• Exclusives

    Postseason Preview: Red October Beckons as Braves Aim to Overcome Annual Autumn Stumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Alex Anthopoulos cut his teeth on National League baseball, growing up outside of Montreal as an Expos fan before beginning the long journey to his current role as Braves general manager. And even though he found success as GM of the Blue Jays, he remained rooted in baseball played the Senior Circuit way: without a designated hitter.

    Suffice to say Anthopoulos has experienced a change of heart as the Braves prepare for Wednesday’s National League Wild Card series opener against Cincinnati. Thank Marcell Ozuna for that, the former Marlins and Cardinals slugger helping Atlanta deploy arguably its most powerful lineup in years by logging substantial time at DH – in the first season the extra hitter has been used in the NL.

    “I’ve enjoyed the lineup this season with the DH,” Anthopoulos admitted during an interview Monday evening on the Braves Postseason Preview Show on the team’s flagship station, The Fan 680 and 93.7 FM. “Having lived through it, I’ve enjoyed the DH quite a bit.”

    That potent batting order lifted Atlanta to its third consecutive NL East championship and into the expanded 16-team playoff field. It’s a lineup Braves fans hope will lift the franchise to its first playoff series triumph in 19 years. Yes, 2001 hangs around the neck of this fanbase like an anchor.

    So naturally, the Reds arrive at Truist Park with arguably the strongest three-man starting rotation in the tournament. It’s a reason many national prognosticators are selecting seventh seed Cincinnati over the second-seeded Braves, even though Atlanta’s offense led the majors in OPS (.832) and finished second in average (.268), homers (103) and runs scored (348).

    The old baseball mantra says good pitching beats good hitting, especially in the postseason. Will that hold true in a frantic opening round of a postseason like no other? We’re about to find out.

    Five Keys to the Series

    As Easy As 1-2-3: Let’s cut right to the chase, and you’re not going to like it if you’re a Braves fan. Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray could tilt this series decisively in Cincinnati’s favor. The three Reds starters are that good. It starts with Bauer, the NL Cy Young frontrunner and one who never shies away from saying what’s on his mind. Consider his response to a question from WSB-TV (Atlanta’s ABC affiliate) sports director Zach Klein during Monday’s media availability.

    Too Shy? Not I: Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati’s Game 1 starter, speaks to the media Monday.

    Bauer gets plenty of attention for his openness – remember his assessment of Braves hitters’ approach after an April 2019 start in Cleveland – but the dude can pitch. He led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.79), opponents batting average (.159) and hits per nine innings (5.06) this season. Castillo features a changeup that is one of baseball’s nastiest pitches, and he’s a huge reason why I expect this series to go the distance. Castillo led the NL with four wins in September while finishing the month with a 2.20 ERA and .190 opponents average. Gray has revitalized his career after reuniting with his college pitching coach from Vanderbilt, Derek Johnson. The three have driven the Reds staff to 9.5 fWAR this season, third in the majors.

    Feeling Right Against Right-Handers … and Lefties, too: Now for some good news, as all three starters the Braves will see in this series are righties, and that bodes well for one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups. Atlanta hitters slashed .273/.354/.498 for an .852 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season. Regardless of which batter’s box they use, Braves hitters put up a historic season. Atlanta’s OPS is the highest in franchise history during the modern era, the Braves went 31-10 when scoring four or more runs, and led the big leagues by scoring 10 or more runs in 10 games.

    29 Feels Fine: The Braves offense mashed all season, scoring a NL-record 29 runs in a Sept. 9 rout of Miami.

    The top three in Atlanta’s lineup – Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP frontrunner Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna – garner plenty of well-deserved attention, but the rest of the Braves lineup must produce to beat the type of pitching they will face this week. Former Reds outfielder Adam Duvall hit 11 of his 16 homers in September, including a pair of three-homer performances. Ozzie Albies has exceled since returning from the injured list with 25 hits in 18 games to end the season. Travis d’Arnaud finished his first season in Atlanta with a career-best .321/.386/.533 slash line.

