• Exclusives

    Braves’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Back in the old days of print newspapers, it wasn’t uncommon to have items that never made it into the morning edition. Those tidbits, musings, observations would remain in your notebook, scribbled as a passing thought or jotted down in case you needed it as a point of reference.

    On the day after the Atlanta Braves saw their season end with a thud in an ugly Game 5 loss to St. Louis in the National League Division Series, it’s time to empty the notebook and touch on a few items that didn’t get flushed out in our coverage of the series. Items that, in retrospect, feel worthy of a few words as the shift from stunned conclusion to pivotal offseason begins in earnest.

    Acuna, Part I: Save for one regrettable moment in Game 1, 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. did more than his part, the emerging superstar hitting .444 in the series with a 1.454 OPS, three doubles, one triple, one homer and four walks. The fact Acuna finished with a .565 OBP in the series and scored just one run only underscores how putrid a large segment of the Atlanta offense was in the five games.

    Acuna, Part II: As brilliant as Acuna was, so much more has been made of the budding feud between him and the Cardinals, stoked by Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina and Jack Flaherty. I had no problem with several Braves calling out Acuna for his lack of hustle on the single off the right-field wall in Game 1 (an inning I contend the Braves were not going to score whether he was on first or second base). It was warranted and necessary.

    I had a huge problem with the indifference displayed in the Braves dugout in the fifth inning of Game 5, when Flaherty gutlessly drilled Acuna in the back with a purpose pitch, on a two-strike count, in a 12-run game. I certainly did not want to see the Braves charge the field, nor do I think Sean Newcomb should’ve hit Flaherty in the following inning. But the disinterest when Acuna wore a pitch between his shoulder blades from his teammates was a bad, bad look. So, too, is the ongoing public referendum around a kid barely old enough to drink who possesses game-changing talent, a vibe the sport is trying to market.

    Let the kid play … and have his back if somebody crosses the line.

    Freddie Failure: This is Freddie Freeman’s team, without question, but I’d be hard pressed to find a five-game stretch in which the unofficial captain of the Braves was this bad. His error on Molina’s ball in the first in Game 5 cost Atlanta an inning-ending double play and opened the floodgates. It’s a play that had to be made. He was awful at the plate, collecting two of his four hits (in 20 at-bats) after St. Louis blew it open Wednesday. His inability to make contact hurt the Braves on multiple occasions (six strikeouts in the series). The Braves three-hole hitter, with the leadoff hitter on base for much of the series begging for somebody to drive him home, finished with one paltry RBI.

    In 39 plate appearances in the past two postseasons, Freeman has two RBIs – both coming on solo homers. He described the Braves as having “failed” in his postgame comments Wednesday, doubling down yet again on the fact his right elbow is healthy. But he clearly wasn’t himself, and while he never was going to come out of the lineup or move out of the third spot, Freeman’s failure to raise his game – as Acuna did – ultimately played a major role in the premature end of Atlanta’s season.

    Soroka For One, Not Two: A huge talking point in the hours after the series was the decision to save 22-year-old ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka for Game 3 in St. Louis, taking advantage of dominant road splits instead of starting the All-Star twice in the series. It’s easy to second guess the decision after the fact, but the feeling here was (and remains) that it was the right call.

    With playoff veteran Dallas Keuchel starting the opener at home and as hot as Mike Foltynewicz was entering his Game 2 assignment, you had to feel Soroka’s matchup was quite favorable considering he would pitch on the road as opposed to in Atlanta (4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP at home in the regular season vs. 1.55/0.96 in away games). As I mentioned in the run-up to the series, the vast majority of the time you want your No. 1 or No. 2 guy lined up to get two starts across the five games. But the decision to start Soroka just once, while painful in hindsight, did not lose Atlanta this series.

    Best Laid Plans: There are a lot of people for whom I feel awful after this belly-flop performance, but Chris Martin sits near the top of the line. Out of baseball, working in warehouses, started throwing again, went the indy ball route, eventually ended up with the Rangers, then after becoming a strike-throwing machine was acquired by the Braves at the deadline.

    Martin’s left oblique injury, suffered before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1, not only eliminated another layer to this tremendous story, it also had an equally painful ripple effect on the Braves pitching plans. Shane Greene pitched the sixth inning in Game 1, with Brian Snitker looking to close the game with Max Fried in the seventh, Martin in the eighth and Mark Melancon in the ninth. Martin’s absence shoved Fried into a full-time bullpen role for the rest of the series (he would’ve been quite the option to start either Game 4 or 5). Instead, Snitker had to bring on Luke Jackson in the eighth in Game 1, who struggled before Melancon imploded in the ninth.

    But Sometimes, The Plan Isn’t Worth Following: Honestly, Martin never should’ve trotted in from the bullpen in Game 1. Fried absolutely dominated the seventh inning (14 pitches, nine strikes, two punchouts) and should’ve gotten the eighth. With Paul Goldschmidt leading off the eighth (who would hit one nine miles off Jackson), it would’ve been great to scrap the best-laid plans after watching Fried shove in the seventh and give the lefty at least a chance to work the eighth.

    Absurdly Offensive Offense: The Braves were carried by Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall in the series offensively, but got precious little help from most of the lineup. We’ve talked about Freeman, but he had company. Ozzie Albies had a strong Game 4 but mostly was pedestrian. Josh Donaldson disappointed. Nick Markakis was invisible (certainly, he’s made his final appearance with Atlanta, right?). Matt Joyce struggled before being benched for Duvall in Game 5.

    One of the top offenses in the NL all season, the Braves slashed .225/.302/.385 in the series. They finished with 16 extra-base hits, nine from Acuna-Swanson-Duvall. Game 5 was over before the Braves registered a plate appearance, but in the first four games they went 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and left 30 on base, including 17 in the two games they had no business losing – eight in Game 1; nine in Game 4.

