• Exclusives

    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.

    Not the ‘K’ Pitcher Many Wanted, But Keuchel May Be Just What Braves Need

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – With every moment that followed the Craig Kimbrel signing with the Cubs on Wednesday evening, coupled with every pitch Kevin Gausman delivered that was drilled into the Pittsburgh night, the Atlanta Braves fanbase reached critical mass, imploring general manager Alex Anthopoulos to do something.

    Some 24 hours later, after an offseason devoid of a major move to upgrade the pitching staff and the corresponding months of – mostly well deserved – criticism, Braves Country can unclench its teeth.

    You have your brand new arm.

    The Braves reportedly agreed to terms Thursday night with free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel on a one-year, $13 million deal, hours after Atlanta dropped their series final at Pittsburgh to fall two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. Braves beat writer David O’Brien of The Athleticconfirmed the news on Twitter this evening, hours after MLB.com national writer Mark Feinsand categorized the Braves as favorites for the former Houston Astros ace and Cy Young winner.

    This space typically shies away from instant reaction to breaking news, preferring more of the deeper, contextual analysis, storytelling and prose. We’re not where to come for the latest headlines. However, given the depth of the Braves fanbase’s angst over the state of the pitching staff and the obsessive pursuit in many fans’ minds for either Keuchel or Kimbrel – two pitchers united by the first letter of their last name, and the fact they remained unsigned until after this week’s MLB Draft – let’s look at what the Braves hope they are getting and what it means for the defending NL East champs.

    Keuchel, who turned 31 on New Year’s Day, is a two-time All-Star honoree who won the 2015 AL Cy Young, a four-time AL Gold Glove winner and, most importantly to Anthopoulos and Co., has averaged 216 innings pitched per 162 games during his seven-year career. He helped lift Houston to the 2017 World Series championship, going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.119 WHIP in 23 starts that season, and in his career is 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 postseason appearances.

    The Astros elected to not resign the left-hander, who they selected in the seventh round of the 2009 draft out of Arkansas. Truth be told, Keuchel wasn’t as dominant in 2018 – giving up a major-league high 211 hits – but he made 34 starts, won 12 games, and posted a solid FIP (3.69), WHIP (1.314) and strikeouts-to-walks ratio (2.64).

    Keuchel’s calling card is his ability to generate ground balls, and while his 2018 rate of 53.7 percent was a drop-off from his ridiculous 66.8 percent ground-ball rate in 2017, that’s the type of pitcher who should thrive pitching in front of a solid infield defense – and Atlanta’s is stellar.

    Still, draft-pick compensation (Houston extended a qualifying offer to Keuchel after last season, which he declined), plus his demands of a large multi-year deal scared off all suitors throughout the offseason and through the first three months of the regular season.

    In a familiar refrain for several Braves pitchers past and present, Keuchel’s first inning often is his shakiest. He posted a 6.88 ERA in the opening frame last season, a number that drops below 2.66 in innings two through four. The fact he made 34 starts a season ago and, according to his agent – the always outspoken Scott Boras – reportedly could be ready to make a major-league start in a week, makes one think the ramp-up time needed to get to the majors will be quick. Reportedly, Keuchel will start for Triple-A Gwinnett on Saturday, one day after a schedule physical in Atlanta.

    Keuchel’s arrival spells the end of Gausman’s tenure in the rotation. Acquired at the trade deadline last summer from Baltimore, the right-hander missed time in spring training with right shoulder soreness and struggled to find a consistent rhythm. He gave up five earned runs in each of his final two starts in April, and his last two outings have been just awful: a combined 15 runs on 20 hits in six innings in losses to the Nationals and Pirates. It became clear after Wednesday’s latest mess that Atlanta no longer could retain a steady state in its rotation.

    Enter Keuchel.

    The deal could prove very beneficial for both sides. Keuchel gets a chance to show what he’s worth on a short-term deal, for a team that’s in contention for a playoff spot. He is reunited with Braves catcher Brian McCann, who has caught 30 of Keuchel’s 183 career starts (3.49 ERA, .240 opponents batting average). The Braves now have a veteran innings eater with playoff experience to guide a young staff, one that has been led by two outstanding yet inexperienced hurlers in Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

    Off the field, it shows the Braves indeed have the ability to add, a horse beaten into oblivion a million times over by fans and the national media. The $13 million price tag isn’t exorbitant by any stretch of the imagination, and Atlanta now has a key addition to its rotation. The focus moving toward the trade deadline can be solely on the bullpen if Atlanta chooses such, with the potential to also pursue an additional starting arm should the right deal with a reliever present itself.

