• Arizona Diamondbacks

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The first full month of the season sits in the rear-view mirror, 31 games are in the books and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a position they did not reach at any one point during their glorious run to the 2018 NL East championship.

    Under .500.

    The Braves have befuddled many of us through the first five weeks of 2019, looking at times like a World Series contender and at other times like an also-ran – sometimes within an inning or two of each other – as they now begin their first extended road trip. A 10-day, 10-game, three-city journey begins Friday night in Miami, where old friend Jose Urena awaits his assured retribution for his gutless plunking of Ronald Acuna Jr. last season. From there, Atlanta flies west for three games against the pennant-winning Dodgers and four at Arizona, against the same Diamondbacks squad that swept a three-game series two weeks ago at SunTrust Park.

    Often, the first weeks of the season begin answering the questions we all have about a team throughout the offseason and spring training. In some respects, I think we can begin drawing early conclusions on some topics. For others, I have no better clue now than I did in late March, before attending 11 games in person and watching/listening to every pitch of the season to this point.

    Atlanta leaves town for a while, but questions remain. Such as …

    Is this team where you’d thought it would be at this point of the season?

    In a word, no. I didn’t expect the Braves to be below .500 through 19.1 percent of the season. Granted, they’re one game under. It’s not like their buried in the East. But I thought if there was a month early in the season that might challenge them, it would be the month we’re in now, and not the one that preceded it. That concerns me a bit, to be honest.

    What’s the most disappointing part of Atlanta’s start?

    Duh! It’s the pit of misery … eh, the bullpen. Look, many of us – myself included – thought the Braves needed to upgrade their relief corps and were disappointed Alex Anthopoulos could not secure at least one upgrade for the bullpen. But did I think that group would be this bad? No, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as they’ve shown.

    But they’re not great, either, and they’ve already cost the Braves games they can ill-afford to blow in a tightly contested division. A.J. Minter has shown rust and inconsistency after missing most of spring training. Darren O’Day remains missing in action. Jesse Biddle hit a funk you wouldn’t wish on anybody. Others have taken their turns struggling to throw strikes.

    There have been signs, albeit small ones, that a correction is coming. Minter looked good in Wednesday’s save. Jacob Webb earned a win and a save on back-to-back days. Josh Tomlin has become a revelation once he started getting work. And what else to say of Luke Jackson, who has gone from fanbase whipping post to downright lovable? Action Jackson is the most unexpected singular aspect of this season.

    Is what we’ve seen from Max Fried and Mike Soroka real?

    In my opinion, yes. That’s not to say Soroka will pitch to a sub-2 ERA all season and Fried will win 22 games and the Cy Young. But both young hurlers have filthy stuff, which we’ve seen in flashes.

    But now, we’re seeing it every fifth day. Fried isn’t getting yanked between the rotation, the bullpen, and Gwinnett. Soroka is healthy. Both are pitching with a ton of confidence, and guided by veteran catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers, each is showing the ability to trust their stuff, pound the strike zone, shake off the inevitable mistake, and keep on rolling.

    Fried reminds me so much of a young Steve Avery, it’s scary. Soroka has the poise and makeup of a young Tom Glavine. High praise, yes, but these two kids are good. Really good. Legit, rotation-anchoring good.

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

    A little bit, but only because he’s made just two big-league starts and we’re roughly 1/5th of the way through the season. Folty’s fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and today his slider was flat against San Diego. Coupled with some shaky defense (including a bad throw of his own doing), and it’s easy to see how today came off the rails.

    But he was locked in for much of his first start against Colorado. If Folty has five, six starts under his belt and he’s still sitting 94 mph, then I’d be more concerned. Hard to read too much into two starts, for a guy who won 13 games and made the All-Star team a season ago, then spent four weeks in Triple-A going through his spring training. Give it time and let him get into a rhythm.

    Is the offense better than you thought?

    Absolutely, and it’s not just because of Josh Donaldson (who is so much better defensively than I realized) or Freddie Freeman or Acuna, even though the superkid has struggled the past two weeks. It’s because Ozzie Albies has solidified himself at the top of the lineup – and credit Brian Snitker for recognizing the second baseman needed to hit leadoff regardless of that night’s starter – Nick Markakis has regained his early-2018 form, and the strides Dansby Swanson has made offensively.

    Add in the production out of the veteran catchers, and the Braves 1-through-7 in the order have been every bit as tough as any lineup in the game. There has to be a bit of regression somewhere, at some point, but even if Markakis and the catchers cool off their opening-month pace, this still is a very good offensive team that can help carry it through some bumpy nights pitching-wise.

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

    I’ve preached patience with Swanson since his struggles in 2017. Last year he was hindered (more so than we realized at the time) by a wrist injury. He’s healthy now, and he’s blistering line drives all over the field. His power has expanded, he’s hitting the ball just as hard to right-center as left-center, and he’s still playing outstanding defense.

    It’s 31 games, so let’s see it continue to play out. But I think it’s real. And if Swanson continues to hit like this – and you have to expect some of those liners right at folks are going to find grass at some point – you suddenly have an elite shortstop to add to the linchpins of this lineup. The Braves already have locked up Acuna and Albies. A continuation of this type of play for Swanson the rest of the season certainly makes his next-man-up to sign on the dotted line long term.

    There’s one hitter not mentioned yet … why does Ender keep getting playing time?

    Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he’s won three straight Gold Gloves in center field and he’s historically a poor offensive performer in April? There are plenty of people who have cried for Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to be promoted to the majors after their hot starts at Double-A Mississippi. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.

    Inciarte infuriates the fan base with grounders to second and swinging at the first pitch. He also collected 200 hits two seasons ago and does his best offensive work once school lets out. Some of the patience asked for with Swanson the past two years can be applied here. You have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Inciarte. You just have to … wait for it.

    If Ender still is struggling in six weeks, maybe you have a conversation. For now, the pseudo-platoon of putting Acuna in center and sitting Inciarte against some lefties is doable. Credit Snitker for putting Inciarte lower in the order, and we’ve started to see some signs of life with the bat and a few more balls hit to left and left-center.

    What else has stood out to you in the first five weeks?

    Sean Newcomb had to go back to Triple-A to try and find his rhythm, and he’s turned it around with back-to-back outings with zero walks. … Matt Joyce, signed late in camp, actually has been a nice asset off the bench from the left side. … I’ve been pleased that Snitker has given Johan Camargo starts all over the field, and the two hits today hopefully signifies he’s getting right at the plate. … Julio Teheran hasn’t been that bad, actually, but cannot afford outings like his doubleheader debacle in Cleveland. … The Gwinnett shuttle has worked out for the most part, although I remain befuddled and upset Bryse Wilson didn’t get a longer look in the major-league bullpen before being demoted last weekend. … I hope Wes Parsons gets back and continues to excel. … Charlie Culberson is my favorite position-player pitcher of all time, and his work off the bench – despite too few at-bats – has been impressive.

    What needs to happen this month?

    The other three contenders in the East have flaws just as damning as the Braves, so I don’t expect anybody to have an 18-8 month and pull away. Given Atlanta makes two separate trips to the coast, plays six games against St. Louis and three with Milwaukee, I wouldn’t be upset with .500. That means you don’t stub your toe against Miami or San Francisco, get some payback at Arizona, and hold your own against the Dodgers.

