• Andruw Jones

    POSTSEASON PARADISE! Braves End 19-Year Playoff Drought with Sweep of Reds

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nineteen years. Six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-nine days. Two hundred and twenty-seven months, plus 20 days for good measure.

    Finally, it’s over.

    Finally, Lucy didn’t pull the football away from Charlie Brown.

    Finally, at long and blessed last, the nearly two-decade postseason drought for the Atlanta Braves – a stretch that has defined their recent history – is just that:

    History.

    The Braves have won a postseason series for the first time since 2001, finishing a two-game sweep of Cincinnati on Thursday in the National League Wild Card series at Truist Park. Time to head west to Houston for the NL bubble and a date with either the Cubs or the Marlins in the best-of-five NL Division Series. The winner plays for the pennant and a trip to the World Series.

    “I told them we’ve just checked a box off of what we want to get done,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame, adding that the mood in the clubhouse was, “controlled chaos.”

    There was plenty of emotion and elation oozing from all corners of Braves Country, and it certainly was understandable … and overdue. Consider that social media did not exist when the Braves capped a three-game NLDS sweep of Houston on Oct. 12, 2001. To put it another way: the last time this franchise won a playoff series was 341 days before I became a father and 701 days before my second child was born.

    My kids are now in their senior and junior years of high school, and for the first time in their lives have experienced the Braves winning a postseason series. So excuse us if we celebrate this with the fervor of a pennant and World Series trip.

    It’s been a minute.

    Streak Buster: Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall homered in the eighth inning Thursday as the Braves finished a two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series, the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001.

    Atlanta won this series in a far, far different manner than most people expected leading into the start of the expanded 16-team playoffs. The Braves cranked out runs at a staggering pace all season, leading the majors in OBP and finishing second in runs and homers. One figured that prolific offense would have to lead the way. Had you told someone Monday the Braves would score a whopping two runs in the first 20 innings of the series, odds are they would think the season – and not the postseason futility streak – would be ending.

    In front of Braves family members and a few thousand cardboard cutouts in an otherwise empty Truist Park, Atlanta hitters spent plenty of time taking right turns and heading back to the first-base dugout after striking out. One day after fanning 21 times in Game 1, the Braves struck out 14 times in the second game.

    Certainly, there is credit due to Cincinnati’s pitching. Remember, the Reds featured arguably the best rotation among all postseason qualifiers, fronted by Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo in the first two games. That pitching was more than enough to sway many national prognosticators to pick seventh-seeded Cincinnati in the opening round.

    Somebody forgot to tell Max Fried and Ian Anderson they were supposed to play second fiddle, though. One day after Fried spun seven shutout innings to set the tone in Atlanta’s 1-0, 13-inning triumph, it was the 22-year-old Anderson who grabbed control Thursday. The Braves first-round pick in 2016 displayed poise and composure during his first six major-league starts, then took it to another level in his playoff debut.

    Anderson wiggled out of a mess in a 34-pitch second inning – prolonged by Ozzie Albies’ inability to cleanly turn a double play and several questionable ball/strike calls by home plate umpire Marty Foster. Otherwise he was unflappable, finishing with nine strikeouts and just two hits allowed across six innings.

    “This whole time coming up and making an impact, throwing the ball well,” Anderson told Fox Sports Southeast postgame. “It’s been a blast.”

    For the Reds, it was anything but. Much was made of Cincinnati’s pedestrian offense entering the series, but nobody foresaw Cincinnati’s futility in the batter’s box: zero runs in 22 innings. The Braves bullpen shined brightly, dodging disaster in extra innings Wednesday before three quiet innings in the clincher. Fried and Anderson, who each made their first career postseason starts in the series, combined to surrender eight hits with two walks and 14 strikeouts in 13 scoreless innings.

    Unlike Fried, Anderson left the game with the lead.

    Ronald Acuna Jr., one of few Atlanta offensive bright spots in last season’s NLDS defeat to St. Louis, collected one of six Braves hits in Game 1. His two-out double to left-center in the fifth off Castillo chased home Austin Riley with Game 2’s first run, Acuna finishing as the first Braves player to collect three hits with a stolen base in a playoff game since Andruw Jones in 2004.

    Moving On: Braves manager Brian Snitker addresses the media after Atlanta’s two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series Thursday.

    The Braves offense was too good to lay dormant for too long. They broke through with four big insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, getting a pair of two-run homers from Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall. Both sluggers struggled in the series, but provided the breathing room the Braves and their fans desperately craved after the drama and tension of the series to that point.