    Seeing Kimbrel sign with the Cubs while Gausman circled the drain once again almost was too much for Braves fans to bear. One fan I chatted with at Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate’s game Thursday told me she ignored her phone once the Kimbrel news broke, and joked she would take her Braves Kimbrel shirtsey, buy a Cubs Kimbrel one, and stitch them together.

    There is no need to stich together anything for the rotation now. Atlanta landed its starter. It’s up to Keuchel to validate the over-the-top patience he and his camp showed the past eight months, and that the Braves exhibited in waiting to bolster their staff.

    If it pays off, it will be the absolute perfect move. Atlanta has placed its bet on the pitcher whose last name starts with K, and it’s the one who will start games, not finish them.

    —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 Austin Riley Experience Leaves Us Speechless Again

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The radio hosts kept offering suggestions that the general manager considered, but it didn’t take long to tell there wasn’t a whole lot of decisiveness in the, “that’s pretty good,” and “yeah, that’s not bad,” answers.

    Alex Anthopoulos spent a few minutes on the Atlanta Braves flagship radio station Friday afternoon, and part of the 680 The Fan interview with the Braves GM focused on vetting nicknames offered by fans to encapsulate what has become The Austin Riley Experience. And while several of the suggestions were good, Anthopoulos – and quite frankly, the rest of the planet – is at a loss to describe what’s occurring on a nearly nightly basis.

    Riley – the 22-year-old third-baseman-of-tomorrow turned left-fielder-of-today-because-he-destroyed-Triple-A – did it again on a sun-splashed Saturday at SunTrust Park, belting an opposite-field 428-foot homer high above the Braves bullpen during Atlanta’s 10-5 triumph over the Detroit Tigers.

    On the first day of June, Riley continued doing what he’s done at a historic rate since making his major-league debut a scant 17 days ago:

    Forcing us to try and find the right words to sum up what we’re seeing.

    Good luck with that.

    Consider the facts, silly as they may sound. Riley is the fourth player in big-league history (Rhys Hoskins, Trevor Story and Carlos Delgado) to hit eight or more homers in the first 16 games of a career. His 22 RBIs tie the mark for most in 16 career games (Mandy Brooks in 1925; Jim Greengrass – an 80-grade last name, for what it’s worth – in 1952). He’s yet to go longer than three games without a homer; has yet to go more than two games without an RBI. He brings a .349/.388/.762 slash line into Sunday’s series finale, with a 1.150 OPS, 10 extra-base hits, 11 runs scored and a BABIP of .438.

    And we all thought Ronald Acuna Jr.’s at-bats last season were the type of must-see TV we only experience once in a generation. Riley is every bit as compelling, every bit as enticing, every bit as “oh my, did you see that!?!” A buzz rises through the ballpark when his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame strides to the plate. It’s downright palpable, and I noticed it on May 16, just his second big-league game in which he went 3-for-4 – the first of his six multi-hit efforts to date.

    This is not your prototypical pull-happy, light-tower power, strapping slugger who’s feast or famine at the plate. Yes, there are the 23 strikeouts in 67 plate appearances. But there also is the 94.7 mph average exit velocity, nearly 6 mph harder than the MLB average. There is the approach: looking for an Adam Wainwright curveball in his fifth big-league at-bat that he served into center field, the soft single with two strikes down the right-field line to plate a game-winning run in the 13th inning in San Francisco, the long homer Saturday to the opposite field, the fact that 31.6 percent of Riley’s batted balls have been launched oppo – 6 percent above league average.

    Suffice to say Riley won’t see Gwinnett County again, unless he’s taking a drive up Interstate 85. Ender Inciarte’s back injury opened the door for Riley to reach the majors. Inciarte threw and ran on the field prior to Saturday’s game, but has yet to swing a bat. There is no urgency coming from anybody in the organization for the three-time Gold Glove center fielder to rush back.

    Can you blame them?

    Even with the swing and miss, Riley makes a good Braves lineup downright dangerous. To be honest, several key Braves have sputtered at the plate in the past three weeks. Riley has been good enough to shoulder a heavier-than-deserved load, similar to how Acuna carried the Atlanta offense for large parts of the final two-month sprint to the National League East title last summer.

    That effort by Acuna, along with the aura surrounding every time he stepped into the batter’s box, won him NL rookie of the year last November. Might we see a similar storyline unfold that leads another one of the crown jewels of the Great Atlanta Rebuild to the same honor in five months? Perhaps. The NL is littered with standout rookie talent, and not to be forgotten is yet another shining byproduct of the Braves teardown, ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka. The Kid From Calgary gave up more than one earned run for the first time this season Saturday, raising his ERA (yes, raising!) to 1.41 as he improved to 6-1.

