136 days have elapsed since the Atlanta Braves 2019 season ended far earlier than many hoped, in a manner no one could imagine.

    And through the offseason that’s followed, there has been one constant, recurring theme serving as a backdrop as a division rival won the World Series, the front office worked to bolster the 2020 roster, and the name of the ballpark changed.

    It has rained. Every single day (or at least it feels that way).

    So when the skies cleared and the sun emerged Friday morning, it not only gave us a chance to walk outside without need of a floatation device, it also provided a hint of spring. The Braves will play a baseball game Saturday for the first time since that horrific Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series, opening their Grapefruit League schedule against the Baltimore Orioles at Atlanta’s new spring digs in North Port, Fla.

    What am I doing on this final evening of quiet before the long journey begins anew? Thinking about where my focus lies regarding this team across the next 33 days.

    I Don’t Know is on Third: No, not the famous Abbott & Costello skit from yesteryear. The Braves third base situation, now that Josh Donaldson has signed with Minnesota (he left all his rain behind, though). Johan Camargo showed up in shape and motivated this spring, after looking sluggish and disinterested far too often in 2019. Austin Riley spent the winter working to tweak a swing that took the world by storm for six weeks, then crashed and burned with frightening brutality.

    That’s OK. Riley turns 23 in early April. I still think if he’s not traded at some point, he’s the long-term solution at third because he’ll hit enough with plenty of power to offset a high strikeout rate. But that’s not going to be this year, at least not initially. The kid needs steady playing time, and barring a breakout spring, it’s likely going to be at Triple-A Gwinnett to start.

    Which shifts the focus to Camargo. He cut 18 pounds off his frame from last spring by focusing on his body and his diet. And while manager Brian Snitker has said publicly he will split playing time between Camargo and Riley in spring, don’t be surprised if that mix of time starts shifting in Camargo’s favor in a couple of weeks.

    Camargo doesn’t have to have the type of season he had in 2018. I’m not convinced that’s who he is (at least offensively). But he – and the Braves – cannot afford for the 2019 productivity, or lack thereof, to show up again.

    Long Live the King? We Will See: Felix Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training with something to prove. It is a no-risk flyer for the Braves, but with Cole Hamels likely missing at least the first two or three turns in the regular-season rotation due to a shoulder injury, Hernandez emerging as somebody capable of holding down a back-end rotation spot – even if for a month – would be helpful.

    Here’s my problem. The King has steadily declined each of his past three years. He joked with reporters this week that he’s not old, although he turns 34 in early April. It’s more the mileage on that once-dynamic right arm, one that’s pitched 2,729 2/3 innings in the majors, one that debuted in the bigs the same year (2005) broadcaster Jeff Francoeur and recently retired Brian McCann reached the show.

    Many say the Hamels injury increases the odds of Hernandez making the opening-day roster. I disagree. It increases the opportunity, but if the once mighty King pitches to a 6.40 ERA with a 1.53 WHIP in camp (as he did across 15 starts for Seattle last season), this feel good story will end with a release before the March 26 opener in Arizona.

    Filling Out the Pen: Thanks to the aggression of Alex Anthopoulos at the trade deadline and again in the early days of the offseason, Atlanta’s bullpen arguably is one of the best in baseball. There are six locks in my opinion for the eight spots, and all six have closed at the big-league level. Five are right-handed, and lefty Will Smith likely will be closing for this team sooner rather than later. As for the final two openings? There are a lot of directions in which Snitker may opt to go.

    The bullpen does not have a traditional long man at the moment. Josh Tomlin filled that role admirably last season and is back in camp on a non-roster invite. But with so much depth on the 40-man roster, it’s plausible to not have a “break glass in case of emergency” guy, knowing fresh arms can be shuttled in should somebody have to wear it for two or three innings due to an injury or in a blowout.

    A couple of guys I’m watching closely this spring: Jacob Webb, who needs to cut down on the walks and was injured at times last season, but showed flashes of brilliance stuff-wise. A.J. Minter, the co-closer at the start of the season, whose spring 2019 was marred by a fender-bender that tweaked his shoulder, kicking off a lost campaign for the hard-throwing lefty. And I’ll offer a wild card: 27-year-old lefty Phil Pfeifer, who impressed the Braves enough at three levels of the organization last season (1.16 WHIP, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings) that Atlanta added him to the 40-man roster this winter.

    Acuna, Ozuna, and Who: Ronald Acuna Jr. will lead off and play mostly right field, with some duty in center against left-handers. Marcell Ozuna will anchor left field and hit cleanup while looking to rediscover his 2017 production, when he was one of the more feared sluggers in the NL. But what of the final outfield spot, with three veterans on the roster looking for playing time?

    If healthy, Ender Inciarte should play the majority of games, keeping Acuna in right while providing the Braves with a three-time Gold Glove winner in the middle. Inciarte struggled with lower body injuries in 2019, not a good sign for an outfielder whose age (he turns 30 at season’s end) and salary ($7.7 million this season; $8.7 million in 2021) are increasing. Historically a slow starter offensively, Inciarte can ill-afford to not get going at the plate until June.

    Adam Duvall, one of the few Braves who performed in the NLDS, figures to man right field more often than not when lefties are on the mound. But Duvall has struggled when not playing full time, and his $3.25 million deal is not guaranteed (meaning he could be cut in camp and the team recoup a cost savings). If Duvall has a good spring, he certainly will be a trade target. Nick Markakis is back on a one-year deal and finally in the role best suited for him: a good left-handed bat off the bench who, due to injuries, would be fine to start every day for three weeks (not six months, Snit).

    It will be different this year for the dude from Woodstock by way of Young Harris. So too for these Braves, who not only are expected to win now, but win in the most important month of all. But you must get there first, and that journey starts in mere hours.

    —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.

    When it Comes to Chopping, Less Indeed is More

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – At the risk of dating myself (and revealing this scribe is old enough to be your father, or that crazy uncle who sneaks you beer and lets you stay up till 3 a.m.), let me take you back nearly three decades to one of the greatest years of my life: 1991.

    I graduated high school that June. I started college that September. I began my second year of covering high school football for my hometown newspaper. There are a variety of other personal reasons I could share that since have lost significance with the passage of time. But there were things I couldn’t dare dream that happened that year.

    They were all tied to my favorite baseball team and my hometown. I’ll never forget any of it. One example (of many):

    I sat in my 1979 Silverado on a two-lane road in northern Douglas County (about 25 miles west of Atlanta) one mid-October afternoon, in front of a subdivision, waiting for the kids who lived there to exit the school bus. There were several parents waiting at the neighborhood’s entrance, as they did every day. It was an unremarkable moment, just another day, until the kids on the back of the bus took notice of the view out the rear windows.

    First one of them, then two, then several, pushed against the glass, waving their right arms up and down. The kids getting off the bus noticed, and started doing that same chopping motion. I looked, and there were the parents, chopping and cheering. The bus driver extended her arm out the window and started waving it in the same manner.

    A lone foam tomahawk, sitting on the front dashboard of my old truck, firing up a fanbase that had no reason to believe until this year, my 18th on the planet, the single-greatest baseball season I’ve ever experienced.

    You see, being a baseball fan in Atlanta was not for the faint of heart in the 1970s and 80s, not until the first great rebuild in our city’s baseball history bore fruit that exceeded our wildest fantasies in 1991. And along the way, the chop was born: started as a tip of the cap to Falcons cornerback and Florida State product Deion Sanders, who became just one of a zillion “can you believe this?” storylines during the Braves historic worst-to-first surge from the bottom of the National League West to extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series in six dizzying months.

    I’ve lived just about every single moment of Braves baseball since the 1980s dawned. I remember Chief Noc-A-Homa delivering the game ball to home plate, breathing fire with a hand-held torch on the pitcher’s mound, then retreating to his teepee in the left-field bleachers of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I remember the outcry when owner Ted Turner removed the teepee during the 1982 NL West race to sell more tickets (at about the same time Atlanta embarked on a 2-19 swoon that nearly cost it the division title).

    Of the million things that make me smile when I think about 1991, the tomahawk chop is near the top of the list. I worked part-time for a cardboard and packaging manufacturer that made a variety of materials, including foam cutouts designed to secure parts for shipping items for federal government clients. The summer before, those orders spiked with the onset of the Crisis in the Persian Gulf and subsequent U.S. military buildup.

    By late summer 1991, there were tomahawks being cranked out of that Cherokee County warehouse like crazy.

