• Adam Duvall

    On Another Wild, Weird Day, Braves Capture Home Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if I needed another reminder of just how different this 2020 season is, I got it late Tuesday night as the Braves wrapped up a 2-3, two-city road swing through New York and Tampa Bay to kick off the truncated 60-game season. I realized that, in normal times, I’d be planning for a before-dawn alarm to cook for our home-opening tailgate. There would be beverages already iced down. There would be a giddiness that normally accompanies Christmas Eve.

    Then I realized it’s late July, this Wednesday would be just a normal workday, and my only presence inside Truist Park as the Braves played their first home game of the season would be my cardboard cutout situated nine rows behind home plate. If my partial season-ticket plan had those seats, I could afford to attend maybe four games a season, not the 27 games that are included in my package for seats in the upper deck.

    It’s such a different vibe. I must admit, with the Miami Marlins outbreak and subsequent halting of their season for the rest of this first full week of baseball 2020 (and impacts on the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and Baltimore Orioles), it’s zapped just a bit of my enthusiasm. Not trying to be a killjoy here, but last weekend felt kinda-sorta normal. Then, the news broke of the Miami outbreak and the residual impacts and, well, it again made me think, “why we are doing this?”

    Let’s hope this not only is the lone outbreak within a team that we will experience, but that it serves as a wake-up call to anybody in baseball who thinks this is much ado about nothing.

    Wednesday brought the weirdness of a home opener with no fans, the good news of catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers returning to the active roster, and then shortly after 3 p.m. ET, 2020 decided to act the fool for the countless time: outfielder Nick Markakis, who elected not to play in early July, reversed course and rejoined the Braves. A change in MLB policy allows for players who elected not to play to change their minds and apply for reinstatement by Aug. 1, a provision even lost on some national scribes until Markakis showed up on a pregame Zoom chat with the media.

    A lightning rod on social media – which is hilarious because, seriously, it’s Nick Markakis; you think he’s thumbing through Twitter during idle moments in his day? – he has value against right-handed pitching. Used in the right role (emphasize: the right role, against right-handed pitching, and not hitting fifth every day without fail), Markakis can help this ballclub.

    We’ll wonder about the impending roster crunch of position players once the Woodstock native and Young Harris College product gets in playing shape (the 36-year-old worked out at the alternative camp site in Gwinnett earlier Wednesday; my guess is the ramp time won’t be long). The active roster is slated to drop from 30 players to 28 late next week, but even that may not be the case. Heck, does anybody know anything anymore?

    I do know this team has played six games … it’s also 10 percent of the season. I know. Embrace the weird. A few other thoughts to this point after six games, capped by Freddie Freeman’s four hits in Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over the Rays.

    Who’s Gonna Jive at 3-4-5: Let’s get it out there: the middle and back end of the Atlanta rotation was bad in their first turn through the rotation. No, we’re not going to freak out over three games over the course of 162 … oh, wait. It’s a 60-game season. So, it’s panic time, right?

    It’s concerning, no doubt, but catch your breath for just a bit. The numbers are ugly: an 11.57 ERA, a 2.142 WHIP, 12 runs on 11 hits with nine walks in a combined 9 1/3 innings from Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz and Kyle Wright. The 9 1/3 innings is a problem even in a shortened ramp-up to the season, and that can’t remain the norm, or else the Braves bullpen depth will get torched.

    The Braves do have options to fill that fourth spot now vacated by the organization giving up on Foltynewicz, designating the right-hander for assignment after he gave up six runs in Monday’s start at Tampa Bay. Jhoulys Chacin doesn’t spark a ton of confidence in me, but he is a veteran who did impress following Newcomb in Sunday’s victory. Wright was untouchable for two innings Tuesday, before the control yips hit him again. To Wright’s credit, he offered no excuses, and I’d tell him right now he’s getting the ball Sunday against the Mets.