    That keeps you well within striking distance once June begins, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. I think teams falling out of the race are going to look to move guys earlier. The Giants already are listening on several bullpen pieces. Does the Corey Kluber injury shift the balance of power in the AL Central? Will Baltimore cave in on dealing Mychal Givens? And with the draft in early June, does that finally push somebody to sign Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel?

    Those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Braves have plenty of questions of their own as they fly toward South Beach, and the sprint to October ramps toward full speed.

    —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.

    Settling on Markakis cannot signal end of Braves moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s funny, if not downright ironic. Nick Markakis is the consummate professional, a man’s man who never shows emotion, speaks quietly to the media (when they can drag a quote out of him), and just goes out and does his job, for better or for worse. This is not the type of player who sparks divisive debate and impassioned argument among a fan base.

    But in the moments after the Atlanta Braves announced the 35-year-old right fielder would return on a one-year, $4-million deal for 2019, social media became lit, as the kids say. And there was no middle ground, with reaction falling into one of two camps:

    • Absolutely outstanding to bring back a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner who earned his first career All-Star berth.
    • Absolutely inexcusable to bring back a mid-30s outfielder who slashed .258/.332/.369 in the second half and went 1-for-12 in the NLDS.

    The stats in the second bullet were pulled from a notes file I compiled in looking back on 2018, a season that saw the Braves slam shut the rebuild and fling open the window to compete. In no way was Atlanta capable of a World Series run a season ago, but entering 2019, expectations have changed. Hence why, within that notes file buried on my hard drive, I typed the following in my Markakis section:

    “Expect him to be elsewhere in 2019.”

    Yeah, about that …

    I am among those who voiced my, shall we say, displeasure with what I feel on the surface is the Braves settling for the status quo one season later, in a division that is markedly better, with a team that cannot be satisfied with just a winning season in 2019. Markakis’ second-half swoon may be a by-product of fatigue from his insistence to play every single day – an approach that absolutely cannot be repeated – or it could be a signal of regression for a player who slashed .272/.350/.391 in his two seasons before 2018.

    And that’s not bad. Not at all. But it’s nowhere close to the .323/.389/.488 slash line Markakis put up through the first half of the season. In other words: the feeling that Markakis’ first four months were more of an anomaly than the norm isn’t just a stance to back up an opinion. It’s a fact.

    What’s also a fact is this team, like it or not, now is viewed through a different lens. Sorry folks, that what happens when you start winning. And if you’re going to have a mid-30s outfielder posting a season OPS+ of 97 (his average for 2016-17 before a 117 last season), you’re going to need big-time offensive performances from several other spots in the lineup to be a World Series contender.

    Yes, Ronald Acuna Jr. turned the baseball world upside down, Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate until a late-season slump, Ozzie Albies was an All-Star (he also struggled in the second half), and in Josh Donaldson, Atlanta has the potential to possess the MVP-caliber thumper this lineup needs to go with Freeman in the lineup. But Acuna enters his first full big-league season, Freeman turns 30 in September, Albies begins his second full major-league campaign, and Donaldson has battled injuries the past two seasons.

    In other words, right field felt like a natural place to chase an upgrade. And let it be known, the Braves chased. Michael Brantley wasn’t coming here because he wanted to play in Houston, with no state income tax and for a team that won 103 games last season and the World Series the autumn before. Atlanta was not going to pay Andrew McCutchen the stupid money Philadelphia did (rightly so). They like A.J. Pollock but not at the years/money for a talented yet oft-injured outfielder on the other side of 30. Carlos Gonzalez’s splits away from Denver scared them (again, rightly so). Adam Jones arguably is as big of a regression candidate as Markakis.

    Don’t like the Markakis signing and want to be mad about it? Direct your anger toward Phoenix and Seattle. Arizona tore down part of its core and yet, insists on not trading David Peralta as the Diamondbacks front office holds illusions of competing. Seattle has “reimagined” its roster but refuses to deal Mitch Haniger – understandable considering the club control of the rising star.

    On the surface, Atlanta realistically never could have been in on Bryce Harper, although I’ve said all winter he would be the absolute perfect fit in right field and the cleanup spot. The Braves, even if they were awash with a $200 million payroll, could not do a 10-year deal for anybody, not with the names hitting free agency after 2021 (Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz), 2022 (Dansby Swanson), 2023 (Albies, Sean Newcomb, Johan Camargo), 2024 (Acuna, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint), etc.

    A shorter deal with opt-outs and a high AAV always was the only realistic path, and there is no doubt in my mind Atlanta went there with Harper. Whether it was shot down immediately or considered somewhat seriously, who’s to say? Harper, of course, remains unsigned.

    Markakis truly is one of those guys you want on your team, but his presence should not preclude Atlanta from trying to bolster the offense as we approach spring training. Does that mean J.T. Realmuto and the never-ending soap opera with the dysfunctional Miami front office reaches its long-overdue finale? Does that mean another push for Peralta or Haniger? Or, using some reverse thinking here, does it mean Atlanta finally trades some of its prized prospects for a true ace (Corey Kluber)? With Markakis signed for a small price, do the Braves look to the reliever market (hey, aren’t you Craig Kimbrel)?

    There are positives in bringing back Markakis, of course. You know what you’re going to get. Hard work. Discipline. Leadership. No distractions.

    It would be folly to expect a full season of what Markakis provided in the first half of 2018. But let’s hope what we see this season is closer to that and not a continued downward trend toward the final three months of last season. Because at the end of the day, the answer to that question may turn out to be the biggest one in determining if October baseball awaits for a second consecutive season.

    There will be plenty of rightful second-guessing of Alex Anthopoulos for this signing if it doesn’t.

    —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 Head West with Sense of Urgency After Wednesday Meltdown

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are certain defeats each season that feel like the proverbial kick in the, well, you know where. Then there are the couple of losses that feel like you’re flying down one of those old 10-foot metal slides we had at my elementary school, and just as you reach maximum speed and just before you reach the bottom, there’s that one little jerk in every fourth-grade class who sticks out his fist at the absolute worst possible time.

    Fifteen minutes later, when you’ve been convinced that, yes, you are medically OK and no longer a danger to land in suspension for strangling the instigator, the heartrate drops, you look around and try to figure out just what in the heck happened.

    Welcome to Wednesday for the Atlanta Braves.

    It flowed swimmingly for seven blissful innings in the matinee finale of a disappointing eight-game homestand, the NL East leaders building a 7-1 lead on a Boston squad that looks like – outside of Houston – a hands-down World Series title contender, but on this day fielding a junior-varsity squad on getaway day for the bunch with baseball’s best record.

    And then it all fell apart, in spectacular, slow-motion train-wreck fashion. The Braves endured their cruelest defeat of the season, a parade of relievers spitting the bit constantly and the infield defense cracking yet again in a six-run eighth to level the score, only to see Freddie Freeman put the Braves ahead again, only to see former friend Brandon Phillips, making his Boston debut, hit one halfway to his home in Stone Mountain with two outs in the ninth.

    Got all of that? If not, pull up a barstool. There’s plenty of Braves Country already here tonight, deep into a drowning of sorrows that resembles anything but a happy hour.