    See, the tomahawk chop engulfed the city. I hate to be the “you had to be here” dude, but truly, you had to be here that summer. It never was (and still isn’t) about making fun of any one group. It’s not mocking the heritage or history of an important part of our nation’s history. It merely was an innocent, organic expression of fandom that exploded in a fashion not quantifiable by any metric.

    It didn’t matter where you lived in Atlanta, be it the projects off Hightower or the mansions in Buckhead, be it out in the sticks of Douglasville or the progressive northside. It didn’t matter if you worked in a warehouse on Fulton Industrial Boulevard or a high rise off Peachtree Street downtown or drove a tractor in South Georgia. The Braves were winning. They had captured the heart of the city, the state, the region, and we all were united behind that one simple arm motion.

    Its beauty lied in the chop’s organic nature. Sometimes, it took just a few keys from the stadium organist. Often, even that wasn’t necessary. By the time the eyes of the sports world cast its gaze upon Atlanta for the NL Championship Series and the World Series that followed, the fans simply seized the moment to begin chopping and chanting with no prompting. There were no manufactured moments from stadium ops or the gameday staff. There certainly weren’t any flashing lights or scoreboard messages nudging fans to get ready.

    We simply chopped. We chanted. We cheered.

    Things change as the years go by. The chop is no different. It long ago became worn out, overplayed, sterile, manufactured, contrived, devoid of the emotion that fueled its inception. It’s sad, but it’s understandable. Something as organic and grassroots as the chop was in its early years never is sustainable. Truth be told, this lifelong Braves fan is surprised it’s lasted this long.

    I’ll never legislate how any person or group feels, no more than I would want them to legislate feelings I possess. Yes, there were protests outside Atlanta Stadium during the ’91 postseason. Being the cynical teenager I was at the time, I dismissed them with a simple, “where were they last season, when we sucked?” But the passage of time changes perspectives. I guess I’ve changed mine now, to a certain extent.

    I don’t blame Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley for stating what he did about the chop during last season’s NL Division Series. He was asked a question and he provided an answer. I do have a problem with the Braves organization – which have placed foam tomahawks in every seat for every home playoff game for as long as I can remember (including Games 1 and 2 of last October’s series) – deciding in a knee-jerk reaction to not do so for Game 5.

    The Braves said in October they wanted to open dialogue with Native American groups to discuss ways to hear concerns. If that hasn’t happened, as per published reports (subscription required), then that’s disappointing. It goes back to a simple tenant: you do as you say you will do. As a fan and partial season-ticket holder, that’s not a good look, if true.

    But that’s not my point here. As someone who was a Braves fan before 1991, when a pennant winner and the accompanying chop descended upon us like something from outer space, and as someone who will be a Braves fan long after my time here is done, I now know it’s time.

    Let the chop live on, but only in its original, organic state. No more screaming over the loudspeakers for fans to get on their feet and chop for introduction of the first three hitters in the bottom of the first inning. No more forced drumbeats when Atlanta gets a runner on second base in the third inning of a game the second Wednesday night in June.

    If fans want to do it at those moments, that’s fine. If it’s a big moment late in a game, and the fans want to stand up and start chopping and chanting, I see no problem with that. If it’s a big game down the stretch, and a sellout crowd at Truist Park feels the need to rise and start the chop, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t see how that should spark outrage – again, I have no problem with it.

    The Braves are not going to, nor should they, change their name. Nor should they remove the tomahawk from their logo. But when it comes to trying to manufacture chopping and chanting 10 times a game, 81 times a year, that shouldn’t happen.

    Let it be organic. Let the fans do it as they see fit, when they see fit, in the moments when the crowd feels it matters most. That is the spirit with which all of this started, and should be the only spirit in which it lives moving forward.

    —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.

    Ozuna Signing Adds Needed Jolt to Braves Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t read this blog, of that I’m certain. His burner Twitter account doesn’t follow me on that always-sane platform, of that I’m fairly certain, too. But if he did track me here or on social media, he certainly would have seen my insistence that upon seeing Josh Donaldson head to Minnesota, he could not take this team into the March 26 season opener as it was constituted this time last week.

    Turns out, all those who screamed the Braves would stand pat got to bang that drum for exactly one week.

    Seven days after news broke that Donaldson was heading north, Anthopoulos solved the Braves cleanup problem in much the same manner he brought the Bringer of Rain here for 2019, signing former Miami and St. Louis outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal. In his second season with the Cardinals, Ozuna slashed .241/.328/.472 for an .800 OPS, 29 homers, 89 RBIs and 12 stolen bases.

    Ozuna is two years removed from a monster season with the Marlins, driving in 124 runs with 37 homers (the same total a certain right-handed swinging, umbrella-toting slugger belted for the Braves in 2019) with a .312/.376/.548 slash line. He turned 29 in November and was offered a qualifying offer by the Cardinals, which certainly helped to depress his free-agent market. As hitter after hitter went off the board, Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos were left as the final two marquee bats after Donaldson signed.

    While Braves fans – including this one – pined for more rain in the forecast for 2020 and beyond – Anthopoulos found a way to land his slugger while not blocking super-prospect outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. In this space throughout the offseason, I wrote how I preferred Ozuna over Castellanos. His defensive shortcomings will be compensated by having Ender Inciarte (Pache later this summer, in my opinion) flanking him in center.

    Ozuna-palooza, coming to the ballpark formerly known as SunTrust in early April 2020.

    In landing an impact bat, the Braves also ensured there will not be three platoons (including catcher) in the everyday lineup. The thought of a World Series contender running Johan Camargo and Austin Riley at third base while employing Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall in left field didn’t necessarily spark visions of October glory.

    Anthopoulos certainly realized this, too. He did not sit by idly (as quite a few folks whined incessantly that he would), making the move he needed to make in the wake of Donaldson’s departure. Sure, losing the draft pick tied to the qualifying offer stings a bit, but when you need a big bat to hopefully push you deeper into October after two straight NLDS exits, you bite on the risk there and go for it.

    For all of Anthopoulos’ great work in the opening weeks of the offseason, missing out on Donaldson was indeed that: a swing and a miss. But Ozuna’s acquisition, on a one-year deal, is exactly the type of realistic impact move Atlanta needed to make. So, a nod of kudos to Anthopoulos for getting it done.

    The batting order looks far better with Ozuna in the fourth spot that it did a week ago, which goes to show the sheer folly of getting too worked up about a puzzle that’s under construction. Opening day remains more than two months away. Camp opens soon, yes, and with every passing day, that hole in the middle of the lineup loomed larger. But it looms no more.

    I would love to think the Braves aren’t done, that perhaps there will be another bat added (full disclosure: I’ve wanted two impact bats all offseason, knowing that’s a reach). Nolan Arenado, another popular topic on this blog and on Twitter, is quite unhappy with Colorado. But any potential trade remains a very complex situation. And I’m convinced my children’s children will have children before the Kris Bryant grievance deal is resolved.

    I won’t quibble if Anthopoulos is done here. Ozuna’s signing gives the Braves 23 locks on the opening-day roster, the way I see it, with a 2020 payroll of approximately $145.88 million. Add a cheap bench piece and two relievers from the vast number of internal candidates, and payroll likely sits around $150 million, with certainly a few million more pigeon-holed for midseason moves.

    Counting the $4 million options exercised for Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers, the Braves have added $74.24 million in salary for the upcoming season. It sure does help having Acuna and Ozzie Albies slated to make $1 million each in 2020, and at least two members of the starting rotation (Mike Soroka and Max Fried; three, if you include Sean Newcomb) pulling in the major-league minimum.

    (No, I’m not counting on Felix Hernandez making the opening-day roster, in case you’re curious.)

    There still is the question of third base, and while I’m not enamored with the strategy of hoping Camargo 2020 is closer to 2018 and not 2019, or Riley 2020 is closer to May 2019 and not July 2019, it’s more acceptable with an impact bat in left field.

    Many of us – myself included – were critical of Anthopoulos last winter after the only move he made between the end of November and the end of spring training was re-signing Markakis. But the financial flexibility jokes officially are dead and buried now. The narrative of the Braves being too cheap is done. You can continue to say them if you wish, but you’re wrong.

    And sorry for this painful reminder, but Ozuna nearly single-handedly helped end the Braves season in the NLDS (although Atlanta had plenty of help doing it to itself), going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored in five games.

    If that Ozuna shows up in October, the Braves will be thrilled. And getting to the season’s 10th month certainly feels more likely than it did this time last week.

    —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.

    Felix Hernandez signed to minor league contact, huge upside

    The Braves have signed Felix Hernandez to a minor league deal with a spring training invite. Should he make the 40-man roster out of spring training he would secure a $1 million contract.