    Soroka’s starts are must-watch, and he persevered on a day where he had a bit of ball-in-play bad luck. But a struggling offense that netted just 10 runs during a minor three-game losing streak roared back to life with runs in the final five innings.

    And smack-dab in the midst of it all was the Mississippi Masher, who once again sent us grasping for our thesauruses in a futile attempt to describe another jaw-dropping moment in The Austin Riley Experience.

    —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.

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The first full month of the season sits in the rear-view mirror, 31 games are in the books and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a position they did not reach at any one point during their glorious run to the 2018 NL East championship.

    Under .500.

    The Braves have befuddled many of us through the first five weeks of 2019, looking at times like a World Series contender and at other times like an also-ran – sometimes within an inning or two of each other – as they now begin their first extended road trip. A 10-day, 10-game, three-city journey begins Friday night in Miami, where old friend Jose Urena awaits his assured retribution for his gutless plunking of Ronald Acuna Jr. last season. From there, Atlanta flies west for three games against the pennant-winning Dodgers and four at Arizona, against the same Diamondbacks squad that swept a three-game series two weeks ago at SunTrust Park.

    Often, the first weeks of the season begin answering the questions we all have about a team throughout the offseason and spring training. In some respects, I think we can begin drawing early conclusions on some topics. For others, I have no better clue now than I did in late March, before attending 11 games in person and watching/listening to every pitch of the season to this point.

    Atlanta leaves town for a while, but questions remain. Such as …

    Is this team where you’d thought it would be at this point of the season?

    In a word, no. I didn’t expect the Braves to be below .500 through 19.1 percent of the season. Granted, they’re one game under. It’s not like their buried in the East. But I thought if there was a month early in the season that might challenge them, it would be the month we’re in now, and not the one that preceded it. That concerns me a bit, to be honest.

    What’s the most disappointing part of Atlanta’s start?

    Duh! It’s the pit of misery … eh, the bullpen. Look, many of us – myself included – thought the Braves needed to upgrade their relief corps and were disappointed Alex Anthopoulos could not secure at least one upgrade for the bullpen. But did I think that group would be this bad? No, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as they’ve shown.

    But they’re not great, either, and they’ve already cost the Braves games they can ill-afford to blow in a tightly contested division. A.J. Minter has shown rust and inconsistency after missing most of spring training. Darren O’Day remains missing in action. Jesse Biddle hit a funk you wouldn’t wish on anybody. Others have taken their turns struggling to throw strikes.

    There have been signs, albeit small ones, that a correction is coming. Minter looked good in Wednesday’s save. Jacob Webb earned a win and a save on back-to-back days. Josh Tomlin has become a revelation once he started getting work. And what else to say of Luke Jackson, who has gone from fanbase whipping post to downright lovable? Action Jackson is the most unexpected singular aspect of this season.

    Is what we’ve seen from Max Fried and Mike Soroka real?

    In my opinion, yes. That’s not to say Soroka will pitch to a sub-2 ERA all season and Fried will win 22 games and the Cy Young. But both young hurlers have filthy stuff, which we’ve seen in flashes.

    But now, we’re seeing it every fifth day. Fried isn’t getting yanked between the rotation, the bullpen, and Gwinnett. Soroka is healthy. Both are pitching with a ton of confidence, and guided by veteran catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers, each is showing the ability to trust their stuff, pound the strike zone, shake off the inevitable mistake, and keep on rolling.

    Fried reminds me so much of a young Steve Avery, it’s scary. Soroka has the poise and makeup of a young Tom Glavine. High praise, yes, but these two kids are good. Really good. Legit, rotation-anchoring good.

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

    A little bit, but only because he’s made just two big-league starts and we’re roughly 1/5th of the way through the season. Folty’s fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and today his slider was flat against San Diego. Coupled with some shaky defense (including a bad throw of his own doing), and it’s easy to see how today came off the rails.

    But he was locked in for much of his first start against Colorado. If Folty has five, six starts under his belt and he’s still sitting 94 mph, then I’d be more concerned. Hard to read too much into two starts, for a guy who won 13 games and made the All-Star team a season ago, then spent four weeks in Triple-A going through his spring training. Give it time and let him get into a rhythm.

    Is the offense better than you thought?

    Absolutely, and it’s not just because of Josh Donaldson (who is so much better defensively than I realized) or Freddie Freeman or Acuna, even though the superkid has struggled the past two weeks. It’s because Ozzie Albies has solidified himself at the top of the lineup – and credit Brian Snitker for recognizing the second baseman needed to hit leadoff regardless of that night’s starter – Nick Markakis has regained his early-2018 form, and the strides Dansby Swanson has made offensively.