    The game came unhinged in a number of moments, but go big picture here. That portrait was splendid for the first six innings, as Mike Foltynewicz continued pitching like an ace and limited the Boston sub-varsity to two hits and one run while his teammates smashed out of a recent offensive funk. Foltynewicz threw a scant 87 pitches through six frames, and conventional wisdom dictated with the starting pitcher and his mates on cruise control, in a game which the Braves needed to win to finish the homestand at .500, in advance of a seven-game road trip to two locales in Arizona and San Francisco where the Braves typically play like crap, you keep it in fifth gear and keep on trucking.

    Then Brian Snitker fumbled the shifter, missed the clutch and pulled arguably his most bonehead move of the season.

    Yes, I love Snit and root for him. Yes, I know the players love him. Yes, I criticize his in-game management at times. Yes, he only can fire the bullets that have been loaded into the guy by Alex Anthopoulos. But this was over-management at its highest, worst-timed level. It triggered a series of dominos that eventually led to the Braves losing a game no team ever should lose, regardless if Boston rolled out maybe the best bench in baseball history in the late innings as the game morphed from a getaway-day play-it-out-and-fly-home, to a stirring victory on the Red Sox’s march to 110 victories.

    In fairness to Snitker, the very talented writer from The Athletic Atlanta and the Marietta Daily-Journal, Nubjyas Wilborn, shared with us tonight that Foltynewicz noticed his velo had dipped in the sixth inning, plus he was feeling the impact of the bone-spur issue that has impacted him at times this season.

    Still, it could not have resulted in a worse outcome. How so? If the Braves miss the playoffs, Wednesday might cost Brian Snitker his job. And that would be a shame given the job he’s done in steering this ship from the wreckage of 90 losses to surprise contention in a scant 28 months.

    But winning in October – the destination for a franchise stripped to the foundation, at a time that may not be now but darn well will be by 2019 – comes down to those tactical decisions. When you are in first place in a tightly contested playoff race, you ride your horses deeper in September than you do in April or May. That’s why this is the worst loss of the season. Miss me with the Cubs wind-and-rain-palooza at Wrigley in April. That was April.

    This is September, pennant-race baseball. It only gets hotter from here, and now the Braves fly across the continent with the unenviable task of washing away the most bitter loss of recent vintage and set their sights on two teams against which Atlanta is 1-5 this season.

    Yeah, that painful feeling just came back in the pit of your stomach, didn’t it?

    Having to cover nine outs with a bullpen that’s struggled at times and has a multitude of arms at or approaching career highs in innings is different from covering six outs. Snitker loosened the lid of the jar and unleased the fury, but there also is responsibility for the folks who took the ball.

    Dan Winkler had surrendered three hits in his past nine appearances before beginning the eighth inning by giving up four hits in a row.

    Jonny Venters, he of the 3 ½ Tommy John surgeries, made his fourth appearance in seven days, giving up one hit and two runs. Both Venters and Brad Brach, who had allowed two hits total in his previous seven outings, each saw a pair of inherited runners score.

    While all this chaos was breaking loose on the mound, an Atlanta defense that is playing tighter as the calendar gets deeper into September reared its ugly-of-late head at the absolute worst moment. Johan Camargo bobbled a potential inning-ending double-play ball and then sailed the throw past fill-in first baseman Ryan Flaherty – remember, the Braves were up big, and Freeman did not start for the first time this season. Turning two there ends the inning with Atlanta ahead 7-5.

    In the previous 41 games leading into the homestand, the Braves allowed 11 total unearned runs. Care to guess how many Atlanta gifted to opponents during the eight games at SunTrust Park? Yep, you guessed it: 11.

    Freeman did his part to save the day, belting a dramatic homer in the eighth that put the Braves ahead by one. But all that did was set the stage for Phillips, the Atlanta-area native who endeared himself with fans during his brief stint with his hometown squad last season, so much so that he drew a nice round of applause before his first at-bat.

    His last at-bat deflated those left in the ballpark, save the thousands of Red Sox fans who infiltrated STP and The Battery throughout the series.

    It now remains to be seen how deflated Atlanta is moving forward. One thing about these Braves is they’ve proven resilient beyond their years at every crossroads this season. That’s a big reason why, for all the gore and angst of Wednesday, Atlanta will arrive in Phoenix leading the East with 22 games to go.

    But a cautionary tale, especially with seven games remaining against the Phillies in the season’s final 11 days. These are the types of defeats that have felled many a talented team amid the glow of a pennant race. A loss like this at this point in the calendar doesn’t just highlight a missed opportunity within a singular 24-hour window, but can pull a team into a tailspin that its players and fan base spend months, if not years, lamenting.

    Was Wednesday’s loss that bad? We’re about to find out.

    —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 Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It would’ve been folly back in spring to pinpoint the final Sunday of August in Miami and consider it a seminal moment, but in this 2018 Atlanta Braves season that toggles between fanciful and frightening, it makes perfect sense.

    Game No. 130 on the 162-game schedule found the Braves wrapping up a seven-game road trip against the National League East cellar-dwellers, having won 12-of-21 during a hellish 22-game-in-20-day stretch that some feared would exhaust the pixie dust that seemingly has been sprinkled on this team.

    And yet, there was plenty of dread entering the series finale after Atlanta scored exactly one run in its previous 22 innings, losing 1-0 and 3-1 contests to Miami as Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis – the veteran linchpins in the middle of the lineup – both fighting significant slumps at the same time. Not an optimal situation at this time of the year, especially considering the dynamic Ozzie Albies has been awful against right-handed pitching this month.

    But as the case has been with this team, it’s never nearly as bleak as it seems despite the constant roar on social media, a volume that surely will build as September dawns and the sprint to the finish begins.

    The Braves scored four times in the final four innings Sunday, earning a 4-0 victory that sends Atlanta into its first off day since Aug. 6 with a three-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. When the gauntlet of games every day (including two doubleheaders) commenced Aug. 7, the Braves sat 1 ½ games in arrears of the Phillies.

    Sunday concluded with the Braves owning a three-game advantage for the fifth consecutive day. No ground gained – Saturday marked an ample opportunity after the Phillies choked a five-run lead, but Atlanta only could scratch a Dansby Swanson solo homer – but overall it’s still a win for the Braves, considering five days have elapsed from the calendar and the Phillies remain at arm’s length.

    It’s a short arm, though, and seven of the final 10 games of the season loom against the lone challenger to the Braves (yes, you can administer last rites to the ghost of the Washington Nationals, who trail Atlanta by 8 ½ games and who dealt Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in waiver-wire deals this week that signified everybody’s favorite paper champion raising the white flag). It’s not the time for the offense to turn south, and the Braves averaged 2.5 runs per game on the road trip while hitting .226 as a team with nearly as many strikeouts (44) as hits (45) entering Sunday.

    But recall the old saying that pitching and defense wins championships. It applies here, as the Braves have been outstanding on the mound in recent days. Atlanta allowed six runs total in seven games on the swing, pitching to a 0.89 ERA as a staff with only nine extra-base hits allowed. Kevin Gausman, the Plan B after Pittsburgh overpaid grossly for Chris Archer at the trade deadline, owns a 1.69 ERA in five Atlanta starts after throwing five scoreless, one-hit innings Sunday to win his fourth consecutive decision.