    Felix Hernandez, 33, signed a 1-year minor league contract with Atlanta

    In 2019, long-time Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez pitching 71.2 innings. In comparison, in the prior 14 seasons, Felix averaged 224 innings pitched per 162 games. If ever there were a player who defined ‘workhorse’ it would be Felix. In what is considered his prime, Felix had a 127-83 record (.605% winning percentage) in 291 games started. This number hardly represents just how dominant he was as he played for a club that struggled mightily in those years and game him very little run support. He put up a 3.00 ERA in 1987 innings pitched, recording 1889 strikeouts. He was a 6-time all-star in his prime. He won 1 Cy Young award and arguably should have won 3 (he was robbed in 2014). Felix broke the mold for winners of the CYA, the very mold that would pave the wave for other CYA winners like Jacob DeGrom, to no longer be disadvantaged by their win-loss record due to poor run support. He won the CYA with a 15-14 record. In his prime he finished in the top 25 of the MVP vote 4 times. He held the ERA title in 2 seasons. He is also one of only 23 pitchers who have thrown a perfect game. I would argue he was the best pitcher in baseball in his prime. Yet he was the least known ace in baseball.

    Hernandez is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, nobody could expect as such. The thing about workhorses is that they eventually break down. Look at the recently retired CC Sabathia for instance. Shoulder injuries crop up. Felix has not been immune to this. In the last 3 seasons, he has battled shoulder soreness, a lingering calf injury and a crisis of acceptance of his new reality. A drop of velocity, fastball command and an inability to stay healthy are often talked about. With a 5.42 ERA in only 60 appearances (a handful out of the bullpen when demoted from the rotation) in the last 3 seasons, he has not been himself. It was painful for Seattle fans, myself included, to watch the King fall. However, he has much still to give as a 33-year-old righty.

    When King Felix took his final bow to the fans and his court at T-Mobile Park in 2019, there was a big question mark as to whether it would be the end of his career. Long expected to be a lifetime Mariner, he could have quit the struggle and retired in the city he loved so much that he gave the Mariners a significant discount for his services to remain there. But the thing people who don’t follow the Mariners don’t know is King Felix is one of the most competitive players in Major League Baseball. He is as much a competitor as, say, Max Scherzer. He made clear to the press in his final game for Seattle that he had no interest in retiring and he would pitch as long as he could. The question at the end of the season was whether a team would take a chance on him. Now Atlanta has.

    What does Felix have to offer the Braves? He is expected to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation in spring training beginning next month. He will not be able to give the club especially long outings like those of years past. But as we know, with stronger and deeper bullpens, the way games are managed has changed since Felix first entered the scene as a 19-year-old Venezuelan prospect in 2005. Could Felix give the club 5 innings an outing? This isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

    The x-factor with Felix that few analysts are mentioning is the leadership and mentorship that the righty brings to a club, particularly a young pitching staff. There have been countless pitchers who have come and gone through Seattle in his time there—James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery, Edwin Diaz, Marco Gonzalez—and those pitchers have benefited from his understanding of the craft of pitching. He has taught his changeup to them and talked pitching with them on the bench every day he wasn’t pitching. There have been many young, promising prospects who have found a friend in Felix, a guy who knows what it is like to come to this country as a teenager and be asked to compete at the highest level. He might be exactly what the young guys on both sides of the ball need.

    Can he still be effective? Changing leagues has advantages. National League clubs, aside from perhaps the Padres, have not seen much of Felix. Consider the successes of Javier Vasquez, Rafael Soriano or, most recently, Anibal Sanchez moving to Atlanta after American League mileage. Felix has the potential to do the same. His unusual changeup and better than average curveball can be effective if, and here lies the question he will have to answer in spring training, his fastball command returns. He has long battled a drop of fastball velocity and will have to continue to transition to a different kind of pitcher than he was a young flamethrower.

    If he can’t beat Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright for the 5th roster spot, can he be useful to the Braves in the ‘pen. This was something the Mariners had to explore in 2018 until another injury on the pitching staff forced the Mariners to return Hernandez to the rotation after he made his one and only career appearance out of the ‘pen.

    Can Felix stay healthy? Here is where I think the biggest question mark is for Atlanta and even for Felix himself who has fought to stay on the mound in the last 3 seasons. If I had to guess, I suspect the low-risk contract Felix signed with Atlanta is rooted in his understanding of the failures of his body in recent years. If he can manage shoulder pain, inflammation and fatigue, the best-case scenario for the Braves is to have a repeat of Tim Hudson who was believed to be unlikely to rebound in 2010 at the age of 32. What if the Braves get from Felix what they did from Ben Sheets in 2010 when for 9 starts he carried the club? That would well be worth the $1 million risk.

    As an aside, I am a life-long fan of the Atlanta Braves as well as the Seattle Mariners. Living in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, there was no sports figure bigger than Ken Griffey, Jr. While he was stunning fans at the Kingdome, the Braves were having their record 14 division championships. While the Braves are my first love, the Mariners are special to me and I would love to see Felix return to Seattle at the end of May as an Atlanta Brave, receiving a hero’s—no, a king’s—welcome.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and former beat writer for BravesWire.com.

    The Rain Goes North, and It’s Time to Keep This Offseason from Going South

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if the news couldn’t get any worse on a day when the home of the Braves was rechristened as Truist Park (yes, spellcheck just underlined it, if you’re wondering how the English language views this), things indeed turned worse Tuesday night.

    The skies cleared and the rain disappeared, save the tears of frustration and pain from the good people of Braves Country as news of Josh Donaldson’s signing with the Minnesota Twins cascaded across social media.

    Donaldson, whose resurgent one-year stint in Atlanta helped fuel 97 victories and a second-consecutive National League East championship, agreed to a four-year, $92-million deal with the AL champion Twins, who set a major-league record in 2019 for most homers by one team in a single season. The kicker in the deal is a fifth-year option for 2024, a season that will conclude with Donaldson a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday.

    All things being equal – and we may never know just how much the Braves offered and for how many years – it’s not much of a stretch to think Alex Anthopoulos would not include anything for a fifth year. The mindset that the option wasn’t a key element of the decision-making process is something I can’t grasp, especially for a 34-year-old player who struggled with injuries in 2017 and 2018 but rebounded at just the right time, playing 155 games in 2019 to secure a contract that will pay him for four full years and perhaps a fifth.

    Good for Donaldson, who played hard, infused grit and attitude into the lineup, exhibited outstanding defense, and provided a powerful right-handed bat in the cleanup spot. When Donaldson moved to the fourth spot and Ronald Acuna Jr. returned to the top of the order on May 10 in Arizona, the Braves offense took off. Donaldson slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS.

    The rain is gone, but with apologies to Jimmy Cliff, we certainly can’t see any clearer. In fact, the view is now clear as mud. The Braves absolutely must get at least one impact bat (and I’ve advocated all winter, they really need two). But going into 2020 with Nick Markakis hitting cleanup would be abhorrently criminal for a team that views itself as a World Series contender, and acted like one in the opening six weeks of the offseason by upgrading the bullpen to one of baseball’s best, plus adding a solid catcher and veteran rotation piece.

    What’s next, you ask? A few thoughts:

    Go get Arenado: In a perfect world where deals happen in a vacuum (i.e., fantasy baseball, or Twitter), I’d drive (insert prospects name here) to the airport myself. But in the real world, it’s far more complicated than screaming into the atmosphere, “just trade for him!”

    Arenado has an opt-out after the 2021 season. If he doesn’t waive it, you’re only getting him for two years. At $35 million each year. That is, if he approves the trade (Arenado has a full no-trade clause). If he does waive the opt-out, MLB stipulates you must replace that value – potentially by adding another year to a deal that already owes the Rockies third baseman $35 million a year through 2024, $32 million in 2025, and $27 million in 2026.

    I won’t quibble about the money. I’d pay it … sure, it’s not my money, but mainly I’d pay it because this player is that good. Arenado, who turns 29 in April, is a seven-time Gold-Glove winner and a five-time All-Star. It’s fair to question his road splits away from Coors Field: in 316 road games from 2016-19, he slashed .271/.341/.498 (.839 OPS). But even using that as a baseline and projecting across a 158-game season, Arenado would average 34 homers and 99 RBIs.

    But any trade for Arenado will be complex, expensive (in terms of money and prospects), and to me just doesn’t feel feasible, as much as I might want it to happen. But it would be the type of statement that would send shock waves throughout baseball, and it would in my opinion make the Braves the definitive favorite to win the NL pennant.