    Ozuna – who led the NL with 18 homers in the regular season – told his teammates he had a celebration in mind if he launched one in the series. As his blast traveled toward the left-field seats in the eighth, he paused briefly for a selfie with an imaginary camera halfway down the first-base line. Ozuna repeated the move in the dugout as his teammates surrounded him.

    “We all celebrate as one,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    And it’s an occasion worth celebrating. Because for the first time since the early days of this century, a Braves playoff run isn’t one-and-done.

    —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.

    Acuna-Mania in Here at Last, and ‘That’ Swing is the Thing

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Most of us have seen it before, through Periscopes from spring training backfields, over MILB.tv game streams, via video clips on the internet or in person at minor-league ballparks across the South.

    But at 12:51 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, along the banks of the Ohio River in the southwestern tip of Ohio, the baseball world saw it:

    “That” swing.

    “That” amazing, violent, powerful, fascinating, jaw-dropping swing that has helped Ronald Acuna race from the lower depths of the minor leagues to his rightful place in the Atlanta Braves outfield.

    Acuna followed a tantalizing major-league debut Wednesday – in which he nearly went deep on the first swing of his first at-bat, then later singled and scored to jump-start a late-inning rally – with “That” swing in the second inning Thursday.

    A 3-1 pitch, launched high and far into the Cincinnati sky, settling in the hands of a Braves fan standing five rows in the upper deck in left field, some 416 feet from the point where “That” swing we’ve heard so much about the past two years launched Homer Bailey’s slider onto a one-way journey to the cheap seats.

    And the kid only was getting started Thursday, falling a triple short of the cycle, legging out an infield single, then blooping a double to right field to drive in the eventual game-winning run as the Braves moved four games above .500 with a 7-4 victory. The 20-year-old is 4-for-9 through his first 24 hours as a big-leaguer, sporting a .444 batting average and a 1.333 OPS.

    There is no denying it, even this early.

    This is different.

    Different than any prospect I’ve seen come up in a Braves uniform in the past 40 years. Different than the Jones boys (Chipper and Andruw), different than the Atlanta boys (Jason Heyward and Jeff Francoeur), different than the rest.

    That’s because Ronald Acuna is different. The swagger, the speed, the arm, the entire package.

    And certainly, “That” swing.

    Acuna finds himself settled into an Atlanta offense that is giving opponents fits with aggressive baserunning, consistent clutch hitting and a knack for coming from behind late in games. While I get why some folks were upset Acuna started the season in Triple-A, it made sense to sacrifice a few games in April 2018 in order to keep Acuna under club control for an extra season, in 2024.

    After all, that early stretch featured 12 consecutive games against playoff teams from a year ago, including a brutal three-city road trip in which the Braves not only battled postseason teams, but snow, rain, freezing cold and biting wind.

    Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr had 4 hits through his first 2 Major League games for the Braves.

    Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr had 4 hits through his first 2 Major League games for the Braves.

    The Braves didn’t just survive that stretch, they emerged from it above .500. The two most disappointing efforts of the season – save that wind-blown nasty Saturday in Chicago – came in the first two days in Cincinnati, where Atlanta managed to drop two games to baseball’s worst team.

    Then came the text messages, the tweets and the notifications in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. The wait was over. Acuna was being promoted. For a fanbase yearning to win, even more so after a taste of unexpected early-season success, would this be a tipping point?

    It’s just two games in a 24-hour span, but it sure feels that way.

    Normally that would be nonsense to say about a 20-year-old kid. But like I said, this is different.

    Atlanta will play three games in Philadelphia and three in New York before coming home to face the Giants a week from Friday. Tickets already are going fast.

    You should get yours. The Braves are playing a fun brand of baseball, one the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite some time in these parts.

    And you want to see “That” swing for yourself. A guy like this doesn’t come along too often, and while there are no guarantees in baseball or life, this feels like as sure of a bet as you will find.

    Because “That” swing, belonging to one Ronald Acuna, is a sight to behold.

    —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.

    When Dealing with Prospects, Patience is Key

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — Once upon a time, back in the days of superstations and games of the week and The Sporting News and Sunday morning newspapers, minor-league coverage was not easy to find and it certainly was not at our fingertips.

    If your favorite team had a hot prospect, you relied on magazines and notes columns and the passing mention from your TV or radio broadcasters to get information. There was no MILB.tv. There were not blogs dedicated to the ups-and-downs teenagers and kids in their early 20s navigated on a nightly basis in poorly lit stadiums far from home. If you did not live within driving distance of a minor-league stadium, you likely never saw highlights of a prospect until he made his big-league debut.

    Which brings us to Thursday night, inside the newest baseball stadium in the major leagues – SunTrust Park where, as an aside, raindrops are just as common as homers and strikeouts. The Atlanta Braves’ jewel of a home hosted the series finale between the rebuilding Braves and the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that looks as imposing as any team to take a diamond since the 98 Yankees and 84 Tigers.