    Gausman’s short outing Sunday can be attributed to being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, when the Braves were trying to break through offensively nursing a 1-0 lead. It came one night after Brian Snitker left Anibal Sanchez hit for himself with runners on and two outs in a scoreless game, a decision that bit the manager when Sanchez – who is hitless on the season – struck out, then allowed the eventual game-winning run before leaving with a hamstring injury.

    The Braves have been outstanding offensively for large stretches of the season, but in the past month the pitching staff – bolstered by the acquisition of Gausman and relievers Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, the steadying of Sean Newcomb and the sudden consistently good Julio Teheran – has given Atlanta a needed shot in the arm. That says nothing of the contribution by Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, who excelled in winning their major-league debuts during the 22-in-20 stretch. Coupled with stellar defense – Ronald Acuna made another web-gem worthy catch Sunday, one night after Swanson made an acrobatic field-and-throw from short left field – the Braves are in a great position entering the final 32 games.

    Now, it gets serious. A getaway day in Miami resulted in the perfect outcome for a team that desperately needs a day off, that only has two more the rest of the way. A surging Tampa Bay team, fresh off a sweep of Boston, arrives at SunTrust Park for two games starting Tuesday. The Cubs pop in for a makeup game, followed by three at home with the Pirates and then those aforementioned Red Sox for three games.

    That precedes a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco, two locales where the Braves historically do not play well. That carries us into the next off day Sept. 13. Sixteen games in 16 days, pretty close to the grind Atlanta just concluded.

    It would be nuts to suggest the Braves will gain 4 ½ games in the standings in that span, as they did during the stretch just ended. It is a brutal schedule, as the heat of the pennant race ratchets up to a temperature Braves Country has not experienced in half a decade. And once through that stretch, the final maddening sprint features series with the hottest team on the planet (St. Louis), the wounded but still dangerous corpse of the Nationals, and those seven head-to-head meetings with Philly (four in Atlanta; the final three games of the regular season on the road).

    Suffice to say, if the Braves pop champagne and don celebratory T-shirts, they will have earned it. On the final Sunday of August, they found a way to grind out a much-needed victory.

    They will need more of that in the final five weeks.

    —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.

    Can Emerging Braves Finish What They’ve Started?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When I covered sports on the Southeast Georgia coast, I would travel to Atlanta to cover events or see family. Upon departing, I always looked forward to reaching Macon and hitting Interstate 16.

    It’s one of the most desolate stretches of highway I’ve ever traveled. It’s long, it’s boring and there’s not much to grab your interest as you traverse from central Georgia to I-95 and the final leg home to the beach. I learned quickly to divide I-16 into thirds, so on the way home the mental objectives were to reach Dublin, reach Metter and then reach I-95.

    Exactly two-thirds of this baseball season now reside in the rear-view mirror, 108 games to be precise. We’ve made it to Metter, to use the exercise above. There are 54 games remaining, and by the time we steer the car off I-16 on Sept. 30, we will know if the Atlanta Braves will continue their 2018 joyride into the National League playoffs or pull into the garage.

    Suffice to say, if the Braves reach October, they will have earned it.

    Atlanta used Monday’s off day in Washington to refresh and refuel before beginning one of the most challenging schedules in recent memory. Twenty-two games in 20 days, starting with a doubleheader Tuesday against the Nationals (another double-dip looms Monday at home against Miami). Following an Aug. 27 off day, the Braves play 16 consecutive days through Sept. 12. An off day then is followed with 16 games in 17 days.

    That in and of itself provides a tremendous challenge for any team, let alone one experiencing a pennant race for the first time in a half-decade and with only two holdovers (Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran) from that 2013 division-winning squad. And that says nothing of the competition Atlanta will face between now and October.

    Consider: Thirty-eight of the Braves final 54 games come against teams that woke up Monday within five games of a playoff spot. Fifteen are against division leaders (four with Arizona, three with Boston, seven against Philadelphia – all coming in the final 10 games of the season – and a makeup game with the Cubs). That’s 70.3 percent of the remaining schedule against contenders, 27.8 percent of those contests against division leaders.

    That speaks in part to the parity in the NL, where 11 teams reside above .500 (including the Giants, who were 5 ½ back of the second wild-card spot the Braves occupy starting Monday; Atlanta faces three in San Francisco in September after playing four in Arizona, two locales where the Braves typically do not play well).

    We have not seen these Braves nosedive at any point this season, save a 5-13 stretch over the bulk of July that dropped Atlanta from 3 ½ games up in the East to 2 ½ back. To their credit, the Braves have responded by winning six of its next seven – albeit six of those games came against the Mets and Marlins – to slice one game off the Philadelphia advantage.

    But the margin for error shrinks as the days disappear from the calendar, in particular when the games come fast and furious and the competition is tough. It will be the stiffest test of all for a team that has raced past expectations and exceeded even the most optimistic hopes of spring. But now the rubber begins to hit the road in earnest, and these Baby Braves will be challenged like never before in 2018.

    How will they respond? Will the outstanding seasons of Freeman and Nick Markakis, the emergence of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, the impact of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, a revamped bullpen and a bolstered bench, be enough to carry the Braves to their first postseason berth since 2013? Can a rotation that at some point during the next few weeks will see the resurgent Anibal Sanchez, the young Max Fried, the maddeningly inconsistent Teheran, the spot-starting 20-year-old Kolby Allard (who acquitted himself well enough in his debut despite horrible pitching conditions), and perhaps the enigmatic Luiz Gohara and the promising Touki Toussaint, make starts in the pressure cooker of a pennant race hold up?

    If nothing else, there are key components of Atlanta’s future core that are going to get baptism by fire in the heat of a playoff push. That in and of itself is a win, regardless of how successful or how ugly the results may be. The Braves window has cracked open sooner than expected. There is a bonus opportunity here. There is a feeling to run with this house money and see if the Braves can trump the dealer and slide into the festivities of October, which considering where this franchise sat last October would be cause for immense celebration.

    But for every fairy-tale ending, there are countless others that careened off the road. The schedule is stacked with nary a breather to be found. This is where the pragmatic approach takes root. Logic may dictate at some point, there’s a 2-7 stretch coming that sends the Braves just far enough back to dash those October dreams. But even if that were to happen, did anybody expect these Braves to arrive a full week into August holding onto a playoff spot?

    Monday served as a breathing point, a last chance to pull off the exit at Metter, top off the gas tank, grab a cup of coffee and some snacks. Tuesday brings a doubleheader in the nation’s capital, the first step toward what the Braves and their victory-starved fans hope will result in a victory lap and a chance to race under the bright October lights.

    —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 DEADLINE: Anthopoulos must make the right move

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – And to think, just four months ago we all assumed this week would be about getting some type of return for Brandon McCarthy and Nick Markakis.

    Unless you’ve been hiding on another planet since March – and if you have, pull up a chair because you’re truly not gonna believe this – you realize the preconceived notion of the 2018 Atlanta Braves has transformed greatly thanks to the team winning 54 times in the season’s first 98 games. At least a year ahead of the expected opening of its contention window, Atlanta sits in a very enviable and yet difficult spot as the hours tick toward Tuesday’s trade deadline.