    Go get Bryant: I wrote about Kris Bryant earlier this offseason, and yet here we sit on Jan. 14, and there still is a question of whether he will play 2020 as a pending free agent or will be under club control through 2021. An arbiter is expected to rule on his grievance issue at some point between now and the All-Star break (kidding; kind of), and while I do not see the arbiter opening Pandora’s Box by siding with Bryant, I also don’t see the Cubs being able to move him until a decision is reached.

    Like Arenado, it feels like the Cubs would ask for the moon and stars for two years of Bryant. He’ll make $18.6 million this season, a number that will soar past $20 million for 2021 provided the Cubs win the grievance. It’s certainly worth exploring, but I just don’t see the Braves paying what Chicago is likely going to ask.

    Turning to the outfield: Donaldson’s migration to Minnesota leaves two major bats on the open market, and both are corner outfielders. Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos have positives about them offensively while not being exactly Gold Glovers defensively (although Ozuna is, in my opinion, adequate enough to be fine in a corner while being flanked by either Ender Inciarte or Ronald Acuna Jr.).

    I thought both Ozuna and Castellanos would get four-year deals, and maybe those dominos will fall quickly now that Donaldson has unclogged the market by signing. A four-year deal is an issue, with Cristian Pache and Drew Waters quickly ascending through the Braves minor-league system. I expect Pache to be up by late summer playing center field; Waters might not be too far behind. As I wrote before the Winter Meetings, I’d lean to Ozuna here but again, the length of the deal would concern me.

    I’ll also pivot to this thought. Two years ago in Miami, Ozuna smashed 37 homers and drove in 124 runs. We’ve seen him be an impact bat before, but we didn’t see it in either of the past two seasons in St. Louis.

    Something we don’t expect: Anthopoulos has made a living in Atlanta pulling off transactions very few people expected, and if I had to bet on any scenario, I’d put my chips here. Seattle keeps popping into my mind as an intriguing trade partner, although I really am not as enticed by third baseman Kyle Seager (.789 OPS) and his contract ($38M across the next two years) as much as I am intrigued with outfielder Mitch Haniger (injury-scuttled 2019 limited him to 63 games, but 26 homers and a .859 OPS at age 27 in 2018, and under control through 2022).

    Everybody loves to throw Matt Chapman’s name out there. I don’t see any way in the world Oakland trades its emerging star third baseman.

    Stand pat: Yeah, right. Johan Camargo had a very good 2018 before a lost 2019 mired by injuries and inconsistency, not to mention showing up to spring training out of shape. Austin Riley dazzled us for six weeks, then struck out at an alarming rate that showed he’s not quite ready to be handed third base out of the gate in 2020. I think he will be a good major-league hitter, in time, but a hope-for-the-best mindset doesn’t win the World Series.

    The Braves already plan to use a platoon in left field between Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, which is concerning. With Donaldson off the market, there simply is no defensible stance to standing pat. It cannot happen, not with the moves already made this offseason, with Acuna and Ozzie Albies still ridiculously inexpensive next season, with the championship window now full open after two division titles, a painful October choke last fall, and the potential to win and win big for the foreseeable future.

    And the feeling here is the Braves won’t be content to go with what they have. A good offseason now has turned a bit on a swing and a miss, even if it’s understandable why the Braves couldn’t get it done with Donaldson. Consider me surprised he’s departing, but it happened.

    Time for Anthopoulos to really earn his money, or else all that great work in November and December will feel awful empty.

    No matter how clear the skies now may be.

    —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.

    The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We conclude my look back at the top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s with a focus on the franchise’s emergence from the painful rebuild with the National League East clincher in 2018, followed by a slamming announcement of arrival in Atlanta’s first playoff game victory in five years in that season’s NLDS.

    Did you miss part of the series? Check out the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    Part 3: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    Part 4: Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Braves Are Back: Sept. 22, 2018

    At Long and Blessed Last, the Painful Rebuild Ends

    I stood in a cigar shop off Ga. 400 north of Cumming on the morning of Sept. 22, 2018. A cooler inside my SUV held two bottles of champagne, chilling on ice and poised for the day. As I picked out a couple of stogies (I reserve a good cigar for special occasions), the guy behind the counter looked at my Braves jersey.

    “It’s been a long time coming,” he said, smiling. “It’s so great the Braves are back.”

    That fourth Saturday in September took me back, way back, to my much younger days when it felt like popping bottles late in the year’s ninth month was a birthright. The Braves began 2018 hoping to make progress out of a four-year rebuild, with an international front-office scandal just five months prior still a gaping wound.

    On this platform, I picked the Braves to improve from 72 wins in 2017 to 80 wins in 2018, and I heard quite a bit about that from some folks.

    Turns out, we all were wrong.

    The Braves thrilled us during a dizzying ride though a 90-win regular season, with walk-off victories and emerging young stars as far as the eye could see, the pieces of the puzzle starting to join together to produce something not even the most ardent, optimistic Braves fan could’ve expected when the season commenced. Even how it started was quite remarkable: Nick Markakis blasting a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth as a thunderstorm approached SunTrust Park to cap a five-run rally and lift the Braves past Philadelphia.

    While there were fits and starts, overall, that moment in the season opener seemed to galvanize this team. An early-September weekend in Arizona produced two heart-stopping victories, and I’ve said time and time again the Braves won the East in the desert those two games. But the official moment would come at 3:44 p.m. two weekends later, on a sun-splashed Saturday at SunTrust Park, when Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field.

    Freddie Freeman raised both arms into the air, as if finally freed from the purgatory of rebuilding. Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave, fought back tears while being interviewed on national TV. A few moments earlier, as that fly ball settled in Acuna’s glove, Fox Sports national baseball announced Joe Davis uttered the same words the dude at the cigar shop said to me about six hours earlier: “The Braves are back.”

    And inside the ballpark, it was a party that had been a half-decade in the making, the joyous release of five years of frustration and pain and embarrassment. It hit me at some point during the celebration why I felt just delirious. Sure, I had just witnessed the Braves clinching something (division, wild card, playoff series victory, pennant, World Series title) in person for the seventh time. But it had been more than a hot minute. The last clinch I saw: way back to Game 7 of the 1996 National League Championship Series.

    I sat in Lot 29, finished my preview of Sunday’s game, then fired up that cigar and popped open one bottle of champagne. As I watched so many people walk past me and saw the sheer joy on their faces, it occurred to me that a whole new group of fans was experiencing what I got to enjoy so much in my late teens and throughout my 20s.

    I smiled with each delicious sip of bubbly. The rebuild, at long and blessed last, officially over.

    Indeed, the Braves are back.

    My God! He’s Just a Child: Oct. 7, 2018

    Acuna’s Slam Hints of Great Things to Come

    Look, let’s face it. The Braves exited the rebuild earlier than any of us expected. We saw an improving team with a lot of questions as the 2018 season dawned, figuring we had another season or two before contention would be realistic. Yeah, right. All the Braves did was squash that preordained timeline by winning 90 games and claiming the National League East for the first time in five seasons. And a big reason why was a 20-year-old outfielder from Venezuela who made his major-league debut in late April, smash a jaw-dropping homer in his second big-league game and never looked back en route to NL rookie of the year honors.

    But what Ronald Acuna Jr. did on the first Sunday in October 2018 just didn’t propel Atlanta to its first postseason victory in 1,829 days. It announced to the rest of the baseball world that the Braves were back and were going to be a problem for opposing teams for years to come.

    The first home playoff game in the history of SunTrust Park was met with sheer exuberance from those of us fortunate enough to be there, along with the millions in Braves Country who dreamed of this through every moment of the rebuild. Acuna, with his million-watt smile and unbridled passion, led the way through the regular season as the Braves buried the old narrative and emerged as a playoff team. Granted, it was hard to see any way past the mighty Dodgers in the NLDS, a thought reinforced when Los Angeles outscored Atlanta 9-0 in taking the first two games of the series in Chavez Ravine.

    The series shifted to the South’s capital city and we took full advantage of the moment. The tailgate party in Lot 29 was the best I’ve experienced in years of pre-gaming with Braves fans. There was an aura of, “we’re here, so let’s go” that permeated through everyone amid the smoke from the grills and the flowing of beverages. Perhaps it was five years of pent-up frustration. Perhaps it was the realization that playoff baseball was back in Atlanta after half a decade, in the Braves’ sparkling new palace.

    And while they lost this series in four games, one magical swing in the second inning of Game 3 served notice that the Braves were back on the national stage.

    Acuna found himself in the on-deck circle as starting pitcher Sean Newcomb worked a four-pitch walk against Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler to drive home Atlanta’s first run of the series. With everybody standing and the new ballpark shaking, Acuna stepped to the plate and took three balls from the Los Angeles right-hander.