    How else to explain why, after Acuna doubled to lead off the ninth of a tied Game 4, Albies didn’t bunt? Because Freeman-Donaldson-Markakis were so bad in the series, the Braves best chance was hoping their second baseman – who had a homer and a sacrifice fly in the game – could punch through a hit. It wasn’t going to happen if Albies didn’t get it done.

    Above any other reason, the inability to hit with runners in scoring position in the first four games cost the Braves this series.

    Finally, A Toast To B-Mac: Brian McCann was my oldest’s son’s favorite player growing up. The kid would crawl into my lap and ask a million questions about what the Duluth High graduate and Gwinnett County product was doing behind the plate, sparking a love of catching that led to that little boy squatting behind the dish in little league for eight years.

    McCann put together a very good career. He struggled mightily in the second half, but homered in the division clincher against San Francisco, capped the big rally against Philly with a walkoff in mid-June, and something just felt right about him being at home and going to the playoffs in, what we learned after Game 5, was his final big-league season.

    The Braves were facing the need to upgrade at catcher entering next season before McCann’s announcement. But that does nothing to minimize the impact B-Mac had on everybody who saw him play. And even more important, from everybody who crossed paths with him, from the newspaper sports editor who delighted in a 15-minute conversation at spring training 2006 talking to him about the impact the 1990s Braves had on himself and a generation of Atlanta-area kids, to my son – who refused to leave SunTrust Park on Wednesday until he saw McCann catch the final inning of his career.

    —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.

    Nightmare First Inning Ends Season, But Braves Blew NLDS Before Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The witnesses looked at each other in absolute shock at what had unfolded during the 26-minute train wreck of a half inning they just watched. The energy, the enthusiasm, the hope of ending an 18-year playoff series drought, absolutely obliterated beyond recognition by the time fans could finish their first beer.

    But make no mistake: the Atlanta Braves 2019 season isn’t over just because they gave up 10 runs (yes, 10; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) in the top of the first inning of a 13-1 faceplant Wednesday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Truth be told, the Braves never should have been on the field on this splendid autumn afternoon along the northwestern rim of the capital city, even though it appeared they weren’t anywhere to be found as St. Louis sent 14 hitters (yes, 14; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) to the plate in the opening frame.

    No, the Braves should’ve been at home, relaxing and getting ready for either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals, relishing in the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001, focusing on the NL Championship Series and securing four wins that would send them to the World Series for the first time in 20 years.

    They should’ve won this series long before Game 5 flew off the rails and straight off a cliff into a bottomless lake.

    They had this NLDS won, and they blew it.

    Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

    The Braves kept flubbing opportunities to put away the series, and baseball has a funny way of biting teams that don’t take care of the business at hand. Afford an opponent with enough opportunities to flip the script, and sooner or later it’s going to happen.

    It happened in Game 1, when Atlanta melted down at various times throughout the contest before allowing six runs in the final two innings of a 7-6 defeat, a sequence beginning with one of its key bullpen pieces acquired at the trade deadline (Chris Martin) leaving with a left oblique injury before throwing a single pitch.

    It happened in Game 4, when the Braves started their free-agent veteran rotation piece possessing postseason experience (Dallas Keuchel) and saw him serve up three homers in 3 1/3 innings. The offense responded by stranding nine runners and left the bases loaded in the sixth and seventh innings, before two St. Louis hits that traveled with the velocity of a horse and wagon tied the game in the eighth to set up an extra-inning defeat.

    In the two losses leading into Wednesday, Atlanta’s offense was a combined 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 17 runners on base. It started all the way back in the first inning of the series, when the first four Braves hitters reached, yet Atlanta emerged from the frame with just a 1-0 lead. Young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. tripled leading off the seventh in Game 4 and doubled to start the ninth, and neither time dented home plate.

    That sent the NLDS to one final act, a winner-take-all affair with a shot at the pennant hanging in the balance. The old baseball axiom says in one game, anything can happen.

    The Braves inability to close out this series before Wednesday led to a first inning that still feels like a nightmare:

    Mike Foltynewicz – so brilliant down the stretch and in a Game 2 victory (by far Atlanta’s best game of the series) – gave up seven times the number of runs (seven) as outs recorded (one, on a sacrifice bunt) before hitting the showers after 23 pitches.

    The combination of Foltynewicz and Max Fried – the young lefty so good in relief in the opening three games of the series – teamed up to surrender five hits with four walks.

    Freddie Freeman – whose miserable performance in this series cannot be stated enough – flubbed a potential inning-ending double play that would’ve allowed the Braves to escape with only one run allowed.

    Brian McCann – who returned home to chase another World Series ring in what turned out to be his final season; he announced his retirement after Wednesday’s loss – could not secure a foul tip from leadoff hitter Dexter Flower that would have been strike three, instead leading to a walk that began a half-hour even the most cynical Atlanta sports fan never could have envisioned.

    Sometimes, young teams must go through difficult times to learn valuable lessons that will serve them well moving forward. And there is no denying the future is ultra-bright for this team. The Braves are set up to contend for the foreseeable future. They are a fun, enjoyable bunch to watch play the game, one of my favorite teams in 40 years of following this franchise. And they’re good, very good.

    But in October, the best team doesn’t always win. These Braves were better than the Cardinals. They should’ve won this series. Presented with opportunities to take control of games in October, you cannot emphasize enough the urgency to execute. Not delivering with runners in scoring position, not calling for a bunt with a runner on second, not getting a fly ball with a runner on third and less than two outs, not getting outs in the final innings, not fielding ground balls to start double plays, those things will lose you games in the regular season.

    Not doing those things in the 10th month of the year will end your season.

    Atlanta learned that in the worst possible way the past seven days. The hope is this pain leads to better things in the Octobers to come.

    But that’s little solace on this night. A Braves team good enough to play deep into the postseason choked, and now finds itself in a place so many of its predecessors landed:

    Home far too early, wondering what could’ve been.