    We could spend the next 40 paragraphs discussing the craziness that has transpired with this franchise since last summer, when Atlanta’s midsummer moves included releasing Bartolo Colon and Eric O’Flaherty, and dealing Jaime Garcia and Anthony Recker to Minnesota for a little-known prospect named Huascar Ynoa (who incidentally today was promoted to High-A Florida and is considered by many as an intriguing pitching prospect).

    Imagine that, another young impact arm in the Braves system, a system that despite the sanctions imposed by Major League Baseball in the wake of Coppygate still bursts as the seams with talent that could make waves in the majors for years to come.

    “Could” is the key word, and therein lies the rub as general manager Alex Anthopoulos surveys the madness of a market that one person described to me today as quiet for now, but “would not surprise me if it becomes frantic in the next three-to-four days.”

    The Braves, among several other teams, deserve credit for that madness. The National League was to be a victory lap for the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers in 2018, with Arizona and Colorado and Milwaukee fighting for the two wild-card spots. Alas, the standings are chaos, with 10 teams sitting within five games of a playoff spot.

    Alas, the Nationals are not among them.

    How to sort through this unexpected landscape, especially with a team contending a year ahead of schedule and a fanbase starving for a postseason game and a system overflowing with players who could impact your future in a good way (or bad, if you deal the wrong ones)? This is when general managers make their money.

    I’m on record in this space in saying I don’t expect an earth-shaking move to come in the next seven days. It would not be prudent to deviate from a plan that has caused so much pain in order to chase a short-term gain – as sweet as October baseball would be – at the risk of negating what many expect to be a long-standing swing at championships extending into the next decade.

    Again, back to my conversation today. I was reminded of two names.

    “Stephen Strasburg.”

    “Matt Harvey.”

    Strasburg blitzed through the league in 2012 as a 23-year-old, winning 15 games with a 3.16 ERA, but was shut down after 159 1/3 innings to protect his arm. The Nationals did as the Nationals do, flopping in the NL Division Series. Six seasons later, Washington has won as many playoff series as you and I combined, and woke up today six games out of a playoff spot.

    Harvey led a young, talented Mets rotation to the 2015 NL pennant, then famously refused to yield to manager Terry Collins after eight innings of a must-win Game 5 of the World Series. He gave up a walk and a double leading off the ninth before being yanked, the Royals won in extra innings to capture the championship, and today the Mets are a dumpster fire while Harvey pitches every fifth day for Cincinnati.

    One, an organization decision based on belief opportunities would present themselves without fail for years to come. The other, a manager who was convinced to change his mind with good intentions and perhaps lost the only shot that franchise will have at the brass ring for years to come.

    Both are cautionary tales of counting on a future that may not arrive. And so, as the clock ticks toward the deadline, Anthopoulos and his charges won’t sleep much. That’s life in a major-league front office in the days before the deadline, but the challenges facing this Braves regime as July crawls to a close are equally unique, daunting and exciting.

    For his part, Anthopoulos is not shying away from the task at hand. On SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio Monday morning, he stated the Braves are able to make the moves they need to make, provided it’s right for the organization for 2018 and beyond. It’s comforting to know this front office won’t empty the farm system for one run at a ring, but at the same time one wonders just how far they should push.

    After all, the right move – not the biggest move, and not just for the biggest name, but the right move – could vault Atlanta alongside the Dodgers as NL favorites. There is a three-headed beast in the American League, four if the Brad Hand deal stabilizes Cleveland’s bullpen, so many think the Senior Circuit is playing for runner-up honors. But the fact is you can’t win the World Series until you get there, and the Braves are in the mix of NL teams who could find themselves getting the chance to win seven games (or eight, depending on if they are in the wild-card game) in October to reach the big stage.

    But at what cost? What will it take? And remember, for all the folks on Twitter begging the Braves to get “this guy” or “that guy” or “those guys,” it takes two to tango. Some of the proposed moves by basement GMs border on absurd. At the same time, Atlanta could offer the moon and sun in any one deal and still have a top-10 system. That’s the result of four years of misery and all the work that’s transpired to rebuild this once-proud franchise.

    Sorting out the varying possibilities and the potential impacts, good and bad, always are part of the recipe of July for front offices. For the one residing at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Atlanta’s northwest flank, figuring out the straightest path through the winding madness could yield an amplifying boost for the next three months while not negating the opportunity to contend for the foreseeable future.

    After today, I have backed off my earlier stance of the Braves not doing anything, for what it’s worth. Call it intuition, call it a feeling, call it a guess. But the closer we get to 4 p.m. ET on July 31, the more I think Anthopoulos and the Braves will strike.

    —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 Offensive Swoon Just a Blip or Something More?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was “Sandlot Day” at SunTrust Park on Saturday, complete with a postgame showing of the classic movie following the Braves loss to Arizona. And in the midst of that iconic 90s classic, a famous four-word phrase was uttered on two occasions when Scotty Smalls’ ignorance left his buddies in exasperated shock.

    But safe to assume, those weren’t the only two times on this muggy, cloudy July afternoon when that phrase left the lips of Braves fans as another Atlanta hitter trudged back to the first-base dugout, bat in hand. Eight losses in the past 10 games for a team that had yet to blink in a pennant race joined sooner than expected has everybody on the edge of frustration, and Atlanta’s maddening offensive slump has become a flashpoint for the (insert sarcasm font) always-composed, mild-mannered, slow-to-panic denizens of Braves Country.

    Consider:

    • In the past 10 games, the Braves are hitting .241 as a team with 33 runs scored – six of ’em coming in one inning Wednesday against Toronto – while striking out 100 times and leaving 76 runners on base.
    • The Braves have mustered a grand total of one run in dropping the first two games of this weekend set to Arizona, the type of team Atlanta would see should it reach the playoffs, collecting 11 hits while striking out 23 times.
    • Atlanta has belted two homers in its past eight games, after hitting 98 in its first 87 contests, and both of those came off Ozzie Albies’ bat three innings apart Wednesday.

    It isn’t hard to look at any successful team and find a 10-game stretch where the wheels come off one aspect of the game, be it offensive production or starting pitching or bullpen execution. But when it comes to these Braves, with so many young players performing at a high level for the first time, with older veterans who are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, it begs the question:

    Is this merely a bump in the road, or is it regression to the mean?

    I don’t have the answer, and none of us will know until the final tale of 2018 is told and we see how this week and a half impacted the final, finished product. But I do think there are elements of both in play here.

    This team looks like a squad that needs the All-Star break. Desperately. Like, last week.

    There are several areas offensively where the production consistently is falling short of what’s expected or what’s needed (or both). Each one puts more pressure on the guys who are hitting, and what I’ve noticed the past two weeks is – for the first time this season – the Braves pressing a bit. Baseball’s hard enough without trying to hit a five-run homer with nobody on base.

    Some counter by saying the Braves have faced good pitching during this rough stretch – and Zack Greinke was outstanding for Arizona on Saturday, no question – but one of the hallmarks of Atlanta’s early-season success was beating good pitchers (Sale, Scherzer, et al). Playing in May as a feel-good story is one thing. Playing in July with more eyes and, yes, more pressure on every at-bat, is different.