    The fans in the yard were screaming. My oldest son leaned into my left ear and screamed, “he’s going to walk him. He can’t give up a big hit right here.” I agreed. Buehler responded with a fastball high in the zone, a pitch inexcusably called a strike. The crowd, in full lather and sounding like the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium assemblies in the 1990s, howled its disapproval. At that moment, I was hoping Acuna would settle himself after the blatant missed call, and simply drive the ball somewhere to plate a run or two.

    He did much, much better than that.

    Acuna’s swing at the 3-1 pitch not only made him the youngest player in MLB history to launch a grand slam in a postseason game, not only put the Braves ahead 5-0, it delivered a definitive message to the rest of the majors. This team, one that had lost 89-plus games for four straight seasons, not only was here, it was here to play. I screamed above the din to my son, “My God! He’s just a child!” Again, nobody gave the Braves a chance in the series and understandably so, but in Atlanta’s first playoff game held in its shiny new field of dreams, a small part of the payoff was realized, thanks in large part to Acuna.

    Yes, the Braves won 6-5 in Game 3, surviving a furious rally (the Dodgers were so, so much better, to be honest) as Freddie Freeman launched a go-ahead solo blast. And almost as noteworthy, the nation saw the vision behind the ballpark and The Battery Atlanta realized on that Sunday night. We started tailgating before noon, some eight hours before first pitch, and traffic already was stacked around the area. It truly felt like a college football Saturday in Athens, or on the plains of Auburn, or along the river in Knoxville, in the hours leading up to the game. Afterward, the party raged in The Battery.

    It wasn’t just a game. It was an event. The Braves hit a grand slam by securing the land at the confluences of Interstates 75 and 285 on the northwestern rim of the city, and this moment was one the franchise surely had in mind in November 2013 when it announced the move from downtown. And for the first time, the genius of that bold move was realized the day of Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS, a game won in part by the brightest star of Atlanta’s rebuild stepping into the national spotlight and delivering a grand slam of his own.

    Author’s note: All the moments in this series are special to me, and I hope I’ve articulated why well enough the past five days. But if I had to pick a favorite, Acuna’s grand slam would top the list.

    —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.

    Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Top 10s of the 2010s, Part 4

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Welcome to part four of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, where we remember two of the most stunning losses in Braves franchise history, let alone just this decade: The ninth-inning implosion in Game 3 of the 2010 NL Division Series against the Giants and the impact it had on me after what happened that offseason, and two years later, the game not-so-fondly remembered as The Infield Fly Game (the 2012 NL Wild Card Game).

    You’re invited to catch up on the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    Part 3: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    From Elation to Excruciation: Oct. 10, 2010

    A Painful Playoff Defeat, Followed by a Much Bigger Loss

    I dreamed of this moment from the time I accepted a newspaper job in the Atlanta suburbs and moved back from the Georgia coast in August 2006 with my wife and two preschool-aged kids in tow. The chance to raise our kids in the city where my wife and I both grew up, to experience life with both sides of our family and, hopefully, to share moments like the second Sunday of October 2010:

    My two boys’ first experience attending Choptober Baseball.

    We grilled hot dogs in the parking lot and my kids tossed a football with my wife’s uncle Billy. His being there made this day all the more special. He wasn’t just family; he had become one of my best friends. He worked for Delta as a mechanic and before he got married, Billy often would fly down to the coast on weekends and hang out with his favorite niece and her sports-loving husband. We would talk life, investments, fishing, Braves baseball, Georgia football and, starting in 2002 when my oldest was born, parenting.

    When I covered UGA in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year’s Day 2003, I was able – as a credentialed member of the media covering the game – to buy two tickets at face value. I bought one for my best friend since middle school. I bought the other one for Billy. He married his wife in 2004; my oldest was the ring bearer, while I held my youngest in my arms during the ceremony. And now, we were at the NL Division Series, the wild-card Braves and NL West champs Giants tied at a game apiece. My sons’ first playoff game. My first postseason game since covering Game 2 of the 1999 World Series.

    It was, to me, absolute perfection. Billy and his wife, sitting a few rows down from us, delivering a whole pizza for the boys to consume in the fourth inning with the Braves trailing 1-0. Tim Hudson grinding through seven strong innings, surrendering only an unearned run on Brooks Conrad’s second error of the game. Jonathan Sanchez no-hitting the Braves until Huddy singled in the sixth. Tight. Tense. Can’t-breathe baseball, just like I watched in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Octobers past, before I ever dreamed I’d be a husband, let alone a father times two.

    Then, the magical eighth. Alex Gonzalez’s leadoff single and, two hitters later, pinch-hitter Eric Hinske’s laser that just got over wall in the right-field corner. Turner Field absolutely turned upside down. It was the loudest I ever heard that ballpark. In the upper deck, you could feel the stadium swaying, and my 7-year-old screamed into my ear as I held him in my arms, “Daddy, the stadium’s shaking!”

    I screamed back, “this is how it used to be across the street!”

    Then, the ninth inning. You know the story. The rookie Craig Kimbrel, one strike away from nailing down the save, gave up a 1-2 single. Mike Dunn surrendered the game-tying hit. The Giants took the lead on Conrad’s third error of the game, won 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead, and would finish the Braves and end Bobby Cox’s managerial career one night later.

    Leaving that night was devastating. My wife kept telling me, “it’s alright. We’re going to win tomorrow.” But my boys were crestfallen. Even the always upbeat, ever-grounded Billy admitted, “that’s tough to take.” I couldn’t imagine a worse ending. Yes, attending the three 1996 World Series games in Atlanta was awful. But this was my boys’ first playoff game. This was a moment Billy and I talked about back when I lived on the beach and the kids were in diapers, that one day we’d all cheer on the Braves to October glory together.

    I felt crushed. Nobody said anything on the way home. But as always, I started thinking of next season. We’ll get it right. We’re going to storm through the playoffs, and all of us will be there together to see it.

    Then came the phone call in January 2011, my wife crying uncontrollably on the other end. Billy had collapsed. By the time she got to the hospital, he was gone. Heart attack. 50 years old. A few days later, I delivered the eulogy at his funeral. I shared our Game 3 experience, him serving hot dogs to my kids, how he turned and pumped his fist at us after Hinske’s homer, how he patted my shoulder postgame as we walked down the stairs to the left-field gate.

    Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Billy. And while Game 3 in 2010 is heartbreaking to so many, excuse me if I say this one hurts me on a different level. My dear friend’s final time watching his ballclub play.

    The Infield-Fly Rule, Ruined Forever: Oct. 5, 2012

    One of MLB’s Worst Calls Ever Incenses Braves Country

    It was Oct. 2, 2012, and I sat in the third-base dugout at Coal Mountain Park in northern Forsyth County, Ga. Fall baseball, and my 10-year-old was behind the plate, getting extra reps after a full season of travel baseball. The few moments we had free that spring and summer, we snuck down to Turner Field to cheer the Braves to a playoff spot, one that young (how strange that is to type at this decade’s conclusion) first baseman Freddie Freeman clinched with a walk-off homer against Miami one week before.

    As the second inning began, I got my son’s attention and held up five fingers, and he nodded. He knew no 10-year-old throws five pitches. He turned to the home-plate ump and shared the news with him: The wild-card game would start at 5 p.m. Friday. I swear, we got three or four borderline calls that night (for the record, we knew the home-plate ump and we knew he had corporate tickets; he may or may not have delayed the bottom of the second inning texting people after the news broke … To be fair, the opposing head coach was on the phone a good bit after the ump shared the news with him).

    Fast-forward three days. A 5 p.m. first pitch on the first Friday in October, so that meant I checked the kid out of school at 11 a.m. and headed inside the perimeter. We gathered with friends on the grassy knoll across Hank Aaron Boulevard from the right-field gate, tossing a football while watching the most impressive tailgate setup I’ve ever seen roll in a few hours before first pitch, a long-bed pickup truck complete with multiple TVs streaming sports, open bars along each side of the truck, the whole nine yards.

    There is zero value in sharing the proceedings of what happened inside Turner Field that evening. All it would do is fire me up like it happened seven minutes ago, not seven years ago (although my son and I still cuss it at every mention). I am thankful we had seats high in the upper deck. As the bottles rained down on the playing surface after Sam Holbrook lost his freaking mind and made that unbelievable, inexcusable, garbage call, I couldn’t help but think how cursed my city was when it comes to big sports moments, while making sure my 10-year-old didn’t wear a Bud Light bottle across the back of his neck.