    —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 Braves, And Their New Home, Have Come So Far As We Await Do-Or-Die Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The December drizzle and mist floated through the chilly wind as I made my way from my parking space toward the construction site. My annual three-week Christmas vacation from my product marketing job had just started, there were no freelance deadlines to hit for a few hours, and on a day that sparked absolutely zero thoughts of baseball, there only was one place I wanted to go.

    I darted across Circle 75 Parkway and dodged a few construction barrels, phone in hand despite the persistent moisture swirling in the 40-degree air. It had been a few months since I had spent some time checking out the future home of the Atlanta Braves, and while I was not an invited guest on this day, I spent the next 90 minutes walking the perimeter taking pictures of what would become SunTrust Park and The Battery.

    It allowed my mind to careen out of control. What future wonders might Braves Country see at this place where, even on this day in the dying moments of 2016, there still was so much work to complete with a new season set to dawn in some 17 weeks? The venue’s tenant also was a work in progress, having just wrapped up a third-consecutive season with 89-plus losses and chest deep into a painful rebuild.

    Yes, there were slivers of sunshine that appeared here and there, but it felt like a return to prominence was as hard to see as it was to envision a baseball palace amid the mud and construction cranes.

    Look at us now.

    The Braves take the field Wednesday at SunTrust Park with a shot to win the National League Division Series. It’s a do-or-die, winner-take-all series finale, one that will wrap what’s been a delicious four-game passion play with the St. Louis Cardinals. A victory gives this franchise its first postseason series victory since 2001, that coming in just the fifth year spent at Turner Field. So much heartbreak, so many missed chances, so many tears of frustration have been shed since Atlanta bounced the Astros in the first round way back when.

    Think about this place where – on that dreary December day nearly three years ago – that day’s rain sent the mud running down the recently paved entrance to what would become The Omni Hotel. Consider the roped-off areas where the restaurants, bars and gathering places would take form. Look at the stadium, still somewhat of a shell with some sections still missing seats, workers in hard hats everywhere running cable, focused on completing brick work, bringing this grand concept to life.

    We have experienced so much since the team took the field at their new home on April 14, 2017, a Friday night against San Diego. That team would be 45-45 following the first series after the All-Star break, but it wasn’t ready to contend. The 2018 team captured our hearts like no team since the worst-to-first 1991 Miracle Braves, stunning the world by winning the NL East on the fourth Saturday of September on their sparkling home field. And while that October foray was short, a four-game loss in the NLDS to the big, bad Dodgers, the Braves authored a shot across the bow in the first-ever postseason contest at the new yard when Ronald Acuna Jr. belted a grand slam and Atlanta staved off elimination with a Game 3 victory.

    Look now. These Braves are a legit championship contender, even with the ups and downs and wild twists and turns of this get-together with the Cardinals. Atlanta won 97 games this season and captured the East again, all the while authoring a book full of memorable moments at their glittering new abode. The Braves won 50 games at SunTrust Park this season. Seventeen games were sellouts. They averaged 32,776 while drawing 2.65 million, the franchise’s highest attendance since 2007.

    I’ve been very fortunate to attend both East clinchers and the first four playoff games in the new home of the Braves. Game 5 on Wednesday represents a new level. At a venue praised universally as a destination for any baseball fan, a place that now provides its tenant with a bona fide home-field advantage, where an emerging powerhouse plays, the Braves get their shot to win a game that carries equal parts clinching and elimination, season move forward or season cut short.

    We imagined moments like this on those days the shovels were busy turning up the dirt at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75. Honestly, it hasn’t been that long ago, but at the same time it feels like forever.

    An off day leading into Game 5 allows for a few fleeting moments of recollection, of considering how far this team – and the venue it calls home – has come.

    Nine innings shy of playing for the pennant, the Braves hope by the time Wednesday evening fades to night, their new home will be awash with a celebration 18 years – and lots of heavy lifting – in the making.

    —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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.

    Never-Say-Die Braves Sit One Step From NLCS After Overcoming Wainwright’s Brilliance in Game 3

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Some 13 years ago, the rookie pitcher trying to make an opening-day major-league roster for the first time locked eyes with a reporter from his hometown. After a smile and a head nod, the lanky right-hander said he would pop out of the visitors locker room at Champion Stadium in Orlando and have a few minutes to chat.

    The reporter acknowledged the message. About 10 minutes after this spring training game in mid-March 2006 ended, the 6-foot-7 Southeast Georgia native emerged through the locker room door. There was a handshake, a couple of minutes catching up about family and life in the Golden Isles, then the pitcher decided to turn journalist and ask the sports editor of his hometown newspaper the question he always asked, one born from that December Saturday in 2003 when he was dealt from the Atlanta organization he grew up idolizing (as the reporter did) to St. Louis:

    “So, who were you rooting for today?”

    Adam Wainwright grinned as he asked the question. He always grinned when he looked at me and asked that. I rolled my eyes and responded, “dude, it’s a spring-training game. I don’t care who wins.”

    The times I ran across Waino in the next couple of years or so – before I headed back to Atlanta and eventually left the newspaper business – I always got the same question from him. Didn’t matter if I saw him in person. I got it from his brother’s email on occasion when the Braves and Cardinals crossed paths. I mean, I even wore a red golf shirt on top of a Braves T-shirt when I sat in the front row at Turner Field and watched him start in 2007.

    On his way to the bullpen to warm up that night, he glanced over and briefly grinned.

    Every time he asked me that question, I offered the same answer:

    “I hope you pitch fantastic, and I hope you get a no-decision.”

    We fast forward nearly half a decade to Sunday’s Game 3 of the 2019 National League Division Series. Those two dudes mentioned earlier were invested heavily in this matchup between the Braves and Cardinals, facing off at Busch Stadium with the series all square at one game apiece. Wainwright, now 38 years old, took the ball for his 25th career postseason appearance.