    I don’t believe this team is as bad offensively as it’s shown of late. Nor, do I think it’s sustainable or realistic to expect this team to lead the National League in batting average and homers and slugging percentage, as it did in barnstorming its way to 15 games above .500 at one point a couple of weeks ago.

    That’s not to say there isn’t offensive talent available here.

    Did Ender Inciarte forget how to hit? No. He brought a career .295/.341/.733 slash line into this season, but he’s not performing at all in the leadoff spot. He’s better than a .241 hitter, but at this moment in this season that’s what he is. It’s time to move him down in the lineup, remove some of the pressure of having to set the table and let him get back on track.

    Is Dansby Swanson a .302 hitter, as he was in 38 games at the end of 2016? Most likely not, but is he the .249 hitter he is now (and that’s after collecting two of Atlanta’s five hits Saturday)? Perhaps he is, but his defense and a .327 average from the seventh inning on this season make it easier to roll him out there every day.

    The above two gentlemen are the first names that fly off the lips and fingertips of a fanbase that spends far too much time in panic mode and far too few minutes enjoying this ongoing emergence from the rebuild. Yes, there will the pain as the scar tissue from four straight losing seasons and an embarrassing front-office scandal is broken through.

    And if you think that hurts, sunshine, just wait until the end of this month, or this offseason, when some of the prized prospect possessions this team has amassed are sent off to fix the holes some of you yell about from sunrise to bedtime.

    The key to making any team successful is putting the parts in the best place possible to contribute to the maximum level for the common good. In baseball, that means determining the right prospects to deal and the right ones to keep. It also means putting players in the best spot to succeed, foregoing personal preferences or comfort levels to amplify a positive impact on the sum of the parts.

    For baseball teams, that comes down to wins and losses. And that squarely sits on the manager’s shoulders. There are inputs from various sources, be it the mountains of data now available in every front office or the weathered eyes and gut of a 40-year baseball lifer. But at the end of the day, I wonder (and in a way, fear) that some of the stubbornness we’ve seen from Brian Snitker these past few weeks will cost him a chance to run this show next spring.

    The players love Snitker, and there is something to be said for that. At the same time, there are instances – be it overreliance on Sam Freeman as the first lefty out of the bullpen or leaving Inciarte at the top of the batting order – that certainly must give Alex Anthopoulos pause. The new Braves general manager has no tethers to Snitker or your favorite prospect.

    Prepare yourself accordingly.

    Anthopoulos spent part of his Saturday entertaining questions from season-ticket holders, with many of the queries focused on the July 31 trade deadline. Every inquiry certainly was reinforced by the pain of a magical season suddenly feeling as if it’s souring by the day (news flash: it’s not, for if nothing else the rest of the NL East is every bit afflicted with its own warts and flaws).

    There will be plenty of work done over the four-day All-Star break this week regarding the rest of 2018 and setting the table for 2019. The players need to be as far away from baseball as possible (save the four Atlanta All-Stars who head to D.C. on Sunday), but for this front office and coaching staff, there will be a lot to discuss before the “second half” begins Friday in Washington.

    There are sensible moves the Braves can make at the deadline that won’t gut the farm system (granted, it would take a lot to gut a system more stocked than a hoarder’s supply of canned goods). It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds for Atlanta over the next two-plus weeks. Some of that groundwork gets laid this week, while the sport pauses to celebrate its best and brightest, while most of the Braves hopefully hit the refresh and relax buttons.

    And no, I’m not expecting Manny Machado to have a tomahawk on their jersey come Aug. 1. The bullpen needs an upgrade (or two, to be honest). It doesn’t take the biggest name. It takes the right player in the right position at the right time.

    So, put away those dream proposals floating all over social media. Atlanta is no more likely to meet Baltimore’s asking price for eight weeks of Machado than the Mets are likely to deal Jacob deGrom – in division – for a haul of Atlanta prospects – again, in division.

    In other words: “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”

    —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.

    SEASON PREVIEW: Can Acuna, speed and defense carry Braves to .500?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Hope springs eternal, so goes the old saying, but in the cruel reality of Major League Baseball, that optimism runs dry for all but a few select squads.

    While it is true everybody plays to be the last one standing in early November and to bring home that golden trophy with the 30 pennants, truth serum served in 162 doses wears away the shine of spring dreams for most.

    So, when will that moment arrive for the Atlanta Braves, who are not ready to crash the postseason party but figure to be at least more intriguing this year than the last three (90-loss) seasons?

    Maybe deeper into summer than you think.

    Maybe.

    The Braves open the season at home on Thursday, hosting the Phillies at 4:10pm

    The Atlanta Braves open the 2018 season at home on Thursday, hosting the Philadelphia Phillies at 4:10pm

    Once in my young days as a sports writer, I wrote in a game story about an error a high school player made. My wise, older editor pointed out the error was inconsequential to the game’s outcome, and thus there was no need to call out the young gentleman in such a way. “Remember Bud, you played this sport,” said the sage editor, who loved this sport as deeply as myself. “It’s a hard game.”

    Indeed, it is. Coaching my 13- and 14-year old team last spring and summer did not allow me to provide any, “I remember when I was your age” moments. My career in uniform ended before then, when pitches started bending off a straight plane and when the speed, skill, athleticism and mental toughness to play at a high level surpassed any level this wannabe athlete growing up in the Atlanta suburbs could attain.

    I digress back to the present, as the Braves tick down the final days before Julio Teheran’s first pitch crosses home plate at SunTrust Park around 4:10 p.m. ET on Thursday. It will mark Atlanta’s second season inside its shiny new home, and most expect more wins than last year’s total of 72.

    Certainly, I feel this team will win more games. Last year’s Braves held things together through a remarkable first 90 games – walking out of SunTrust Park following a post-All-Star Game sweep of Arizona at 45 up and 45 down. Then the bottom dropped out as an overexposed bullpen and a shaky back end of the rotation ran out of pixie dust in the final 72 games.

    There is reason to be hopeful of improvement in both areas, especially behind the gate in right-center field. Atlanta has assembled a core of young arms that exemplify the flavor of the game right now: hard throwers coming in waves to dominate the late innings. Whether A.J. Minter is ready to close, whether Daniel Winkler is ready for 55 appearances, whether Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez can avoid control issues, and whether the outlier, the sage old sidearming Aussie Peter Moylan, can spot his sinker effectively, will go a long way to solidifying the final innings of games in Atlanta’s favor.

    The Braves figure to need it, with a rotation that is more stable in some respects but at the same time possessing just as many question marks and stopgaps as a season ago. Gone are the ageless (and miserably ineffective) Bartolo Colon, the underwhelming Jaime Garcia, and R.A. Dickey, whose knuckleball fluttered and floated enough for another solid season. Replacing them is the witty veteran Brandon McCarthy, the promise of Sean Newcomb and a gaping hole in the fifth spot with the powerful and, eh, robust, Luiz Gohara sidelined with an injury for at last the first month.

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    The Braves bullpen stands to benefit from a full season of a healthy (LHP) A.J. Minter

    Slotting in at the top are two arms new general manager Alex Anthopoulos undoubtedly will watch closely in the season’s opening months. Teheran, whose struggles last season at home were much maligned, fashioned an outstanding spring and showed renewed confidence in his slider. Mike Foltynewicz, who for two months in the middle of last season looked like an emerging ace but at times continued to let his surroundings get the best of him, simplified his delivery over the winter and produced a stellar spring himself.