    Niekro getting rained out in the 82 NLCS opener, one out from an official game? Game 7 in 91 in the awful Metrodome? Games 3, 4 and 5 in 96, in a stadium in which I sat in the upper deck hoping to see the Braves win the World Series in person for the second straight October? The 18-inning loss in Houston in 05? All the other playoff missteps in the late 90s and the 2000s? The Falcons and Eugene Robinson the night before the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in January 1999? Cliff Levington’s ill-fated left hook in The Omni against Boston in Game 6 of the East semis in 1988, with a conference finals berth on the line? The Falcons with a lead at home against the Cowboys in the NFC semis in January 1981 before Danny White took over in the final minutes? The Thrashers going belly-up in the first round of 2007 against the Rangers? The “most excellent” insult from the IOC at the conclusion of the 96 Olympics?

    After the wild-card game, sitting on the trunk of my car with the windows down and the Braves Radio Network postgame show playing, my son and I were silent. We sat there for at least an hour. Neither of us said a single word. In retrospect, the Braves flubbed up plenty of chances in the decade. They didn’t need any help.

    But at the worst possible time, Holbrook made a call that will live in franchise infamy for as long as the Braves exist.

    —30—

    On Deck: The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    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.

    Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    The Top 10s of the 2010s, Part 3

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We continue looking back at my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s with part three, a focus on two farewells: Bobby Cox’s last game as manager before retiring, and the final game held at Turner Field in 2016.

    As a reminder, you can check out previous entries in the series below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    The Skipper’s Final Ride: Oct. 11, 2010

    Bobby’s Hall of Fame Career Ends with Game 4 Loss to Giants

    Say what you will about his bullpen management, his lineup construction, his postseason win/loss record. But let me say this. I said it as a kid watching him manage my hometown team in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I said it as a young sports writer who on occasion got to cover his teams and deal with him. I said it after watching his daughter play in the state softball playoffs in Columbus one year, when I kindly asked him if I could speak to him about being a dad and not a major-league manager, a moment he recalled the next spring when I found myself ducking into his office at his main job for a few pregame thoughts.

    I appreciate Bobby Cox.

    Sure, you can beat the drum all you want about winning only one World Series championship during the great run of the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s. That’s fair. I think about sitting next to him in the first-base dugout at Champion Stadium during spring training in 2005 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., asking if he had a moment to talk about what spring training was like in the 1960s when he was a hopeful major leaguer, for a front-page story I was working on about how the Grapefruit League had become big business, and him chatting with me for 15 minutes like I had been on the beat for 20 years.

    I think about watching him take grounders at first base during batting practice in 2000, when I got to cover a few home games in the first half of the season. Hearing those spikes click-clacking along the concrete walkway from the locker room to the first-base dugout at Turner Field. Seeing that mini-fridge in his office with the glass door that held his postgame beverages and tobacco.

    Mostly, I think about how much he loved being at the ballpark, talking shop, those quips of “c’mon kid!” the dugout mics would pick up, and how hard he fought for his players.

    It didn’t matter if you were the 25th man on the roster or a suburban newspaper reporter who occasionally dropped in to ask a question. Bobby Cox treated you with like you were a superstar or a full-time beat writer. To me, it was quite fitting that somebody who was so similar to him but plied his craft on the opposite coast, Bruce Bochy of the Giants, would be in the opposing dugout for the legendary Braves skipper’s final game, Game 4 of the 2010 NL Division Series at Turner Field.

    Atlanta, by all rights, should’ve been ahead 2-1 in the best-of-five series. The bottom line is they weren’t, and as I watched the game with my best friend from the outfield bleachers, it was in the back of our minds this could be Bobby’s last game. Brian McCann’s homer off Madison Bumgarner in the sixth snapped a 1-all tie, but Alex Gonzalez’s error in the seventh led to two runs scoring. The Braves got the tying and winning runs on base in the ninth, only to see one of my least-favorite Braves of all time, Melky Cabrera, ground out.

    When it was finished, everybody in Turner Field realized far more than a season had ended. Bochy did, too, so he instructed his Giants to applaud the Atlanta skipper while on the field during the aftermath of the series-ending victory. That singular gesture from one classy professional – who recognized the moment – to another brought tears to our eyes. Yes, the Braves should’ve won that series. They didn’t, but Bochy recognized the finality of the moment in his team’s own moment of triumph. I was proud to stand in SunTrust Park on Sept. 22, 2019, and cheer for Bochy during his final visit to Atlanta and final road game as Giants skipper.

    And what happened after the Game 4 loss and the team filed into the locker room? Cox, who never liked to go into the locker room, held court long into the night with his players. Perfect. How else would this baseball lifer close up shop on his final day on the clock than talking about the sport he loved?

    One Last Time at the Ted: Oct. 2, 2016

    Closing 50 Years of Ball Downtown with a Playoff-Type Victory

    There should’ve been zero reason for a postseason-esque buzz walking into Turner Field on Oct. 2, 2016. The Braves were 67-93 entering the finale of another lost season (remember, Atlanta played just 161 games that season, as the game seven days earlier in Miami was cancelled following the tragic death of one of my favorite non-Braves of all time, the brilliant and transcendent Jose Fernandez).

    The Braves had endured a brutal start to the season but actually played well at times in the second half, entering the season finale winning 17 of its previous 27 games. Dansby Swanson had taken over at shortstop after being promoted in early August, and interim manager Brian Snitker had steadied things somewhat following the early May firing of dead-man-walking Fredi Gonzalez. As best he could, because this team wasn’t very good.

    I spent pregame trying to find some friends of mine tailgating, to no avail. But with my two sons and their non-baseball caring cousin in tow – the cousin wearing a Braves shirt we gave him, one of my sons wearing one of my Braves jersey, and the other wearing (for some reason, but God bless him nonetheless) my Ilya Kovalchuk Thrashers jersey – we headed into the ballpark.

    What we saw, as my two kids said repeatedly that day, was a game possessing the energy of a playoff game. It was a playoff game for the visiting Tigers, as they needed to win to get into the AL postseason party, and of course they had ace Justin Verlander on the mound. The Braves countered with Julio Teheran, and following all the pregame pomp and circumstances, the one dependable arm amid the Braves rebuild shined brightest.

    Freddie Freeman scored Ender Inciarte on a first-inning sacrifice fly and Teheran took it from there, striking out 12 while allowing three hits and one walk in seven sparkling innings. Verlander was great, too, giving up six hits with one walk and eight strikeouts in seven innings as the 51,200 brought an energy and vibe that, had you closed your eyes, you’d thought it was the early part of the decade when the Braves were relevant.

    Jose Ramirez and Jim Johnson each gave up a hit in one inning of relief but kept Detroit off the scoreboard to finish a 1-0 victory, knocking the Tigers out of the postseason and officially sending the Braves nine miles northwest to the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75, where SunTrust Park was being constructed. Home plate was dug up and taken up the road via police escort during an extensive postgame ceremony that, in retrospect, felt like a celebration after clinching a playoff berth.

    There was so much emotion that afternoon for me personally. I covered a World Series game in that ballpark. I covered an All-Star game in that ballpark. The third date with my wife was in that ballpark. I took my two sons to their first Braves games in that ballpark. In May 1996, while still sports editor of the Georgia State student newspaper, I covered the first event in that ballpark, when it was a track-and-field stadium, some two months before the 1996 Summer Olympics would happen there. In October 1996, I attended media postgame events in that ballpark, trying to process the Braves slow-motion World Series train-wreck occurring across the street, while machines moved earth below the suites and continued the ballpark’s transformation from the center of the global sports universe to the new home of the Braves.

    Who could dare to dream as the sun set on the final major-league baseball game played downtown after a 50-year run, that a mere 24 months after saying goodbye to Turner Field, these rebuilding Braves would host postseason games in their new digs?

    —30—

    On Deck: Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    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.

    What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 2

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s time for part two of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, looking at baseball’s epic final day of the 2011 regular season that found Atlanta land outside the postseason party after a painful late-season swoon, then taking a stroll through two games in which Braves starters nearly pitched no-hitters (and a nod to the lone no-hitter, at any level of baseball, I’ve witnessed in person across 40 years that also contains an interesting perspective on a tragic night in my hometown’s history).

    As a reminder, you can check out the introductory piece of the series below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

    The Long, Painful Death of a Season: Sept. 28, 2011

    Epic Late-Season Stumble Costs Braves Playoff Berth

    As late August 2011 arrived, it felt like only an act of God could keep the Braves from a second-straight NL playoff appearance. The Phillies were running away with the NL East but the Braves had found their footing, winning 16 times in 21 games to enter the final weekend of the month with the second-best record in the Senior Circuit and a 9 ½ game lead over the Giants for the NL’s lone wild-card spot.