    That reporter who used to field calls from the right-hander at the sports editor’s desk when Wainwright was a minor-leaguer and just wanted to catch up on how the teams in Glynn County (and not just his alma mater, either) were faring on the diamond, the gridiron, the hardwood, the golf course, the soccer pitch?

    I sat in my room dedicated to the team that Wainwright was hell-bent on beating on this first Sunday in October while trying to push his Cardinals to a 2-1 series lead, and struggled to breathe for 3 hours, 22 minutes.

    Tell me baseball isn’t the absolute best.

    By now, y’all know how the third game of this series transpired.

    The St. Simons Island (Ga.) native and Glynn Academy alum Wainwright mixed his pitches in a beautifully, inspiring, perfect mix to befuddle the Braves offense. Atlanta’s counterpart on this day was The Kid from Calgary, 22-year-old Mike Soroka, who was two months shy of his third birthday when I sat in the press box at Turner Field in June 2000 and included a sentence in that night’s notebook that the Braves took some kid named Wainwright with their first-round draft pick.

    On this opening Sunday in October, the dude so many call Waino (in this house, the wife and my kids and I still call him, “AW” or “A-Dub”) lasted 7 2/3 innings, allowing four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts but no runs. It was a masterful performance by a grizzled veteran, so many years after I remember two young kids trying to find their way in our respective fields, laughing together.

    As good as Wainwright was on this day, Soroka was even better in his postseason debut. He allowed a bloop double to the opposite field from Marcell Ozuna in the second, and that run would score on a groundout to the right side and a fly ball. For the vast majority of this night, it appeared that lone run would stick as the only tally, as Wainwright and Soroka – separated in age by 16 years – kept the opposing offenses at bay.

    But a delicious irony would occur near the finish line by the banks of the Mississippi River. Sitting some 35 miles northeast of SunTrust Park and nursing a voice that was stretched to the max after attending the first two games of the NLDS in Atlanta, I couldn’t help but think of the first time I saw Wainwright pitch in person.

    It was the 2003 Southern League All-Star game. It was held at the Baseball Grounds in Jacksonville, the first year the new stadium was open, and Wainwright started that game – en route to going 10-8 with a 3.37 ERA at Double-A Greenville in his final season in the Braves organization that only whetted the Cardinals appetite when it came time to talk about trading another South Georgia product, J.D. Drew. I still remember AW helping the grounds crew pull the tarp off the bullpen mound to warm up.

    I also remember who his manager was that season.

    A lifelong Braves organizational guy named Brian Snitker.

    Since being promoted to take over the big-league club after Fredi Gonzalez was fired in May 2016, the Braves have rallied for Snitker in dream-like fashion. Atlanta has become one of the best teams in the majors in rallying from late-inning deficits. Some of those comeback have been the stuff of storybook and fantasy.

    But what the Braves did staring at the death in Game 3 will resonate for years to come.

    It started with Josh Donaldson, the $23-million man who has proven to be worth every penny but yet had just one hit in his first 11 at-bats in the series, lining a double down the left-field line to start the ninth. Wainwright was gone, replaced with starter-turned-closer Carlos Martinez with two outs in the eighth. Martinez, an emotional sort on the bump, struck out the next two hitters in the ninth after the leadoff two-bagger, setting up what may be the most pivotal managerial decision of the entire postseason.

    St. Louis skipper Mike Shildt, who may wrestle away the NL manager of the year award from Snitker given the Cardinals play in the second half, decided to walk left-handed hitting Brian McCann. He wanted the right-handed Martinez facing the right-handed hitting Dansby Swanson. Never mind that Swanson hit .310 with a .916 OPS from the seventh inning on in the regular season with eight homers and 23 RBIs in 145 at-bats.

    Never mind that Swanson wanted the basketball in his hands when he played at Marietta High – a mere nine miles from SunTrust Park – and how he loved clutch situations while playing at Vanderbilt. The shortstop, who already had two hits on a day when offense was in limited supply for both teams, banged a game-tying double off the left-field wall.

    That sent Wainwright to a no-decision.

    Yes, I wished for it.

    No, it wasn’t fair.

    But the redemption story of this series, Adam Duvall, delivered the striking blow of one of the greatest Atlanta playoff comeback stories ever. The outfielder stroked a two-run single after Swanson’s game-tying knock. In the blink of an eye, a 1-0 loss and a 2-1 series deficit flipped on its ear.

    Mark Melancon locked down the ninth inning. Just like that, Atlanta went from playing for its lives Monday to playing for a shot at its first playoff series victory in 18 years. Wainwright spent 2001 pitching at Low-A Macon, going 10-10 with a 3.77 ERA in 28 starts. Some three months after his first full season in pro ball ended, I joined the staff of his hometown newspaper, and six weeks later I found out I would be a father for the first time.

    My kids are in high school. They have not been alive to see the Braves win a playoff series.

    They – and the rest of us – are nine innings away from a shot at the pennant.

    —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 Fight Back with Redeeming Game 2 Victory, Evens NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – At some point during a summer spent trying to find his mechanics and find himself, Mike Foltynewicz had to wonder if this opportunity would ever return. At some point during a summer spent smashing baseballs all over the International League, Adam Duvall had to wonder if this opportunity would ever come.

    Their moments arrived simultaneously Friday afternoon when the Atlanta Braves needed them most, and both delivered under baseball’s brightest lights.

    Foltynewicz fired seven shutout innings and Duvall smashed a two-run pinch-hit homer in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, lifting the Braves to a 3-0 victory over St. Louis to square the best-of-five series at one game apiece. Not even 24 hours after Atlanta’s special season seemed spiraling toward the abyss after a disheartening 7-6 loss in the series opener, the Braves now sit just two victories shy of their first playoff series triumph in 18 years.

    The journeys both Foltynewicz and Duvall took to reach Friday had to felt longer than that.