    An effective Teheran and Foltynewicz (the later perhaps grounded by the arrival of his first child shortly before camp began), teamed with a healthy McCarthy and the version of Newcomb who cut down on his walks in spring action, forms a solid four-man rotation. But again, there are questions, the type which cannot be answered until the team comes north and the lights kick on.

    Pitching is the key to this massive rebuild, and as we know, pitching develops later than hitting. But in some of the younger arms who acquitted themselves well during February and March – most notably Kyle Wright and an ace-in-the-making in Mike Soroka – Atlanta is awash in potential franchise-altering talent on the mound. It’s not here yet in full, but those two could be big-league-ready by late summer.

    Everybody knows the Braves are not going to lead the league in homers. The power deficit is notable, with Freddie Freeman and his healed wrist having little protection in the opening day lineup. That figures to change somewhat when 20-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna ascends to the majors for keeps once mid-April arrives, the outfielder dazzling even long-time observers with dominance of Grapefruit League action and five tools that could result in superstardom. Unlike the fickle nature of pitching, Acuna’s skillset, as 20-year-olds go, looks as close to a sure bet as possible for a guy who legally cannot buy a beer in one of The Battery’s sprawling watering holes.

    Acuna’s debut season – which will be chronicled unlike arguably any rookie in franchise history – is one of three reasons why this correspondent is somewhat bullish on this team’s chances. The impact of Acuna in another area is another optimistic point. In Acuna, the exciting Ozzie Albies at second base and the emerging steady star of Ender Inciarte in center field, Atlanta suddenly has three players capable of stealing 20-plus bases. A franchise long committed to station-to-station, wait-for-the-blast baseball, it will be fascinating to watch the employment of analytics brought by Anthopoulos and the impact of Eric Young Sr. – one of baseball’s better basestealers of the past 30 years – on the Braves’ offense.

    The third aspect plays toward thepitching, but is not centered on the mound. Rather, take a lookaround the diamond. Atlanta is light years better defensively than it was this time last year. It is fair to question whether Johan Camargo can hit consistently at the major-league level, but his arm and range dictate he plays third every day upon returning from an oblique injury. Gone from left field is Matt Kemp, whose anchor of a contract was outweighed only by his defensive liabilities. Acuna will slot there after the first couple of weeks, and he legitimately could be a Gold Glove candidate, while the guy next to him in center chases his third consecutive Gold Glove award.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna will begin the season at triple-A with call-up likely in mid-April

    Brandon Phillips played well at second base in 2017 but Albies, with his range and instincts, is a defensive star on the rise. Having him for a full season, plus having Freeman – who missed a quarter of last season with the wrist injury and actually impressed during the creative impulse that led him to play third base for a while upon his return – anchoring first base 155 games vastly improves the right side of the infield.

    Is Acuna, plus the speed in the lineup, plus the improved defense, worth an extra 1.5 wins per month? I think it is. That would be nine more wins than a season ago, which would put the Braves all even at the end of the season, 81-81. A .500 record would be welcomed in these parts, and yet, it feels like there are enough question marks where maybe that’s just a bit ambitious.

    If you gaze at the ceiling, you also must recognize the floor. Teheran hangs too many sliders to lefties at home, Foltynewicz struggles to channel his emotions, Newcomb can’t hit the corners and the bullpen is a mish-mash of guys moving in and out of roles due to inconsistency. Acuna struggles for long stretches as most mortal rookies will, teams pitch around Freeman, Albies hits a sophomore slump, Dansby Swanson does not recover from his, and a couple of key injuries mix in to send this team to a 74-win campaign.

    Best-case scenario is the bullpen arms settle into their roles, Vizcaino and Ramirez and Minter forming a dynamite trio for the final six-to-nine outs, Teheran and Foltynewicz bring their spring performances north and have consistent seasons, Newcomb’s control continues improving as he makes 27 starts, and Atlanta is a nightmare for opponents on the bases. Freeman puts forth a season worthy of MVP consideration – he was well on his way before being hit with a pitch last May – Acuna wins rookie of the year and the Braves play meaningful baseball into the final two weeks before settling with 85 wins.

    I think as often is the case, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. Mixing in elements from both scenarios (I personally don’t expect Acuna to hit .220, but him hitting .300 may not be realistic, as an example), I see this Braves team winning 80 games for the first time since winning the NL East in 2013. And while an 80-82 season will not put the Braves into this October, it would represent the right type of progress as Atlanta heads into a winter where it will be awash with cash for the blockbuster free-agent class of the coming offseason and, with it, the ability to extend its season far beyond the end of September come next autumn.

    —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.

    Philadelphia

    Braves swept by M’s, meet D-backs in desert

    Hot off a sweep of the Tigers and a makeup game with the Yankees, the Mariners flew into Atlanta and swept the Braves in the 2-game interleague set. Seattle improved to 24-15 record since April 22nd. The Braves did their best to keep pace with the M’s on both sides of the ball. The difference in the series came down to runs allowed by the Braves’ ‘pen in game 1 and no run support for Mike Minor’s brilliant effort in game 2.

    As was a concern coming into the series, the Braves’ ‘pen seems to be on a bit of a slide of late, allowing runs rather than coming in and shutting down the opponent’s offense. The Mariners’ ‘pen was the opposite, now having gone 13 innings without allowing a run. One reason that might have contributed to the 2 runs given up by Alex Wood in relief of Gavin Floyd is that he had been up getting warm twice prior to actually being called on in the ‘pen. Wood has yet to truly fall into a rhythm of any kind as a reliever. Like Wood, David Hale is in an unusual situation given that he is supposedly the long man and hasn’t been called into high-pressure situations like other relievers. What the roles of Wood and Hale will be going forward is uncertain. What is certain is that Jordan Walden is nearing his return to the club. Walden, who was sent to the DL with a hamstring strain, is currently making rehab starts with Triple-A Gwinnett. We could see him in the upcoming series in Arizona.

    Because the Braves never made it into a save situation, Craig Kimbrel remains at 154 career saves and will likely earn his next save on the road. His 155th save will make him the sole record holder in franchise saves. He currently shares the top spot with John Smoltz.

    Mike Minor lead the category of things that went incredibly well for the Braves over the 2-game set. Minor went 7 innings of 1-run baseball, giving up 6 hits and striking out 10th strikeout a season-high 10 batters. It was the third double-digit strikeout of his career and his first since May of last season against the Mets. Unfortunately, Minor was bested by Iwakuma who threw 8 innings of shutout ball, striking out 7 before handing over the game to closer Fernando Rodney for the save.

    The first game of the set is much less easy to explain. While the Braves got to starter Erasmo Ramirez early, chasing him after he pitched 4 innings, the M’s bullpen was lights out and the Braves ‘pen faltered. Gavin Floyd once again missed securing his first win in a Braves uniform. He went 5 innings, game up 3 earned runs and now holds a 2.80 ERA. Floyd, for his part, has been great for the Braves. He simply seems to be the hard luck pitcher of the season for the Braves. We’ll see Floyd again in the Arizona series and hopefully he can secure that elusive first win then.