    The Cardinals? Pfft, 10 ½ games behind the 79-53 Braves at 68-63.

    Atlanta flew to New York after taking three of four in Chicago, but Hurricane Irene was heading toward the nation’s largest city, too. The opening game of the Mets series was played in front of less than 23,000 at Citi Field and journeyman Chris Capuano destroyed the Braves, striking out 13 during a two-hit complete-game shutout. The final two games of the series would be cancelled and, with a Monday off day, the Braves suddenly had a three-day break as they were playing their best baseball of the season.

    They never recovered.

    The weirdness of that weekend in the Big Apple began the unraveling. It concluded at Turner Field on Sept. 28, the final day of the regular season. It would go down as one of the wildest, craziest days in baseball history (the Red Sox simultaneously were giving away the AL wild card), and the Braves entered that Wednesday night matchup with the division-champion Phillies having lost four in a row to fall to 10-19 since flying into New York.

    The Braves and Cardinals were tied at 89-72 as I walked into Turner Field alone for what I hoped would not be the final time that season. My sons were home with the next day being a school day, but downstairs in my filing cabinet were tickets to the first two home NL Division Series games. The sheer thought of those tickets being refunded was ridiculous just four weeks earlier, but as the losses piled up in September my sense of dread grew, and I don’t know if I’ve ever walked into a ballpark with so much doom-and-gloom as I headed to my seat in the lower level, midway between first base and the right-field corner.

    For six innings, everything was fine, and I started growing more confident. The Braves took a 3-1 lead on a Dan Uggla homer in the third and Tim Hudson cruised into the seventh inning. But with one out came two hits and an error by Jack Wilson at shortstop to score a run, and I started thinking again about how my heart was going to be shattered. After all, I sat in this stadium nearly a year before and watched the Braves fall apart in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the NL Division Series. I remember looking around and seeing people who must’ve been thinking the same thing, the wheels spinning in our heads with that, “here we go again” refrain.

    Was the seventh the start of the train careening off the tracks?

    Perhaps not. Craig Kimbrel made his first All-Star team, led the National League with 46 saves and won NL rookie of the year in 2011. Save No. 47 would at worst send the Braves into a one-game playoff with St. Louis. But Kimbrel proceeded to give up a single, get a strikeout, then walk two hitters before Chase Utley’s game-tying sacrifice fly. And as extra innings began to march on, I couldn’t help but think of all the opportunities the Braves had squandered over the past month to avoid being in this situation.

    I saw the Braves win the World Series in person in 1995. Three years earlier, I saw the Braves score three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the 1992 NL pennant in person. I’m generally an optimistic person. But that night I found myself fighting that feeling of “not again” over and over. It only grew after Chipper Jones flew out to deep left-center with a runner on to end the 10th, and it grew even more when Jason Heyward reached third on a wild pitch before Martin Prado struck out to close the 12th.

    Of course, the Phillies scored in the top of the 13th on Hunter Pence’s single that barely cleared the infield dirt. Of course, the Braves would get a runner on with one out in the bottom half, only to see Freddie Freeman – the runner-up to Kimbrel for rookie of the year – ground into a 3-6-3 double play. We knew the Cardinals already had won some 30 minutes earlier, that 8-0 result glaring on the out-of-town scoreboard in the ballpark, and when Freeman slammed his batting helmet into the ground behind first base as the season died, the deflation nearly was overwhelming.

    Other than Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a ballpark after a loss as long as I did that night. But the worst part didn’t come on Sept. 28. It came the morning after, when I had to wake up two little boys for school and tell them their favorite baseball team’s season was over.

    Oh, So Close, But No No-No: June 5, 2013 and July 29, 2018

    Julio, Newk Flirt with Every Pitcher’s Dream

    In all the baseball games these nearly 47-year-old eyes have watched through the years – from playing to coaching my kids to my sports writing days and countless games as a fan – I’ve witnessed exactly one no-hitter. It came the night after the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics, in an American Legion playoff game on July 27, 1996, in Gainesville, Ga. Andy Hussion, who would help pitch Gainesville High to a state title the following spring, twirled the gem with his dad, former Furman play-by-play man Chuck Hussion, working the PA at Ivey-Watson Field along the shores of Lake Lanier.

    The bombing was the topic of conversation everywhere, including at the ballpark. I was interning as The Times in Gainesville that Olympic summer. We were owned by The Gannett Corp. (which owned USA Today) at the time, and there were veteran newspaper people with decades of experience onsite. When the bomb went off, the presses actually stopped (just like in the movies, but never in real life). Page 1A was redone and our morning edition had the news, while other newspapers that served our area did not. I lost track of how many people in our circulation area awoke on that fourth Saturday of July 1996 with no idea what had happened downtown until they grabbed our paper from their driveways.

    Why do I share this, something that occurred so long ago? I watched two Braves take no-hit bids beyond the seventh inning in the past 40 years. Both occurred this decade. Both hold significant meaning to me, so I cheated a bit to combine both as one entry.

    June 5, 2013: The Braves had won four in a row entering a Wednesday get-away date with the Pirates at Turner Field. Both my kids were with me, ages 10 and 9 and soaking in the initial days of summer vacation. We sat in the upper deck and watched Julio Teheran dazzle the Pittsburgh lineup. Teheran at the time still sat mid-90s with his fastball, and he had everything working. We got to the top of the eighth, everybody was standing, and I was telling my kids repeatedly not to say what all of us were thinking – fortunately, they both were old enough to understand what was happening.

    Two outs in the inning, four outs away. Brandon Inge came on as a pinch-hitter, worked a 1-1 count, then lined a single to left. Teheran retired Starling Marte to end the eighth, David Carpenter worked a perfect ninth to finish the one-hitter, and my sons and I were stunned as how close we had come to seeing a MLB no-hitter in person.

    Not too long after, something happened that made my life just about completely collapse. In some of those darkest days that followed over the next two to three years, in a season of my life where hope was almost nonexistent, that Wednesday afternoon in the sunshine at Turner Field with my boys was a bright memory and a sign of better days to come.

    It just didn’t result in a no-hitter. And that wasn’t the only close call, either.

    July 29, 2018: By the grace of God, I was in such a better place as that final Sunday of July unfolded. It was the day of Chipper Jones’ induction into the Hall of Fame. My oldest son and I gathered with friends in a hotel suite near SunTrust Park to break bread and catch up, then it was on to the ballpark for the series finale with the defending NL champion Dodgers. The Braves were working to avoid a sweep after being outscored 9-2 in the first two games, as many of our thoughts were some 965 miles northeast in interior New York.

    Sean Newcomb took the mound for his 40th major-league start. He got two runs of support in the first inning and two more in the third, and the Massachusetts lefty took it from there, walking Yasiel Puig in the sixth but allowing nothing else entering the ninth. The ballpark, already an emotional mess as many of us had strained to stream Chipper’s acceptance speech during the third inning, was teeming as Newcomb took the mound to start the ninth.

    I had no doubt Newk was going to do this. Zero. Everybody was standing. I couldn’t breathe. My oldest son was pacing like I’d never seen, and he would admit later he thought it was done, too. After two flyouts. Newcomb was one hitter away. Chris Taylor worked the count to 2-2, including a somewhat questionable pitch he took for a ball, then lined a single to left field as third baseman Johan Camargo dove to his left in vain. The Braves would win 4-1, Newcomb would throw 129 pitches on the day, and the two teams would meet 2 ½ months later in the NL Division Series.

    Oh man, talk about the ultimate “what if.” I chatted with my kid while writing this and he said to this day, he was 100 percent certain Newcomb had it. His stuff was that good. I know there’s been ups and downs with Newcomb at times, but that day in July 2018 shows his potential to dominate a great lineup.

    It also shows that no-hitters are so hard to complete, and seeing one is such a rare treat. And, every day you walk into the ballpark, there’s a chance it happens. Perhaps one sweet day, Andy Hussion will have some company on my list.

    —30—

    On Deck: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    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.

    Top 10 of the 2010s (Part 1): A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 1

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – To say I’ve been blessed to follow baseball across the past 40 years is quite the understatement.

    I love this sport. I’ve watched thousands of games, from my early days playing (poorly) in Little League, to writing about high school, college, minor league and major league teams during my sports writing career, to coaching my sons for more than a decade, to being a fan of the Braves and attending games for four decades. From tagging along with my grandfather, to going with my high school and college buddies, to taking my sons to their first games. From snagging tickets here and there, to owning partial season-tickets packages in three different stadiums.