    I’d also say the same thing to Newcomb; the ball is yours Friday. Yes, he struggled to throw strikes in his first start Sunday with a big lead, but I’m willing to hold tight on both Newcomb and Wright for the moment. Both have the talent to be solid starters in 2020, but check back with me in two weeks.

    If things aren’t better then? That’s trouble. The signing of Cole Hamels looks worse with each passing day.

    Farewell, Folty: I completely expected an announcement after Monday’s game, or on Tuesday morning, that Foltynewicz was heading to the injured list. He just didn’t look right to me while his fastball velocity averaged under 90 mph with not much movement against the Rays. To see the DFA announcement, and to hear that the Braves broke that news to him before the game ended, was a shock.

    I think back to last October. On my 20th wedding anniversary, my oldest son and I sat in Truist Park and watched a sellout crowd lose its mind – in a bad way – when Adam Duvall walked to home plate to hit for Folty in the seventh inning. Foltynewicz was that good on that scalding hot October afternoon, authoring one of the best postseason games I’ve watched pitched in person (and yes, I watched Glavine and Smoltz and Maddux at their postseason best in person a generation ago).

    I know Foltynewicz engendered a lot of frustration for many, many folks in Braves Country. That’s fair. I’ve felt it at times, too. He’s a guy whose highest of highs touched the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and his lowest of lows were difficult to take. Maybe it’s my previous career of covering sports, but I know these guys are human beings first and foremost and, contrary to some folks on social media who think otherwise, here’s a news flash: they don’t really want to suck. They want to be great, they want to excel, they want to win.

    Wishing Mike and his family all the best. I hope he gets things figured out. Regardless, I hope he finds peace, no matter if he’s traded, claimed, or (unlikely in my opinion) remains with the organization and is outrighted to the alternative camp. I’m not sure he ever will find it if he remains a member of the Braves after Game 5 of the NLDS and, honestly, that’s sad. But that’s the business, as people say.

    Whiffs ’R Us: It’s not a totally surprise to me the Braves offense has looked pedestrian through the first part of the season. I wrote and spoke earlier this month of my concerns about the pitching Atlanta would face in this daunting 20-games-in-20-days to start the season. And while I’m a bit concerned about the sheer number of strikeouts piled up by the Braves lineup through six games – 74 punchouts in the first 55 innings of 2020 – I cannot say I’m completely surprised.

    I get it. That’s 24 2/3 innings of not putting the ball in play, and that can’t continue. But even in a 60-game season, I’m electing to breathe just a bit. Pitchers always are going to be ahead of hitters early in a season, especially when the ramp-up for those bats to opening day is only three weeks and not six weeks.

    Atlanta at-bats have been better than the strikeout numbers would indicate through the first six games. We saw that on display Wednesday. Odds are this will even itself out soon, even with the difficult pitching that’s still to come during the next two weeks.

    All Even, Folks: I wrote in my season preview that I would not be worried if the Braves were 8-12 after the first 20 games. So while 3-3 may feel like a bit of a disappointment so far, it’s OK. The back end of the rotation has questions, absolutely, and the strikeouts have come in bunches. Yet, Atlanta finds itself at .500 as we are 30 percent through what I think is the absolute roughest portion of the schedule.

    Again, most importantly, we have baseball. In these crazy times, I’ll take it.

    The home opener is in the books, and I’m sitting at home and not leaving Lot 29. And that’s totally OK. We’ve made it to this moment, the Braves are at .500, and the next eight games are at home. My cutout is 1-0 all-time. Let’s see if that cardboard likeness of myself can stay perfect come Thursday.

    —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.

    2020 Season Preview: Braves are Built Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Entering Unprecedented Campaign

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nobody could have predicted what we have been through the past few months. Nobody could imagine the impact the coronavirus would have on every single aspect of our everyday lives, on things far more serious than the doings of a baseball franchise seeking its first World Series title in a quarter-century.