    Pegged as the Braves ace when spring training started, Foltynewicz experienced elbow issues and didn’t pitch in the majors until late April. It went south quickly, leading to Atlanta’s Game 1 starter in last year’s NLDS being banished to the minors for six weeks.

    Duvall struggled miserably after being acquired at last year’s trade deadline from Cincinnati, so much so he was left off the playoff roster. With no room for him in Atlanta at the end of spring training, Duvall was sent to Triple-A and stayed there until being recalled in late July.

    Foltynewicz earned the nod in Game 2 based on the work he did since rejoining the big-league rotation Aug. 6, posting a 2.65 ERA and .211 opponents batting average in 10 starts. He struck out two hitters in the first, second and fifth innings, finishing with seven punchouts. He did not walk a batter. Only one St. Louis hitter reached second base against him. Poised and calm throughout, Foltynewicz spun a gem in perhaps the biggest game of his young career.

    The 42,911 inside SunTrust Park did not want to see his day end, and they let Atlanta skipper Brian Snitker know it when Duvall strolled to the plate to pinch-hit for Foltynewicz with two outs in the seventh and Brian McCann on first. Duvall turned those boos to cheers by hammering a 96-mph fastball over the fence in center to push the lead to three.

    One night after a muddled mess of an opener for both teams, Atlanta and St. Louis played a much cleaner, crisper affair, completed in 2 hours, 46 minutes (81 minutes quicker than Thursday’s slog). The Braves awoke Friday needing a spark to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole that likely would have ended their season, and the task at hand upon arriving at the ballpark was daunting.

    Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty posted a 0.91 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 15 starts since the All-Star break with 124 strikeouts and five homers allowed in 99 1/3 innings. But the right-hander gave up an opening-inning single to Ozzie Albies, who advanced on Flaherty’s wild pitch to second, moved to third on a Freddie Freeman groundout and scored on Josh Donaldson’s single to left to provide Atlanta a 1-0 lead after one inning for the second consecutive game.

    Foltynewicz made it stick from there, firing 58 of his 81 pitches for strikes by inducing swings and misses on his slider and freezing St. Louis hitters with his fastball. The growth in Foltynewicz was on full display for all the nation to see on this night, one year to the day he gave up four runs in two innings of a Game 1 loss at Log Angeles.

    Duval hit just .171 in spring training and was sent to Gwinnett at the end of camp. To his credit – much as Foltynewicz would do with the Triple-A affiliate three months later – Duvall went to work. He hit 32 homers with 90 RBIs in 101 games with the Stripers and gave the Braves a big boost after Nick Markakis broke his wrist on a hit-by-pitch in late July, homering in his major-league season debut and slugging four homers in his first five games.

    While rookie Austin Riley scuffled badly down the stretch, Duvall took advantage of the Braves early clinch of the NL East and the extra playing time that came with it, ending the regular season on a seven-game hitting streak to earn a roster spot. A 30-homer hitter in back-to-back seasons with the Reds in 2016-17, his final homer in a Cincinnati uniform came on July 25, 2018.

    It came off Flaherty.

    Suffice to say, both Duvall and Foltynewicz never will forget Friday. And their team, all but buried just one evening earlier, now flies to St. Louis needing just two more victories to earn a shot at the pennant.

    —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.

    Familiar October Stumble in Game 1 Puts Braves in Tough Position

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It happened again, across 247 minutes on the hottest October day ever recorded in the capital city. Another knife in the back with plenty of painful twists for Atlanta Braves fans. Another one of those games that go into a memory bank chock full of too many, “how did we lose” contests.

    Another deflating October stumble.

    It was supposed to be different this time, as these Braves embarked on the National League Division Series opener against St. Louis at SunTrust Park on a 98-degree Thursday afternoon. The 2018 Braves surprisingly won the NL East and entered the postseason playing with house money.

    The Braves of 2019 are expected to earn far more than a participatory certificate. Instead, they’re starting at a one-way exit ticket if Thursday is any indication.

    The Braves dropped the NLDS opener 7-6 on a miserable afternoon in front of 42,631 who baked in the blazing sunshine. By the time it ended at 9:09 p.m. ET, some 4 hours and 7 minutes after first pitch, Atlanta fans were left with that all-too-familiar feeling of opportunities missed in a close postseason defeat.

    And there were many. Too many to win in October, if we’re being honest. The missteps, the chances fumbled, occurred early and often.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to lead off the first inning. Acuna had the green light to steal but was thrown out by Yadier Molina. Considering the Braves had St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas and his 5.40 road ERA on the ropes after the first four hitters reached base, that hurt. They scored just once, leaving two runners stranded.

    In the second inning, starter Dallas Keuchel tried to bunt the slower-than-slow Brian McCann to third. His bunt went right to Mikolas on the third-base side, who easily gunned down the Braves catcher – who got the start with Keuchel on the bump despite Tyler Flowers’ recent good work with the lefty. A bunt toward first likely gets McCann to third.

    Speaking of Keuchel, he needed just 19 pitches to cruise through the first two innings. But the traffic built in the next three frames, double plays started by Josh Donaldson bailing him out twice. There was no escape in the fifth for the veteran making his 10th career postseason start, lasting just 4 2/3 innings while allowing five hits and three walks. Yes, he gave up only one run, but especially after his first two innings, Keuchel’s finished body of work was nowhere near what an otherwise young rotation needed in a series opener, and his short outing cranked up the fire on the Braves relief corps.

    The bullpen did its part, initially. Darren O’Day (if you had him being the first Atlanta reliever deployed in the postseason in August, you’re lying, because nobody did), Shane Greene, and Max Fried kept the Cardinals at bay. Fried struck out two while needing only 14 pitches to navigate a perfect seventh; even with Paul Goldschmidt scheduled to lead off the eighth, Fried should’ve started the frame. He didn’t. That’s on Brian Snitker, and it’s a decision that backfired bigtime (although to be fair, his plan for the final two innings changed before a pitch was thrown in the eighth).