    Braves' rookie LHP Sean Newcomb

    Braves’ rookie LHP Sean Newcomb struck out 7 and walked 7 through 4.2 IP at SunTrust Park Thursday night.

    Climbing the bump on this night for Atlanta was one of the key components of the massive restructuring of its organization. Left-hander Sean Newcomb, he with the golden left arm and impressive raw stuff and questionable control, toed the rubber for the Braves against a Los Angeles team that began the night 43 games above .500 and cruising toward October.

    And this night would end with Newcomb putting together a line that is hard to build at any level. When you strike out seven hitters, you typically pitch deeper than five innings. When you walk seven hitters, you typically are showered and changed by the fifth inning. Yet the 24-year-old hurler found himself leaving the game after 4 2/3 frames, holding one of baseball’s best offenses to just four hits with an arsenal that at the surface can be best describe as electric, but the walks coming back to bite him in allowing three runs.

    Newcomb exited his 10th major-league start with a 4.61 ERA and a 1-6 record, not necessarily the type of numbers that spark dreams of October glory. But an important caveat to remind ourselves of as the Braves begin promoting more and more of the kids the organization feels will lift Atlanta back to postseason prominence and eventually will bring championships to its suburban palace:

    Be patient.

    Newcomb is an interesting case study in prospect expectations, in the current culture of information overload and results needing to be delivered yesterday. Somehow – and I think this goes far beyond baseball and transcends our society on multiple levels – we come to expect greatness out of the gate. We see the video clips, we read the musings of those who watch prospects, and we think those players are pre-ordained to dominate immediately upon descending to the highest level of baseball in the world.

    Fact of the matter is that just does not happen very often. For every kid who starts a season in Single-A and ends same season hitting two homers in his first World Series games (Andruw Jones, as a 19-year-old in 1996), there are tons of 19-year-olds who start a season in Single-A and end same season in Single-A.

    Greg Maddux posted a 5.59 ERA through his first two Major League seasons.

    Hall of Fame RHP Greg Maddux posted a 5.59 ERA through his first two Major League seasons.

    Back to Newcomb. He was acquired at a high cost: defensive wizard and fan favorite Andrelton Simmons, who has discovered the hit tool this season to the point where a national baseball show tonight is debating whether he is worthy of AL MVP honors. Twitter and other social media outlets are all aflutter at second-guessing the Braves for dealing Simmons for a prospect of Newcomb’s ilk. Of course, hindsight is 20-20.

    Watching Newcomb live tonight reinforces two points. One, his raw stuff is plus-plus, and he has the potential to be a frontline starter for the next decade. The Jon Lester comps are right on point. Two, he needs work. He needs to continue honing his control. He needs experience at the major-league level.

    The difference is two decades ago, there was a more patient, more forgiving populace willing to invest the time in the development that needs to happen at the major-league level. But in today’s world of instant access/gratification/analysis, a kid who puts up good numbers in the minors is expected to bring that same level of dominance and success into the majors at day one.

    There are precious few players in every generation who make that happen. For the rest, the journey to becoming solid – if not sensational – major-league players are measured against the best of the very best. Which is unfortunate. We have seen many players who go on to great careers, in some cases Hall of Fame careers, who needed a year or two or three in the majors to find themselves, to hone their craft, to make the adjustments needed and learn the lessons to unleash their full greatness.

    Long after Newcomb left the mound, and long after I left SunTrust Park to write my next-day Braves’ preview, another bigtime Atlanta prospect made his mark. Second baseman Ozzie Albies, promoted earlier in the week and playing in his third game at the big-league level, belted a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth – his first major-league hit in his eighth at-bat.

    Amid the joy of seeing Albies round the bases on my TV, I could not help but think somewhere, there were people saying to themselves, “it’s about time he did something.”

    This is the culture in which we live, for better or worse.

    —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 at the Trade Deadline … Do They Have a Dance Partner?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — In the spring of 1986, the Atlanta Hawks were on their way to another playoff exit, the Atlanta Braves were on their way to another losing season, and I was on my way to the bustling metropolis of Macon, Ga., for the state junior beta convention.

    The final night of the convention ended with a dance. I spent the majority of the evening tugging uncomfortably at my tie, filling up on snack food and talking sports with a group of fellow awkward teenagers, including a girl from my school with whom I was friends.