    Add in the production out of the veteran catchers, and the Braves 1-through-7 in the order have been every bit as tough as any lineup in the game. There has to be a bit of regression somewhere, at some point, but even if Markakis and the catchers cool off their opening-month pace, this still is a very good offensive team that can help carry it through some bumpy nights pitching-wise.

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

    I’ve preached patience with Swanson since his struggles in 2017. Last year he was hindered (more so than we realized at the time) by a wrist injury. He’s healthy now, and he’s blistering line drives all over the field. His power has expanded, he’s hitting the ball just as hard to right-center as left-center, and he’s still playing outstanding defense.

    It’s 31 games, so let’s see it continue to play out. But I think it’s real. And if Swanson continues to hit like this – and you have to expect some of those liners right at folks are going to find grass at some point – you suddenly have an elite shortstop to add to the linchpins of this lineup. The Braves already have locked up Acuna and Albies. A continuation of this type of play for Swanson the rest of the season certainly makes his next-man-up to sign on the dotted line long term.

    There’s one hitter not mentioned yet … why does Ender keep getting playing time?

    Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he’s won three straight Gold Gloves in center field and he’s historically a poor offensive performer in April? There are plenty of people who have cried for Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to be promoted to the majors after their hot starts at Double-A Mississippi. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.

    Inciarte infuriates the fan base with grounders to second and swinging at the first pitch. He also collected 200 hits two seasons ago and does his best offensive work once school lets out. Some of the patience asked for with Swanson the past two years can be applied here. You have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Inciarte. You just have to … wait for it.

    If Ender still is struggling in six weeks, maybe you have a conversation. For now, the pseudo-platoon of putting Acuna in center and sitting Inciarte against some lefties is doable. Credit Snitker for putting Inciarte lower in the order, and we’ve started to see some signs of life with the bat and a few more balls hit to left and left-center.

    What else has stood out to you in the first five weeks?

    Sean Newcomb had to go back to Triple-A to try and find his rhythm, and he’s turned it around with back-to-back outings with zero walks. … Matt Joyce, signed late in camp, actually has been a nice asset off the bench from the left side. … I’ve been pleased that Snitker has given Johan Camargo starts all over the field, and the two hits today hopefully signifies he’s getting right at the plate. … Julio Teheran hasn’t been that bad, actually, but cannot afford outings like his doubleheader debacle in Cleveland. … The Gwinnett shuttle has worked out for the most part, although I remain befuddled and upset Bryse Wilson didn’t get a longer look in the major-league bullpen before being demoted last weekend. … I hope Wes Parsons gets back and continues to excel. … Charlie Culberson is my favorite position-player pitcher of all time, and his work off the bench – despite too few at-bats – has been impressive.

    What needs to happen this month?

    The other three contenders in the East have flaws just as damning as the Braves, so I don’t expect anybody to have an 18-8 month and pull away. Given Atlanta makes two separate trips to the coast, plays six games against St. Louis and three with Milwaukee, I wouldn’t be upset with .500. That means you don’t stub your toe against Miami or San Francisco, get some payback at Arizona, and hold your own against the Dodgers.

    That keeps you well within striking distance once June begins, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. I think teams falling out of the race are going to look to move guys earlier. The Giants already are listening on several bullpen pieces. Does the Corey Kluber injury shift the balance of power in the AL Central? Will Baltimore cave in on dealing Mychal Givens? And with the draft in early June, does that finally push somebody to sign Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel?

    Those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Braves have plenty of questions of their own as they fly toward South Beach, and the sprint to October ramps toward full speed.

    —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.

    Podcast: Here’s Why Braves Were Careful This Winter. Oh … and IT’S OPENING DAY!

    The Atlanta Braves are about to play meaningful baseball just hours from the moment I click “publish” on this post. And that’s pretty cool. But what about that quiet winter? What gives?! Why did the Braves add only ONE significant piece over the offseason?

    Here is my take on the winter that was, and it’s guaranteed to make a few heads explode. You’ve been warned! (Also, see post-recording note below SoundCloud player)

    POST-RECORDING NOTE: I should clarify that the Braves DID in fact make offers for players what would have improved the team in 2019 at the expense of seasons ahead. I probably overstated the rigidness of the approach. They’re willing to dent the future some for 2019 success. But at this point they’re more conservatve regarding moves that may sting a year or two (or longer) down the road when they expect the wave to be cresting.

     

     

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —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.