    In the bottom of the seventh Acuna – who had a splendid day by going 3-for-4 with two RBIs, a run scored, and a monster homer in the ninth – committed the cardinal sin that to this point in his career has been the one stain on his record. A high drive off the bricks in deep right field went for just a single because the 21-year-old did not hustle out of the box. While it’s impossible to say with certainty how the inning would’ve played out, this much is clear: that cannot happen in the regular season, and it sure as heck can’t happen in October.

    In the top of the eighth, the Braves had it set up exactly as Snitker wanted. Leading 3-1 and six outs away from their first Game 1 victory since the 2001 NLDS (also the last postseason series Atlanta won), Snitker planned to hand the ball to Chris Martin. But the right-hander suffered a left oblique strain while coming in from the bullpen and threw nary a warmup offering before heading off the field.

    Only Atlanta in October, right?

    That forced Luke Jackson into the game (and all of those who said “Luke Jackson never will pitch late innings in the postseason” after the Braves made their flurry of deadline deals winced in unison). Jackson surrendered two runs on three hits – the last run coming on a Matt Carpenter single that tied the game off Mark Melancon, who came on for a potential four-out save.

    Melancon, who for the most part has been solid as closer, imploded in the ninth in alarming, Braves postseason-esque fashion. He gave up a pair of two-run doubles that extended the deficit to 7-3. One was down the third-base line. One was down the first-base line. Both were barely fair. They were fair just the same.

    While the Braves battled back in the ninth on homers by Acuna and Freddie Freeman, in between Ozzie Albies nearly beat out a ground ball to third. Replay showed Goldschmidt’s toe came ever-so-slightly off the bag, but the Braves challenge was unsuccessful. Of course it was.

    It was, to be blunt, a disastrous beginning to what very well may be a short playoff run. That’s not knee-jerk reaction. That’s reality when looking at losing a Game 1, at home, in a five-game series. The Cardinals played shaky defense, entered the eighth with one run, and in nine innings gave up six runs.

    And they headed back to the hotel with the series lead. Of course they did.

    That says nothing of what comes Friday in Game 2, when St. Louis trots out red-hot right-hander Jack Flaherty. He’s been the best pitcher in the National League in the second half of the season. If the Braves don’t win, their special season moves to the brink before this series moves outside of Cobb County.

    They’ve been resilient all season. They better be in a few short hours. The Braves had a myriad of opportunities to win Game 1. They stubbed their toe in ways that would make many of their postseason predecessors cringe with head-nodding agony. A victory in Game 2 levels things and recalibrates the series in a good way heading to St. Louis. And let’s be fair: this loss does not end the series. Consider the Braves starter Friday: Mike Foltynewicz has been very good since returning from the minors, and has his own measure of redemption to gain after his struggles in last year’s NLDS.

    But if the Braves don’t play better Friday and leave Georgia trailing 2-0, winter will begin far sooner than anybody expected.

    Unfortunately, that feeling is familiar, too.

    —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 Ready for Cards … But Can They Exorcise NLDS Demons?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are moments in the journey where things get real quiet, real still, the phone falls silent, and you have a few minutes to consider where you’re at – and how far you’ve come.

    The day before the National League Division Series rarely provides one of those reflective moments, not with stories to write and plans to make and work to finish and, well, all the other stuff we have to do every other day of the year, approaching playoffs be darned. But Wednesday evening, I found myself driving home from the car wash, and decided to take a different turn and swing by the lake.

    I parked and spent a few minutes reflecting. So, too, did four deer, who sauntered past my parked car amid the heat of the hottest October day in North Georgia history. It only added to the calmness, like the silent minutes on Christmas Eve when the kids finally are in bed, the last toys are put together, the cookies for Santa are on the table, and you stare at each other and exhale.

    A last calm moment before things get popping. Before the noise builds. Before the madness begins. Before, we hope, that (expletive) door gets kicked in with the velocity of 18 years of pent-up frustration.

    The Atlanta Braves open the NLDS in less than 24 hours. They do so as a bona fide favorite to win their first postseason series since 2001. They have a realistic shot to win the pennant, although the good men of St. Louis, Los Angeles and Washington certainly feel the same. They begin the postseason at home, in one of the shining new palaces of North American professional sports, a dream vision realized at the confluences of Interstates 75 and 285, with a roster harmoniously balanced with veteran leadership and youthful exuberance.

    And talent. Lots and lots of talent.

    Was it just two years and one day ago I sat in a meeting room in Austin, Texas, and finally felt moved to look at my phone due to the nonstop buzzing of notifications – I honestly thought someone had died due to the frequency of vibrations on the board room table – to see the previous general manager had resigned in disgrace? That was 24 hours after a third consecutive 90-loss season concluded, some 48 months since this franchise had played a meaningful game in October.

    My, oh my. How far these Braves have come.

    How far can they go in the next week? We’re about to find out. Here’s what to watch for along the way:

    The First, but Not the Only Step

    The Braves of ’18 weren’t expected to win the East. These Braves, financial flexibility and fanbase moaning be darned, felt they would be here. They met their own expectations with 97 victories and another division title. But getting to the same spot as last year, without going any further, would be a disappointment.

    At times in last season’s four-game loss to the Dodgers, the Braves looked almost overwhelmed by the stage. There will be no such stage fright this time around. Not with the youngers who were here a year ago. Certainly not with the veterans who have been here, done this. Even guys like Mike Soroka, who weren’t on the playoff roster last fall, have experienced a brighter spotlight this season than in seasons past. Again, because of expectations. So far, so good.

    Clean(er) Bills of Health

    The word out of SunTrust Park Wednesday afternoon was the two wounded cogs of Atlanta’s offense – first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. – came through pre-series workouts feeling much better. An Atlanta offense with Acuna still hobbled by a left groin strain and Freeman limited by a bone spur in his right elbow would throw a wrench into the Braves plans to play deeper into October.