    Only God knows how many baseball games I’ve watched in nearly 47 years on this planet, some while wearing a media credential, some while holding a ticket, some while sitting on the couch watching on TV or a laptop or smart phone (or listening to via radio or streamed online).

    With the 2010s ending, I wanted to look back at my top 10 memorable Braves moments from the past 10 years. These are not ranked in any particular order, other than to be segmented into groups of two based on a common theme.

    I established three simple rules:

    • I had to see it live at the ballpark. That’s why you won’t see Brooks Conrad’s walk-off grand slam in 2010 or Chipper Jones’ homer off Jonathan Papelbon in 2012. I wasn’t at either game.
    • Final score didn’t matter. This is a list of the most memorable moments I witnessed, and it would be an injustice to only include Braves victories.
    • I wanted this series to be more than me simply regurgitating the results. Baseball Reference has all that. I wanted to tie in what these moments meant to me, what happened that day, and what it meant to myself and those around me.

    So, forgive the personal observations shared in this series. We all know what happened in the 2012 NL Wild-Card Game, and we all know what happened in Game 3 of the 2018 NL Division Series (spoiler alert: both games made the list). This is storytelling, looking through a personal lens at the games, the surroundings, the people, recalling – regardless of result – the top 10 most memorable moments these aging blue eyes witnessed in person watching this decade of Braves baseball.

    Happy Holidays! Thank you for reading, as always. I hope you enjoy.

    BLE.

    Welcome to the Show: April 5, 2010

    The Hometown Kid Says Hello with A Big Bang

    When we moved back to Atlanta in 2006, there were plenty of things I did with my kids (then ages 4 and 3) to introduce them to my hometown. Braves games. Thrashers games. Hawks games. Day trips to the mountains. And, on one spring day in 2007, we took advantage of living south of Atlanta to go check out one of the top high school baseball players in the nation.

    Fast forward to April 5, 2010, a bright spring day in Atlanta and the Braves season opener at Turner Field, the first game of the new decade. That strapping kid from Henry County High my kiddos and I watched for a few innings three years earlier stood poised to make his major-league debut. Perhaps to that point there hadn’t been a more-heralded arrival for a Braves player than one Jason Heyward, who raced through Atlanta’s minor-league system after being selected 14th overall in the 2007 player draft, then went 18-for-59 with five extra-base hits and 10 walks in 22 Grapefruit League games to earn a spot on the 2010 opening-day roster.

    You could feel the buzz pregame walking through the parking lots at Turner Field, a vibe that ratcheted even higher when Heyward caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Then the game began and Derek Lowe gave up three first-inning runs, putting the Braves in a hole before taking their first at-bats of the season. But even way up on the top row of the upper deck, high above the Braves bullpen in right field, you sensed something special was brewing.

    Maybe it was because the always combustible Carlos Zambrano took the mound for the Cubs that afternoon. Or maybe we had a feeling about what was coming, because I remember telling my boys that three runs would not beat the Braves on this day. And I was right, because after a walk to (pardon me while I puke as I type his name) Melky Cabrera, a single by Martin Prado, an RBI single by Chipper Jones and a two-run single by Yunel Escobar, the game was tied.

    Heyward walked to the plate, runners on first and second, one out, score even at 3-3. Zambrano missed on his first two offerings. With the sold-out crowd chanting his name, J-Hey unloaded on a 2-0 pitch and launched a Hollywood-esque missile, a screaming, soaring liner deep to right, one-hopping the back wall of the Braves bullpen. The stadium absolutely lost its mind. All the hype, all the hope, all the buildup for a kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, realized with an instant lightning bolt in his first swing as a big-leaguer.

    In the upper deck, we went nuts, everybody screaming and hugging and jumping up and down in a way that’s rare for any game outside of late September or October. It wasn’t until we got home and I watched the replay of the homer did I realize just how far Heyward launched that Zambrano pitch. Sitting at the kitchen table that evening, both of my kids and I couldn’t stop watching the replay of the homer on my laptop.

    I thought probably a hundred times that night, “a star is born.” And in a way that’s what happened, as Heyward earned NL All-Star honors before an injury knocked him out of the game. He finished his MLB debut 2-for-5 with the homer and four RBIs as the Braves ran away with a 16-5 victory.

    You never know where this game, or this life, will take you. Some six years and six months after that blast against the Cubs, Heyward helped lead Chicago to its 108-year jinx-breaking World Series title. But that moment the 20-year-old launched his career and brought down the house in his hometown remains memorable to this day, and was quite the way to kick off the decade.

    Over Before It Even Began: Oct. 9, 2019

    Braves Complete NLDS Choke with Epic Implosion

    My recap of Game 3 of the 2019 NLDS for this platform published, I grabbed a beverage and sat down in the Braves Room. After watching the Braves split the opening two games of the series with St. Louis here in Atlanta, the Braves roared off the deck in the ninth inning for a stunning Game 3 victory, one that sent every person into my house into delirium. Even my mom, approaching her 69th birthday, stood in the living room with a fist clenched, screaming at the TV.

    And that’s how I felt the entire day leading into Game 4, and even after a disheartening extra-inning loss that sent this series to a decisive fifth game – a game that never should’ve been played had the Braves not stumbled all over themselves in Games 1 and 4 of the series – my confidence wasn’t shaken. I had such a calm peace about the whole situation. Even my wife and kids were surprised, given that I will walk through the house clapping my hands in excitement hours before the first pitch of a Friday night game in June against the Phillies or Mets.

    That confidence carried into the day of Game 5. I checked out my oldest son from school. We grabbed barbecue for lunch before hitting the road, chatting about how we felt with Mike Foltynewicz – who we both watched dazzle St. Louis five days prior in Game 2 – on the mound, and how there was no way this Braves offense would spit the bit yet again after wasting so many chances in the fourth game. In fact, the only potential negative was raised by my oldest, who grew up idolizing Brian McCann during his first stint with Atlanta while my kid was learning to catch in Little League.

    “Dad, if the Braves lose, I think B-Mac retires,” he said, then adding, “but we’re not losing.”

    It would be folly to pin what happened on the fact no foam red tomahawks emblazoned with “Relentless,” the 2019 postseason hashtag, greeted fans upon their arrival to the ballpark. But the vibe felt different. Maybe it was the 5 p.m. first pitch. Maybe it was the missed opportunities of Games 1 and 4, conjuring up the ghosts of this franchise’s, and this city’s, past sporting missteps.

    It felt OK when Cardinals leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler foul tipped strike three into McCann’s glove, as I jumped and pumped my fist. Then I noticed the ball on the ground. McCann couldn’t hold onto it, and what transpired over the ensuing 26 minutes is a scenario not even the most scarred Braves fan could think plausible.

    Twenty-six minutes. Ten runs. Season over. And 15,000 people are still trying to get through rush-hour traffic and to their seats.

    There was nothing to say. Nothing. What do you say when you watch an entire season of promise and hope and expectations for the franchise to achieve something it hadn’t done in 18 years, one it should’ve already accomplished two days earlier, evaporate in the autumn sun in about the time it takes to walk from Lot 29 to Murph’s?

    I’m glad my oldest son was with me. He loves baseball like his old man, for better or worse. When Max Fried walked high-school teammate and St. Louis starter Jack Flaherty (who needs to keep his lip zipped on Twitter, by the way) with the bases loaded, my son just started laughing. When a run scored on a strikeout after McCann could not corral a pitch, he laughed again. By the fourth inning, the seats in our section in the upper deck were mostly empty. My kid and I laughed about that, too.

    What else could we do? We were shell-shocked. I kept looking down into the Braves dugout, across the stadium at other fans, and the look was the same. It was like we had watched a train wreck play out in slow motion. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in 40 years of watching baseball. An elimination game, at home, and the better team, the one that should’ve won the series, absolutely getting run off the field in stunning, this-cannot-be-happening fashion.

    In the seventh inning, I said enough. It was time to go home, to spend the 45 minutes in the car trying to think how to put this into words for my recap. But my son said we couldn’t leave. He didn’t want to go. He had school the next day. I had work. I didn’t understand why. This wasn’t funny anymore. He told me:

    “Dad, you know B-Mac’s still in the game. You know JT is getting the ninth. I have to watch them together, one last time.”

    Julio Teheran did make his way from the bullpen to the mound for the top of the ninth. There to hand him the ball was McCann. The two longtime Braves, both of whom made such a profound mark on this decade and on my two little guys’ baseball fandom, walked off the field in the last game of the decade, together as teammates one final time.

    And my son and I walked the steps to the third-base gate, for the final time this decade, fighting back tears.

    —30—

    On Deck: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    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.