• Exclusives

    Despite the Loss, a Beautiful Game to Welcome Back Our Beautiful Sport as Braves Fall 1-0

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I woke up Friday morning and, I must admit, it didn’t feel like the typical Opening Day. Normally, the first day of the season resembles Christmas morning, the excitement and anticipation and joy flowing through my veins like a 5-year-old walking down the stairs to see what Santa Claus placed under the tree.

    This felt more like the morning of Game 1 of a playoff series, that same excitement and anticipation and joy equally intertwined with nervousness and butterflies and the thought of “please don’t Atlanta sports this.” The trepidation I’ve battled the past few weeks about whether the Atlanta Braves and the rest of Major League Baseball should even try to kick off a season in the midst of a pandemic remained, although the happiness I felt about baseball being back did its best to squelch it.

    That feeling of “oh, no,” stormed the castle shortly before lunchtime, with news that both of Atlanta’s frontline catchers – Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers – were left behind Thursday in Atlanta after displaying symptoms of the virus. Both thankfully tested negative, but the risk of the two backstops being around their teammates on a road trip was too much. That gave the kids Alex Jackson and William Contreras an opportunity, Jackson doing a good job guiding the Atlanta staff in the opener and Contreras making his big-league debut by catching the eighth.

    I’m sure Braves fans are disappointed with Friday’s 1-0 loss to the New York Mets. But even in this shortened season, where every game is worth 2.7 times what one game is worth in a normal 162-game season, I wouldn’t stress this one too much. You have a handful of these games every season (be it 60 games or 162) where you can’t get a hit (the Braves had just three), you can’t come through with runners in scoring position (Atlanta finished 0-for-3), and one pitch costs you the win (a Chris Martin seventh-inning offering that leaked across the plate, right into Yoenis Cespedes’ wheelhouse).

    Regardless of the scoreboard, this we can state as a definitive win: Braves baseball is back. It’s different. No watch parties for the opener at Citi Field, other than the Zoom call I was on for the duration of the contest, chatting with some of my favorite people. No fans in the stands, other than cardboard cutouts (the one of Braves legend and Mets killer Chipper Jones was fantastic). Masks in the dugouts. Piped-in crowd noise. That’s baseball in 2020. Embrace the weird, and take what we can get.

    What we got on this weird day was one heck of a pitcher’s duel between a two-time Cy Young winner, and a guy who looks poised to someday join that club. Give New York ace Jacob deGrom his due – I’ll admit my bias; he’s one of my favorite dudes in the game and I think I’ve watched every start he’s made in Atlanta for at least the past two seasons. deGrom was outstanding despite the Braves working up his pitch count, allowing one hit with eight strikeouts in five innings. After he departed, for at least this Friday afternoon in July, the Mets bullpen did its job.

    But save plenty of praise for Mike Soroka on this day, as well. The Kid from Calgary took the mound 10 days shy of his 23rd birthday and pitched like a savvy veteran. He looked a bit amped up in the first inning of his first career opening-day start, but Soroka locked in and shoved for six stellar innings, giving up four hits with no walks and three strikeouts. He threw 48 of his 69 pitches for strikes, leaving the game 0-0 and putting the Braves in position to win. While some on social media wondered why Soroka didn’t start the seventh considering he threw 71 pitches in his final intrasquad tune-up Saturday, the kid did everything the Braves needed him to do on this day.

    Let’s give a nod at this point to Cespedes. He had not played in a major-league game since July 20, 2018. Cespedes authored the definitive storyline of this opener in remarkable fashion, demolishing that Martin offering high into the left-field seats. While he circled the bases, the baseball fan in me couldn’t help but appreciate the moment – and simultaneously wondered just how crazy it would’ve been in Queens if that ballpark was packed. With the DH arriving in the National League, putting Cespedes in that spot gives New York arguably the best top-to-bottom lineup in the division.

    We’ll see how it plays out over the next 59 games.

    Baseball is so beautiful in so many ways. Sometimes, it’s the crazy 10-9 game where the lead changes hands more times than you can count. Sometimes, we get what we had Friday – a crisp, well-pitched game between two good teams, where the margin between victory and defeat is the movement of one pitch out of the 225 thrown between the two sides. Each singular contest carries more magnitude than ever before in this 60-game season, but it also is worthwhile to step back and acknowledge what we watched on this July 24th with no regard to the outcome.

    We had a bit of it all in this return to play. Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte, who famously robbed Cespedes of a homer for the final out of a Braves victory in the final week of 2016 that helped knocked the Mets out of the playoffs, made another similarly breathtaking catch Friday. Marcell Ozuna lined a seventh-inning double in his Atlanta debut, but was stranded at third to keep the game scoreless. Freddie Freeman, who has assumed the Mets killer label from Larry Wayne Jones, Jr., launched a long fly ball to right in the ninth that sailed foul.

    The Braves are 0-1. And while that’s a bummer, remember there have been plenty of times the past few months when many of us wondered if we’d even get a chance to start 0-1.

    The best part of all? Tomorrow, we have a chance to get to .500.

    —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.