    Yet, in some weird way, Alex Anthopoulos built an Atlanta Braves team that seems poised to handle baseball’s 60-game sprint quite well. It certainly wasn’t foresight into what this 2020 baseball season would look like – one that will be as unprecedented as any baseball campaign in the history of the sport – but rather, by how the Braves general manager viewed his team after back-to-back National League East championships.

    Anthopoulos felt the Braves needed depth in their bullpen. He first addressed it with three moves at last season’s trade deadline, and further bolstered it by signing Will Smith in early November. There is the seemingly never-ending supply of pitching prospects gurgling in the upper levels of the minor leagues, including some arms the Braves hope are ready for prime-time duty under the bright lights of the majors.

    The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League automatically lengthened Atlanta’s lineup, a lineup that saw a logjam at third base with Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, plus a logjam in the outfield. Certainly, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be in the lineup almost every day, and even with Nick Markakis electing not to play, the Braves still have Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall (plus Cristian Pache waiting in the wings).

    Adding the designated hitter also can help these Braves address a deficiency that could be an Achilles heel – bats that mash right-handed pitching. Often those guys are left-handed hitters, and the Braves brought Matt Adams back this week hoping to see the type of power he displayed here three seasons ago. The reported and rumored signing of Yasiel Puig would have addressed that, too (the erstwhile Dodgers slugger bats right-handed, but features reverse splits). But once again, COVID-19 and 2020 reared its ugly head, Puig testing positive for the virus and announcing the news via social media just minutes after the Braves captain – Freddie Freeman – joyously trotted onto the field Friday at Truist Park, following his harrowing journey through having the virus.

    Freddie Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times, but the four-time All-Star found himself sick from COVID-19 in early July.

    Freeman embarks on his 10th season in the majors; how has it been that long? Without question this is his team, much as Terry Pendleton led the early 90s Braves, much as Chipper Jones carried that torch for more than a decade. Thankfully, Freeman looks healthy and his swing looks great. A week ago, we all wondered what a Freeman-less Braves would look like embarking on a truncated schedule that begins with 20 games in 20 days, against plenty of great pitching.

    Consider who the Braves may see in those opening 20 games: Jacob deGrom (twice) and Steven Matz of the Mets, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Rays, Hyun Jin-Ryu of the Blue Jays, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees. That’s nine of your first 20 games against a group of pitchers who are on many people’s short list of All-Star hurlers.

    It’s all going to be different. This isn’t going to be your father’s baseball season. The methodical marathon that frames our spring and summer evenings? Not this year, folks. This is a 400-yard dash for a sport accustomed to logging 26.2 miles. Teams that start quickly are going to be positioned to potentially steal playoff spots. But before crying doom and gloom if the Braves arrive at their first off day on Aug. 13 at 8-12, consider two schedule quirks across the final 40 games that might prove more important than having to start 14-6.

    The middle 20 games: Atlanta faces Philadelphia and Washington 12 times. Six of the other eight are against Miami and Boston (this Red Sox team certainly is not of the ilk of the 2018 champs). Even if the Braves stumble a bit out of the gate, not only do they have an opportunity to catch up against two subpar teams in the middle part of the schedule, they also play 60 percent of their games in that stretch against the two teams I feel will challenge them for the NL East title.

    The final 20 games: The Braves play 13 against the Marlins, Orioles and Red Sox. Atlanta ends the season with a seven-game homestand against Miami and Boston. The Yankees and the Rays are likely to rule the AL East, and Boston’s pitching is quite suspect. Miami will be better; its young pitching is maturing, and the Marlins have a few guys who are developing into good players (they’re a couple of years away from being a real problem for the NL East). If you’re going to wrap up the season with a week at home, other than Baltimore, there are no two teams in the combined East you want to face than the Marlins and Red Sox.

    What will it take to get to that point, 53 games in the books, one week to go, with a shot at October? The more I look at it, the more I think the Braves are built for this.