    BRAVES MEET DIAMONDBACKS IN THE DESERT…

    Entering the series in Arizona, the Braves are 31-27 and tied with the surprising Miami Marlins for first place in the National League East. The Diamondbacks who struggled mightily in the first two months of the season have won 3 games straight to improve to 26-36, still last in the National League West.

    The Braves will take the hot-hitting Justin Upton to the desert where he once played to face off the team with the newly minted Martin Prado bobblehead. Justin is hitting .294 on the season with 12 doubles, a triple, 13 homers and 33 RBIs. Thus far he is living up to his billing when he joined the Braves. The position player that headlined the trade for Upton, Martin Prado, got off to a slow start this season but has improved to a .275 batting average with 10 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers and 26 RBIs. Prado has really kicked it into gear for the D-Backs in the last 18 games, going 22-for-63 (.349) with both of his homers coming over that period. While Prado and Upton were never meant to be a bat-for-bat trade, both are turning out to be what each team hoped they’d get when the trade was made.

    Another key piece of the Upton trade, Randall Delgado, fell out of favor and was demoted to the bullpen. He has an 0-1 record with a 7.24 ERA in 27 1/3 innings this season. The oft-called “throw in” piece of the Upton trade was Chris Johnson. After a season that marked career highs in multiple categories and nearly a batting title, Johnson has struggled this season. He has seemed lost at the plate in recent weeks. Johnson is 14-for-70 (.200) with 1 homer, 20 strikeouts, 0 walks and a disappointing .197 OBP over the last 18 games. As is always the case with a lineup, it ebbs and flows. Luckily for the Braves, Johnson’s struggles have been mostly covered up by the resurgence of Jason Heyward and the on-base percentage of B.J. Upton.

    Jason Heyward continues his streak of being Atlanta’s hottest hitter. J-Hey has a .330 (29-for-88) average with 3 homers, 9 RBIs and a .404 on-base percentage in his past 22 games. He and B.J. Upton are getting on base, the problem seems to fall with inconsistent contact rates among the 3 through 6 hole hitters. An additional improvement with Heyward and Upton is speed. They have each stolen 9 bases this season. Keeping their running game hot will help the Braves keep atop the standings.

    The Braves will send Teheran (5-3, 1.83) to the mound against McCarthy (1-7, 5.20) in the series opener. Santana (5-2, 4.10) will take the bump against Miley (3-6, 4.85) on Saturday. And pitted against one another in the series finale will be Harang (4-4, 3.24) and Anderson (4-0, 3.32).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

    Braves cap alumni weekend with sweep, welcome Marlins

    Hudson continued to struggle in his Saturday start at Turner Field. He walked away with a no-decision.

    Hudson continued to struggle in his Saturday start at Turner Field. He walked away with a no-decision.

    With alumni weekend closing and the remnants of the number retirement ceremony for Chipper Jones still on the field, the Atlanta Braves finished Sunday with a sweep of the first place Arizona Diamondbacks.

    It was a brilliant weekend for the offense and for young Julio Teheran. However, there were some who did not fair as well this weekend, the most significant being Tim Hudson. Huddy’s frustration continues as he once again walked away without a win Saturday, despite being at home where he has pitched much better in 2013 than he has on the road. Hudson’s frustration was on full display after the game when he ranted to the media about Fredi Gonzalez pulling him. For a change, the Braves gave the veteran run support, something that has been severely lacking in Huddy’s starts this year. He was given a 2-run lead twice by his offense and surrendered that lead in the next half inning both times. Prior to Saturday’s game, Hudson had been given a total of 3 runs of support in his 5 June starts.

    The offensive struggles of Jason Heyward in April and June seem to have taken a backseat in the month of June. His hot hitting continued this weekend. J-Hey is a whopping 32-for-101 (.317) with 8 doubles, 4 homers, a .378 on-base percentage and is slugging .515 slugging in his past 25 games. These games come after he missed time for an emergency appendectomy. Without the early struggles of Heyward, though he did have a stint on the DL, Freddie Freeman continues to be Atlanta’s most consistent hitter. His 3-run jack in the final game against Arizona was essential to Paul Maholm’s game. In his last 43 games, Freddie Freman is hitting .327 (53-for-162) with 7 homers and 34 RBIs. Freddie has 18 multi-hit games in those 43 games. He leads the club in RBIs.

    Line scores from this weekend’s games:

    Game 1:

    W: Teheran (6-4) L: Delgado (0-2) SV: Kimbrel (23)

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Arizona 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0
    Atlanta 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 x 3 11 0

    Game 2:

    W: Walden (3-1) L: Hernandez (4-5)

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Arizona 0 0 0 2 0 2 0 1 0 5 10 1
    Atlanta 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 7 x 11 11 0

    Game 3:

    W: Maholm (9-6) L: Cahill (3-10)

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Arizona 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 8 1
    Atlanta 0 1 3 0 2 0 0 0 x 6 10 0

    BRAVES WELCOME MIAMI MARLINS…

    With the Marlins coming into town, the standings in the National League East remain with the Braves on top of the Nationals with a 6 1/2 game lead. Miami is the cellar-dweller in the NL East. Philadelphia and the Mets trail the Nationals in that order.

    An update on injuries: Evan Gattis has not resumed baseball activity after straining his oblique. Despite the date of injury being pushed back to make his eligibility to return earlier, it appears unlikely that he will be ready to return after his 15 days on the DL and may just then be starting a rehab assignment. The Braves announced that Ramiro Pena has undergone season-ending shoulder surgery. Fredi Gonzalez says that he hopes to get Pena back by Spring Training. Brandon Beachy has resumed throwing his bullpen sessions and will do so again on Monday. Whether he experiences any pain will determine when he will begin another rehab assignment. Beachy was on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Gwinnett when fluid on his recently repaired pitching elbow was found. Beachy was leading the league in ERA before the all star break last season before blowing his elbow out and requiring Tommy John surgery. Jordan Schafer still has some fluid and swelling on the ankle that could the brunt of a foul ball while Schafer was at the plate near the end of the week. He and the Braves hope he will be available for Tuesday’s game. Reliever Luis Ayala is nearing the end of his rehab assignment and could bolster the bullpen in the coming week. With the question of where Beachy fits into the rotation, who the odd man out is upon Beachy’s return, and the rehabilitation of Ayala and Cristhian Martinez, it would still appear the Braves will be looking before the trade deadline for another reliever.

    A team that won’t be buying at the trade deadline is the Miami Marlins. As the Marlins roll into Atlanta, there are few things going well for the Marlins. The Marlins have only said they will not be selling Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins should be without Matt Diaz, Chris Coghlan and Casey Kotchman for the series. They have spoken about wanting to trade pitcher Ricky Nolasco. The Marlins are currently 18 games back in the division, the furthest out in their division of any team in either league including the Houston Astros. The Marlins have 28 wins, the least for any MLB team.

    The 3-game set against the visiting Marlins will begin with Koehler (1-5, 4.78) vs. Medlen (5-7, 3.02) on Tuesday. The second game of the series will presumably feature Nolasco (4-8, 3.93) vs. Minor (8-3, 2.98). And the series finale will feature Turner (2-0, 1.76) vs. Teheran (6-4, 3.12). There is certainly the possibility that Nolasco has thrown his last game for the Marlins and the probables are subject to change.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter@framethepitch.