    When the night’s final song cued up, she grabbed my hand, led me on the dance floor and we slow danced. I never asked her why, I don’t remember the song, I certainly didn’t kiss her (I think I was paralyzed with shock) and I don’t think either one of us spoke of the incident again. The only thing I could figure in the days and weeks that followed is she really wanted to dance with somebody, she seized the moment, and I was present at the right place at the right time.

    Welcome to baseball’s Trade Deadline, the time of year where the pressure of finding that right piece of a pennant-winning puzzle – or the opportunity to shed veteran payroll and snag future talent to accelerate a rebuild – brings together general managers and scouting directors, while 30 fanbases simultaneously salivate and shiver.

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    And tweet. Lord have mercy, do they ever.

    The deadline arrives at 4 p.m. Monday and, with all apologizes to science fans anxiously counting down to the solar eclipse three weeks from now, this is the world-altering, awe-inspiring Monday on the calendar. It is circled on the calendar of every GM – real, wannabe or armchair – from coast to coast.

    My Twitter feed in recent days has been fueled by almost every form of speculation possible, from the Braves acquiring a controllable ace that would vault Atlanta from the outside of the wild-card race squarely into the hunt for the World Series (or at least that’s the logic applied) to the queries of whether Player X could be dealt, even though Player X probably wouldn’t net more than a six-pack of Natty Light, a stale pretzel and a leftover ham sandwich.

    (My apologizes to ham sandwich lovers everywhere. Cheese and mayo on toasted bread, please).

    Look, here’s the truth of the matter: The Braves have lost seven of their past eight games. The latest in a series of hellish road trips that has dotted the schedule finally appears to have torpedoed any fleeting glimpse of contending in the season’s final two months. Even a .500 finish seems tentative at this point, but remember January and February and ask yourself if you’d be happy sitting at break-even on the evening of Oct. 1 (don’t lie; you’d be thrilled).

    It is a time of contrasting emotions. I get it. You love Brandon Phillips, the ATLien whose infectious smile and resurgent season has caused many of us to fall in love with the pride of Redan High. You are thrilled the Braves rescued Matt Adams from the end of the Cardinals’ bench when Freddie Freeman got hurt, and Adams responded by turning the right-field seats at SunTrust Park into his own driving range.

    But now that Freeman’s back and Johan Camargo has emerged with a breakout season – so much so, Dansby Swanson is clean shaven and manning shortstop for Gwinnett – you want to see Phillips and Adams moved. You want Freeman, who honesty compels me to say has looked better than expected at third base, back at his natural position. You want Swanson promoted and back at shortstop as soon as he can string a couple of hits together for the G-Braves (who will be the Buttons or Sweet Teas or heaven knows what next season).

    You want Ozzie Albies, who cannot legally buy alcohol but has raked Triple-A pitching, manning second base in the Northwest Atlanta suburbs and not the Northeast burbs. And with every at-bat he gets at Triple-A, 19-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna draws louder comparisons to Andruw Jones, whose 1996 season started in the low minors and ended with a World Series debut for the ages.

    Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the deadline

    Knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the non-waiver trade deadline

    I get it. I feel ya. There’s just one problem.

    There is precious little demand for Adams, who only can play first base and who has cooled off somewhat since his white-hot start. There is not a market for Phillips, a veteran who has played only nine postseason games in his 16-year career and is a free agent come October. Whatever market for closer Jim Johnson, he of the back-to-back 50-save seasons in 2012-13 but he with the eight blown saves in 2017 and the $5 million price tag for 2018, has evaporated quicker than the hottest of hot takes burning up social media.

    R.A. Dickey? He’s a 42-year-old knuckleballer with an $8 million team option for next season and, to be frank, likely should be given a chance to make the Braves’ roster in 2018 given the way he’s pitched the past two months. Nick Markakis, who mans the position we all expect Acuna to take come April (or September, or yesterday)? That’s $11 million for next season for a singles/doubles hitter with limited power.

    Much like that cute gal who led me onto the dance floor so many years ago, you need a partner who wants to dance. You can offer the grandest of all packages, but if the other side says no, there is no deal.

    So for all the folks with the patience of a gnat and the buildup of angst from a bad week of baseball, I say this: relax.

    Yes, 4 p.m. Monday will come and go, and the world will keep spinning. The Braves will be wrapping up their road trip when the deadline passes. No matter what does or does not happen, they will fly back to Atlanta Monday evening and hit the field for Tuesday’s game with the Dodgers.

    Maybe John Coppolella walks across the floor and takes somebody’s unsuspecting hand in the hours leading up to the deadline. You know, I know, we all know he’s trying, looking to uncover every possibility and explore every scenario. The feeling here says nothing major happens, that for Braves County the deadline will pass uneventfully.

    But at the same time, I had no idea I’d be on that dance floor so many years ago.

    —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.