    Atlanta’s youthful exuberance, a hallmark of the Braves resurgence the past two seasons, remains (minus the hugs and high-fives). Acuna remains an emerging megastar. Ozzie Albies is developing into a star in his own right. The rotation is fronted by two of the better young arms in the game: Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in modern Braves history to earn an opening-day starting assignment, and Max Fried, who could develop into a sneaky Cy Young candidate if his change-up continues developing.

    22-year-old Mike Soroka finished second in NL rookie-of-the-year voting in 2019 and sixth in Cy Young voting, providing a cool presence at the top of Atlanta’s rotation entering his second full big-league season.

    There are question marks. Can Cole Hamels get healthy? Can Dansby Swanson replicate his 2019 first half and postseason while staying healthy? Can Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz settle the middle of the rotation? Will Ender Inciarte start the season hitting like it’s April or July? Can Smith, who is out with the virus but asymptomatic, test negative twice and get back on the mound?

    We are forced to acknowledge the 50,000-pound weight hanging over all this. What happens after three weeks of play, of flying into different cities and staying in hotels then returning home, if positive tests spike and a team (be it the Braves or another team) finds itself with an outbreak? Nobody knows, and that’s part of the trepidation I feel in offering a projection of where this Braves team lands when this season like no other reaches its conclusion on Sept. 27.

    But we’re going to hope and pray things go well – for every team in the majors – and we’ll forge ahead with a best guess. And it’s just that: a guess. We have no clue what’s going to happen. There is no playbook, no guideposts. This is the strangest season preview I’ve ever authored, fitting for the strangest year of my life.

    This incredibly unpredictable sprint rests on simple math. Each singular game is worth 2.7 times one regular game in a 162-game season (subscription required). If you win 37 games, that’s a .616 win percentage (a 99-win pace over a full season). Win 27 games? That’s a .450 win percentage (a 74-win pace).

    I don’t see these Braves reaching either that peak or that valley. Even with an 8-12 start, I think they’re good enough – based on their depth, Freeman being ready from the jump, the young talent on the roster, and motivation after choking away what should have been the franchise’s first postseason series victory in 18 years – to finish 34-26.

    That’s a 91-win pace over 162, and I think that’s just enough to land the Braves one game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Philadelphia. That would put Atlanta into the postseason party, and in a world where everything seems to have changed, the overarching goal has not:

    Win 11 games in October and capture the World Series title. There is no telling who will do it, or what will happen along the way, but it’s time to start the journey.

    After all we’ve been through, how sweet that sounds.

    —30—

    On deck as we preview the 2020 Atlanta Braves season: A Braves Opening Day like no other.

    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.

    Puig’s Your Friend Now, Braves Country, and Other Notes as Camp Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yasiel Puig does not exactly blend in with the crowd, be it the gregarious way he plays baseball, his larger-than-life personality, and the fact he’s built like a nose guard.

    So it wasn’t exactly stunning when the rumor began Tuesday on Twitter that Puig – or his long-lost twin brother – had been spotted in The Battery, adjacent to Truist Park, where the Atlanta Braves would play their fourth intrasquad game later Tuesday evening. The Braves would do so missing left-handed hitting outfielder Nick Markakis, who last week elected not to play the shortened 2020 season. They also took the field without Freddie Freeman, one of the best hitters in the game, who remains sidelined with the coronavirus.

    The news broke later Tuesday afternoon: Puig and the Braves had agreed to terms on an unspecified deal, one that won’t be announced until Puig passes a physical. Certainly, that will include a coronavirus test that even Puig himself probably won’t enjoy – trust me, I found out for the second time Monday that it’s not fun – but the newest Braves outfielder will have plenty of fun soon after things are official.