    The proof remains to be seen once Game 1 begins, but it was encouraging news nonetheless for a team that has dealt with a ton of bad injury developments in recent weeks (such as news breaking late Wednesday that outfielder Ender Inciarte has a quad strain to go with his hamstring injury, likely ending his season).

    The Classic October Battle

    The Braves finished third in the NL in runs scored, fourth in batting average, fourth in homers, and had three players approach 40 homers while also employing the league leader in runs scored (Acuna, 127) and stolen bases (Acuna, 37) and the league leader in hits (Ozzie Albies, 189) in the top two spots of the lineup. They face a Cardinals team that placed second in the NL in ERA (3.80), a number that dipped to 3.44 with a 1.24 WHIP during a 47-27 second half.

    Jack Flaherty, lined up to pitch Games 2 and 5, will get Cy Young votes after leading the league in WHIP (0.96) and hits per nine innings (6.18) while pitching to a 2.75 ERA. Dakota Hudson, tied for third in the NL in wins with 16, will be available out of the bullpen in the first two games of the series (same as Braves lefty Max Fried, who finished with 17 wins). And the Pride of the SSI (St. Simons Island, Ga.), the 38-year-old former Braves farmhand Adam Wainwright, won 14 games at age 38 and provides the pedigree of a two-time World Series champion.

    Is Wong Right?

    The Braves aren’t the only team who entered the playoffs wondering about health. St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong, one of the few left-handed bats on the Cardinals roster, hit .285 this season while serving as the primary competition to Albies for the Gold Glove, but has been hindered by a grade 2 left hamstring strain. Manager Mike Shildt told reporters Wednesday that Wong – who has not played since Sept. 19 – will be in the lineup for Game 1.

    How effective will he be after a two-week layoff? Wong hit .342 with a .896 OPS in the second half, far exceeding his first-half numbers (.244; .703). If Wong is right, the Cardinals odds of winning this series improve.

    Why Y’all Are Here

    When the visitors clubhouse at Nationals Park exploded into cheers and high-fives shortly after 4 p.m. ET July 31, the source was Braves players celebrating the acquisition of relievers Mark Melancon and Shane Greene at the trade deadline. Along with Chris Martin (acquired the previous evening), the Braves rebuilt the back end of their bullpen in three swift moves that – after some initial hiccups and settling into roles – have worked.

    So far.

    I say so far because the trio was not acquired to defend the East. It was brought in to help Atlanta forge deep into the calendar’s 10th month. The trio’s success at locking down the final nine outs of games will go a long way to determining how long the Braves play this month.

    Why You Are Here

    Nearly two months before the bullpen triumvirate was secured, the Braves signed Dallas Keuchel for days like Thursday: A veteran presence who has been there, done that, and to show the youthful Atlanta rotation the way to navigate the challenge (and nerves) of postseason. Keuchel pitching well in Game 1 could set the tone for the rest of the series. And while some fans fret over his final three regular-season starts, in the biggest games of the season he dominated by posting a 0.97 ERA in a six-start stretch as Atlanta salted away the division crown. He also has nine playoff starts on his resume; he surrendered two or fewer earned runs in six of those outings.

    And there’s extra motivation for the 31-year-old lefty. Keuchel remains livid about the frozen free-agent market that led him to not sign until after the early June MLB draft, and he coyly mentioned it in his media availability Wednesday. He’s got a shot at not only his second World Series ring in three years this month, but also to set himself up for a big payday on the open market this winter.

    The X-Factors

    This time last season, Dansby Swanson sat on the bench in the postseason, unable to play due to a loose body floating in his left wrist. This time last season, Tommy Edman was preparing for the Arizona Fall League after hitting .301 between Double-A and Triple-A.

    This October, both may go a long way to determining which team advances. Swanson struggled to find his stroke after missing a month with a right heel injury, but while he hit just .204 in the second half after batting .270 before the All-Star break, he closed the season with a four-hit game and a three-hit effort in his final five contests, batting 9-for-24 with five runs scored in that span.

    Edman has been a Swiss-army knife for the Cards, logging time at third base for the slumping Matt Carpenter, filling in at second for Wong, and playing some in the outfield. He hit .329 with a .921 OPS in 53 games since Aug. 1. A big showing from either could tip the scales of this series.

    The Braves Win If …

    Keuchel sets the tone in Game 1 with a victory. Mike Foltynewicz continues his second-half revival in Game 2. Mike Soroka pitches as he has on the road in Game 3. The top four in the lineup produce at levels closer to May through August and not September. The veteran relievers at the end of the game shut down the St. Louis offense.

    The Cardinals Win If …

    Flaherty remains one of the top pitchers in the game (as he’s been in the second half) and steals Game 2 on the road. The Cardinals cover their home games with Wainwright in Game 3 and Hudson in Game 4. Wong is healthy and produces from the get-go. St. Louis cracks Atlanta’s bullpen trio with late-game heroics.

    The Pick

    We see various elements mentioned in the previous two paragraphs at different times across the next week. Keuchel nails down the opener, while Flaherty answers with a dominant performance in Game 2. Things get wild once the series shifts to St. Louis, with the kid (Soroka) besting the veteran (Wainwright) in Game 3 before the Cards squeak out a back-and-forth series-tying Game 4 victory in the matchup of young starters who moonlighted in relief early in this series (Hudson and Fried, neither of whom factor in the decision).

    That sends the series back to Atlanta for a winner-take-all Game 5. Flaherty vs. Keuchel. In what feels like the closest matchup of any of the Division Series, Atlanta exorcises the demons of nearly two decades of playoff disappointment behind the playoff veteran lefty and earns itself a shot at the NL pennant after five enthralling games.

    —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.

    5 Burning Questions with Braves & Cards Ready to Rumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We have the opposition. We have some of the game times. We even have the umpiring crew (and lord have mercy, if you could’ve seen my face when I opened that press release Monday afternoon and saw Sam Holbrook’s name).