    From Boys to Men, Quickly: Mike Soroka isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Cole Hamels, or Felix Hernandez, or Mike Foltynewicz. Instead, after Max Fried looks to extend his brilliant regular season into Game 1, the Braves will turn to rookie Ian Anderson in Game 2 and, if the decisive third game is required Friday, will hand the ball to Kyle Wright. Anderson and Wright have combined to pitch 87 career innings across 18 starts in the majors. The Braves and their fanbase have put a ton of hope into their young arms during and since the rebuild; that faith will be tested this week like never before.

    Anderson must remain poised and aggressive Thursday. The 22-year-old has shown the ability and aptitude to throw his changeup in any count, and he wasn’t fazed by facing Gerrit Cole and the Yankees in his debut, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Wright’s road has been substantially bumpier, but the Vanderbilt product (who would face a fellow Commodore in Gray on Friday) limited opponents to a .164 average while pitching to a 2.37 ERA in his final three starts.

    Sparkling Start: Ian Anderson no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning in his major-league debut Aug. 26.

    Need Relief? Advantage, Atlanta: The Braves poured plenty into their relief corps starting at last season’s trade deadline and continued that effort in the offseason. It paid off bigtime, as Atlanta relievers pitched to a 3.50 ERA and 1.280 WHIP. That includes several arms who will not be on the playoff roster. The nine relievers I mentioned in Monday’s roster post as locks for the series, plus Chris Martin (who was cleared to join the roster Tuesday), combined to strike out 240 hitters in 226 innings while posting a 2.26 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. The Reds feature several power arms at the back end of their pen, but overall their relievers have a 4.53 ERA and .709 OPS.

    Whether it’s a Braves starter or reliever, they will face a Cincinnati offense that has offered up a bunch of all or nothing this season. The Reds finished last in the majors in average (.212), 27th in runs scored (243) and 24th in OBP (.312), but slugged 90 homers (seventh). Cincinnati joins the 1906 White Sox and 2007 Diamondbacks as the only teams in MLB history to finish last in average and still reach the postseason.

    Redemption: Nobody needs to give Atlanta any motivation after the Braves choked away last season’s NL Division Series against St. Louis. Naysayers will remain until the franchise actually wins a playoff series. If the core of this team is indeed going to win a World Series someday, it’d be well served to finally get over the playoff hump.

    Cincinnati hasn’t graced the postseason since 2013, and four weeks ago were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Following an active offseason Cincinnati struggled to find its footing, waking up on Sept. 9 six games under .500 and 6 ½ games out in the NL Central. Then the Reds got hot, closing the regular season with 13 wins in 18 games.

    The X-Factors: First and Foremost

    Freeman has enjoyed an MVP-worthy season, the 31-year-old recovering from COVID-19 over the summer to hit 13 homers with 53 RBIs and career highs in average (.341), OBP (.462) and slugging percentage (.640). Baseball’s leader in fWAR at 3.3, Freeman looks to make amends for a miserable 2019 postseason during which he went 4-for-20.

    Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto is a decade removed from an MVP-winning season, and he hit a career-low .226 in 54 games this season. But the 37-year-old belted 11 homers – a 33-homer pace across a full season after combining for 27 longballs in 287 games across the past two years. Votto has not played in the postseason since 2013, going hitless in the Reds wild-card game loss to Pittsburgh.

    Ready to Rumble: Reds first baseman Joey Votto is full of confidence entering the series.

    The Difference

    Ozuna played a huge role in the Braves losing last season’s NL Division Series, going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored as the Cardinals upended Atlanta in five games. He signed a one-year deal in January, days after Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with Minnesota. Many worried the offensive production wouldn’t be there.

    All Ozuna did was put together a top-five MVP season, leading the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while finishing third in average (.338).

    “He’s had such a positive influence,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said on 680 and 93.7 FM Monday evening. “With the energy he brings, how he approaches the game, how he loves to compete. He’s as good an addition to the Atlanta Braves in as long as I can remember.”

    Ozuna’s regular season was memorable. The feeling here is his postseason will be, too. Like last October, Ozuna will excel but, this time, it will be for Atlanta and not against it. And in a series that’s a coin flip, Ozuna’s presence will make the coin land on the Braves side for the first time in nearly two decades.

    The Pick

    Braves in 3.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NL Wild Card series game, starting Wednesday evening.

    —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.