    The 29-year-old teaming with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna is going to drive some opposing fan bases crazy, especially with the Braves poised to be a contender in the wild setup of a 60-game sprint. The Braves Way has been dead for quite some time, thankfully. Now, the oomph meter just shot to 11, “let the kids play” should be shouted louder than ever, and let’s face it: some folks are going to be mad about it. Big mad.

    But if you’re a Braves fan, I don’t see how you can be mad about this. Puig’s Your Friend now, after all.

    If there’s a nit to pick with this Braves squad as it’s assembled in 2020, it’s hitting against right-handed pitching. It goes without saying not having Freeman and his .304 career lifetime average against right-handers is a considerable blow. Remember, there’s no template or blueprint for a baseball player returning from coronavirus. Is it two weeks from now before Freeman can stride into the left-handed batter’s box? Four weeks? Seven weeks? We just don’t know.

    And with Markakis deciding the risks of playing this season weren’t worth it – and I’ll never blame any player for looking at this landscape and saying, “nah, I’m out” – Atlanta lost another valuable bat against right-handed pitching. So while some will opine that Puig is yet another right-handed bat in a right-handed heavy lineup, he also is a career .285 hitter against rightys with a .845 OPS and, with the presence of the designated hitter in the NL in 2020, the Braves lineup looks more formidable than it did this morning.

    It also looks more fun. Yes, Puig is loud and plays the game with an edge that sometimes boils over. He’s also approaching age 30 and free agency, so the thought here is he’ll behave himself. There will be far fewer dollars on the open market this winter than in years. And if you truly believe Puig is going to poison his limited chances at a good deal for 2021 by poisoning the Braves culture, well, in my opinion that’s a ridiculous thought.

    We play ball in 10 days at Citi Field. At least we hope. A few other notes from the past few days:

    Do the Braves remain the Braves? I wrote my thoughts about the tomahawk chop a few months ago. The manufactured chop beaten relentlessly into fans’ heads needs to go. But the name of the team? I don’t think it will change, a stance backed up by the team to season-ticket holders and the media Sunday.

    Wither Cole Hamels? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. I talked with somebody in February whose opinion I trust; that person doubted Hamels would be ready for the scheduled opening day in late March. When I spoke to that person last month weeks ago, their perspective had not waivered.

    At this point, 10 days before the season commences, Hamels still has not thrown as much as a BP session. I think you must cross him out for the rotation for at least the first two times through, which is 10 games – or 16.66% of the regular season. I’m happy the team signed Josh Tomlin – who looked pretty good in four innings during Monday’s intrasquad matchup – and I’m really excited with what I saw out of Kyle Wright in spring training. It’d be great to see Wright on the mound, however. Like Hamels, we’re still waiting. Speaking of the rotation:

    What about Folty? It was hard to see from watching the feed of the intrasquad game Wednesday, considering the camera was positioned at the top of the ballpark, but the lanky right-hander returned to the mound at Triuist Park for the first time since the infamous Game 5 NLDS meltdown and shoved for three innings, only allowing a walk to Culberson but nothing else.

    We’re so quick to forget just how good Folty was after he came back from his demotion to Gwinnett: 2.65 ERA, .211 opponents batting average, 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings across 10 starts (6-1 record). That does not include seven shutout innings with no walks and three hits allowed in Game 2 of the NLDS. His work in 2020, in my opinion, will be critical to the Braves success. To that point, Folty made sure he would be ready for this unprecedented season. To that point:

    Cheers to the Spartans: I got a message from someone in mid-April, saying a handful of Braves pitchers had secured a high school to work out at while practicing social distancing. As we’ve learned publicly last week via comments made to Atlanta media, it wasn’t just throwing.

    Several Braves hurlers took the shutdown seriously.

    When you go through the annuals of Atlanta sports, Campbell High in the northwestern suburb of Smyrna probably would draw mention for Brian Oliver, the shooting guard who helped lead Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four (teaming with Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson to form the vaunted “Lethal Weapon III”). But if the Braves reach the postseason in 2020, give a hat-tip to the Campbell Spartans and their staff.

    Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Mike Soroka threw at Campbell High six days a week during the shutdown, firing full bullpens twice weekly. They were joined on occasion by teammates Acuna, Albies.  Johan Camargo, Charlie Culberson and others.

    With 20 games in 20 days to begin the season, starting fast is going to be more critical than ever. If the Braves ride solid pitching to a good start, don’t forget the work these guys did at a Cobb County high school field, one the baseball coach and athletic director made sure was ready and open for their MLB neighbors, while also working to keep that news quiet.

    What if Freddie can’t go out of the gate? Losing a solid bat and elite defender at a key position, not to mention the captain of the team, is not a good thing. Let’s all hope the Freddie, and Chelsea and Charlie, stay well and get over the virus.

    We have no playbook, as I referenced on ESPN Coastal last week and earlier in this piece. We’re going into this blind. But I think the Braves turn first at first to Austin Riley and his potential power if Freeman is not well enough to start the season. Riley has played a little first base, and after taking grounders a little bit at first base in spring training, has put in some work at first base during summer camp and in intrasquad contests.

    Yes, Atlanta has a couple of first basemen on non-roster invites in Peter O’Brien and Yonder Alonso – both of whom are getting time in some intrasquad games. But If either of them are on the active roster come opening day on July 24, this team is in trouble. Let’s all hope Freddie is OK and ready to go in Queens when the season starts. If not, we’ll hope some semblance or Riley and Adam Duvall and Camargo can cover first base till Freeman is back.

    To the Max: Unsolicited private comment from somebody who was in Trust Park watching Max Fried pitch in last Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage. “Fried looks poised to be a bad ass upper-tier pitcher.” Glad he’s on my fantasy team, and my favorite team, one that is hopefully a few days away from kicking off a season the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before.

    —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.

    Play Ball: Plenty to Watch as Braves Open Spring Slate

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Ozuna Signing Adds Needed Jolt to Braves Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No matter how clear the skies now may be.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Cole for Christmas is Nice, but Braves Must Pump Up Power

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Many Braves fans felt they were left with coal in their offseason stockings last spring after the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November, then did little else.

    But a different type of coal – Cole Hamels, to be specific – became the latest acquisition of a busy shopping spree for general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday. And while it’s not Gerrit Cole, who figures to sign for a bazillion dollars given the established price of free-agent starters, this Cole will fit into the Braves rotation just fine.

    Atlanta inked a one-time nemesis – stemming from Hamels’ 10 years in Philadelphia – to a one-year, $18-million contract, landing the Braves youthful rotation a veteran left-hander with 422 career games, a career 1.18 WHIP and 2,694 2/3 innings. Add in his 17 postseason games, a World Series MVP award and four All-Star appearances, and it would appear Anthopoulos has satisfied his desire to add an experienced arm to the trio of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

    Since the World Series ended, Anthopoulos has spent like a shopaholic carrying five new credit cards on Black Friday. He remade the bullpen by signing Will Smith, the best closer on the market, and bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. He grabbed Travis d’Arnaud to team with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, after re-signing Flowers and Nick Markakis.

    Including Hamels, Anthopoulos has added $56.25 million to the 2020 payroll. To this point, it’s mostly money well spent (we’ll know for sure after next season). What we do know in early December is this: The bullpen, a source of so much pain and hand-wringing for the first four months last season, is markedly better. d’Arnaud figures to get more than his share of starts following a healthy and resurgent season in a platoon with Flowers. Markakis will work with Adam Duvall in a left field platoon that likely will see Markakis get more starts than he should (because Brian Snitker remains manager, after all).

    Everybody knew Cole (Gerrit, not Hamels) and Stephen Strasburg would command mega deals on the open market, which in turn forced many teams to focus on a second tier centered around Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner. It became clear to the Braves quickly that landing either the East Paulding High alum (Wheeler, who signed a $118-million, five-year pact with Philadelphia later Wednesday) or the Hickory, N.C. native (Bumgarner) would require a heavy investment in years and AAV (average annual contract value).