    Welcome to Choptober, Braves Country. The National League Division Series kicks off Thursday at SunTrust Park and, depending on who wins Tuesday’s NL wild card matchup, the first pitch will cross home plate around either 5:02 p.m. ET or 6:02 p.m. ET. Holbrook, infamous in Atlanta sports history for making the wretched, still-jaw-dropping-seven-years-later infield fly rule call in the wild card game (against the Cardinals, of course) in 2012, will take the field as crew chief.

    Certainly, the 42,000 or so who jam into SunTrust on what may be the hottest October day ever in Atlanta temperature-wise (forecast high is 94 degrees) certainly will greet Holbrook warmly. Memories of that disastrous call and the ensuing storm of beer bottles and other debris that littered the field still make Braves fans cringe, as the ruling squelched a late rally and subsequently not only ended the Braves season, but the Hall of Fame career of third baseman Chipper Jones.

    There will be ad nauseum references to Holbrook and his moment of infamy in the days ahead. Still shaking my head at the level of tone deafness exhibited by Major League Baseball, we move on from that talking point and focus instead on the matchup between the champions of the NL East and NL Central. The Cardinals had to battle until Sunday’s regular-season finale, holding off the hard-charging Brewers to win the division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

    Here’s my five questions to consider as the hours tick toward first pitch:

    The Braves “malaise” … not a big deal or matter of concern?

    Much has been made of the way Atlanta finished the season, losing five of its final six games and dropping eight of its last 12 games while falling three wins short of 100. But at some point, this team had to cool off a little bit, considering before those final dozen contests they went 75-37 since May 10. That’s a .669 winning percentage, which is a 108-win pace. The 4-8 mark to close the season? That’s a 54-win pace.

    The Braves are far closer to playing .600 ball than .400 ball, the difference between winning and losing a best-of-five series. Once the Braves took care of Washington in early September, the air came out of the balloon, especially after clinching. It almost looked to me like a classroom with a week to go before summer vacation and all the course work completed. Yes, you can’t just “flip a switch” and turn it on again, but also remember the Cardinals have three days off entering Game 1, too. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    How healthy are Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.?

    I won’t lie: seeing Acuna limp toward the fence in the right-center field gap at Kansas City on Tuesday froze me in my tracks. Yes, it derailed his quest to reach 40-40, and that stings. But more important to me was the correct decision to shut down the 21-year-old for the final four games of the regular season. Acuna took batting practice with no issues in New York and will ramp up his running in the days leading to Game 1. But until I see him race full speed Thursday, I’ll have a bit of hesitation.

    Freeman – whose right elbow bone spur should have its own Twitter feed, as much as it’s been discussed – played in all three games in New York, leaving after two at-bats in the finale. It’s been an ongoing issue nobody knew about publicly until it started barking two weeks ago. It’s not going to get any worse by playing. A couple of his swings this weekend looked painful, but most of his hacks looked fine to me (including the base hit in his final AB of the season Sunday). If I’m marginally concerned about Acuna, I’m only slightly worried about Freeman.

    Should Mike Soroka start one of the first two games in Atlanta?

    Conventional wisdom says you start your best two pitchers in the first two games of a series, especially at home. Conventional wisdom says you do not start a 22-year-old rookie pitcher on the road in his first postseason contest, especially in a place like St. Louis where the fans will be loud from first pitch to final out.

    But The Kid from Calgary has long since bucked conventional wisdom. Soroka has been the best pitcher in baseball on the road this season. Even with allowing three earned runs yesterday in New York, he wrapped the regular season 7-1 in 16 away starts with a 1.55 ERA, five homers (one Sunday) allowed in 98 2/3 innings and a 0.96 WHIP. He allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits with one walk and five strikeouts at St. Louis on May 25. Most of the time, he would get the ball for me on Thursday or Friday. This time? I like the call of him going Sunday.

    How beneficial is it that the Cardinals do not have a left-hander in their rotation?

    Since the Braves are deploying both Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce in the outfield, it is helpful that neither will have to deal with left-handers for most of the series (the Cardinals have Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb as lefties in the bullpen; Miller has struggled at times this season). Markakis is hitting .298 with a .816 OPS against right-handers (compared to .245 and .653 against southpaws). Joyce also is batting .298 against righties with a .871 OPS (compared to .273 and .748 against lefties).

    There are places where not having more left-handed bats due to injuries to Ender Inciarte and the switch-hitting Johan Camargo will sting against a right-handed-heavy St. Louis staff. Dansby Swanson has a .734 OPS against right-handers while posting a .803 OPS against left-handers, for example. But consider Tyler Flowers, who crushed left-handers at a .348 clip last season. In 2019, Flowers is hitting just .155 with an anemic .574 OPS against southpaws, but a respectful .262 with a pretty good .817 OPS against right-handers – one season after hitting just .184 vs. righties.

    How critical is Dallas Keuchel’s start in Game 1?

    Game 1 in a five-game series is massive, especially at home. Lose that game, and you must win three out of four to advance. For the final-two-months brilliance of Mike Foltynewicz, for the outstanding rookie campaign by Soroka, Dallas Keuchel is exactly what Atlanta needs in the opener. He pitched the 2015 AL wild card game, Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS and Game 1 of the 2017 World Series.

    In those three games, Keuchel went 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA, giving up three runs on 13 hits in 19 2/3 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. Keuchel has allowed two earned runs or fewer six times in his nine career playoff starts while surrendering five hits of fewer in each of those six outings. He gave up two homers in two of his final three starts, but that came during the team’s mini-slump down the stretch. In his six previous starts, Keuchel posted a 0.97 ERA while going 5-0.

    Now if Holbrook can avoid screwing up fundamental interpretation of the rulebook, we should have a great series (sorry, couldn’t resist one more shot).

    —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.

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —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.