    So Anthopoulos pivoted quickly to Hamels, who had expressed a desire early in the offseason to take a one-year deal with a contender. And while that World Series MVP award was 11 autumns ago, the soon-to-be 36-year old showed in 2019 he still is capable of pitching at a high level. Hamels posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.39 WHIP with a 3.0 bWAR in 27 starts for the Cubs, both numbers taking a hit after he returned too quickly from an oblique injury.

    Through his first 17 starts (pre-injury), Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP across 99 2/3 innings, allowing nine homers with a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his 10 starts after returning, he pitched to a 5.79 ERA with eight homers surrendered in 42 innings and an unsightly 1.88 WHIP. Most of that damage came in three starts; in the other seven, he gave up a total of 10 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings – a 2.67 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hamels closed the season by giving up three runs on nine hits in 11 2/3 innings across his final three starts.

    Just as important is the influence the Braves hope Hamels will have on their young pitchers. Fried in particular resembles a younger Hamels in both stature (both are 6-foot-4) and mechanics. Another southpaw, Sean Newcomb, figures to get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training (barring acquisition of another starter between now and March). Both should benefit from having an experienced lefty mentor in the locker room.

    Yes, Anthopoulos has accomplished a lot so far this winter. As baseball’s glacier-like pace of offseason moves thankfully has sped up this winter, the Braves are showing signs of a team making progress along the journey from rebuilding franchise to bona fide World Series contender.

    But at this point, it’s just that. Progress.

    Work remains to be done, and now is when things get tricky. Baseball’s Winter Meetings kick off Sunday evening in San Diego. For the moves Braves have completed, a glaring hole remains in the middle of the batting order. Donaldson (who was named NL comeback player of the year Wednesday) is one of the hottest commodities on the open market, viewed as the second-base third baseman behind Anthony Rendon and even more in demand now that Mike Moustakas has signed with Cincinnati.

    I expected payroll to rise this offseason, but it’s moving up at a dizzying rate when compared with the historical thriftiness of Liberty Media. Adding Hamels (and sadly subtracting fan favorite Charlie Culberson, who was non-tendered Monday) to the opening-day locks list, I project 21 players who will be owed approximately $128.62 million for 2020.

    Suffice to say, the work cannot stop now. Especially after all the moves of the past month, Atlanta simply cannot settle with a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley platoon at third base without adding a power bat elsewhere. Ideally, it’s Donaldson at third base, which would mean re-signing the Bringer of Rain for something around $25 million AAV for at least three years (if other camps offer a fourth season, I’m concerned the rain will fall elsewhere in 2020).

    Re-signing Donaldson is the simplest path, one that would take the payroll north of $153 million with four spots left (two on the bench; two in the bullpen). Maybe the Auburn football program could put in a good word for the Braves, considering Donaldson watched his alma mater win Saturday’s Iron Bowl from the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    But if he lands elsewhere, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to trade some of the prospect stockpile and likely Ender Inciarte (and perhaps a bullpen piece) to land a power bat, perhaps Starling Marte from Pittsburgh or Jorge Soler from Kansas City or Mitch Haniger from Seattle, provided he can make the deal sweet enough to compel the other side to jump). The trade market is so much harder to pin down, but every GM in baseball will be at the same place in Southern California for four days next week.

    Given the activity we’ve seen across the sport this offseason, it might be quite a week.

    Regardless, the Braves have no choice. Adding Hamels to the rotation, bolstering the bullpen, and addressing catcher early puts the Braves in a great position with the Winter Meetings approaching. But as long as that hole in the lineup remains, Anthopoulos cannot stop doing everything possible to deliver Braves Country the ultimate prize next autumn, one far greater than coal (or Cole).

    —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’ 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.

    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.