• Austin Riley

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    It’s Opening Day! The Window is Open and The Time is Now

    Play Ball!: The Atlanta Braves open the 2021 season Thursday at Philadelphia, kicking off a campaign the Braves hope will end with the franchise’s first World Series title since 1995.

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I close my eyes, and I can feel the chill of that circular ballpark on that last Saturday night in October. I can hear the swell of anticipation in 51,000 voices, nervous and frantic and frightened simultaneously. I can see Marquis Grissom gliding to his right, a baseball off Carlos Baerga’s bat tumbling toward his glove, a season in its final breathless moment and a dream becoming reality.

    Winning the World Series. It’s the ultimate moment. Nothing beats it. Nothing tops it. Nothing compares to it. And you can hope and dream and envision and imagine what it is like, but nothing compares to that moment when it happens.

    It’s been 9,286 days since I sat in the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, a 1-0 victory on Oct. 28, 1995. Not a day has passed since when I haven’t thought about the next title, the next celebration, the next parade, the next moment this franchise will stand again in the hall of champions.

    The Glory Never Fades: The newspapers may be yellowed from time, but the feeling of winning the World Series never goes away.

    The Braves of 2021 arrive at Thursday’s first pitch in Philadelphia carrying the pain of falling five victories shy last season of becoming the fourth team in franchise history to win the World Series. That 3-1 lead in the NLCS to Los Angeles stings, a lesson learned in painful fashion, but oftentimes an apprenticeship of sorts must be served before the grandest reward is realized.

    Entering the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos had two absolute, must-dos on his list: improve the starting rotation, and re-sign Marcell Ozuna. Teams this close to a championship can’t play the “hope some of the kids figure it out” card, and teams certainly can’t let a guy like Ozuna – the perfect fit behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman in the lineup and in the clubhouse – get away.

    Back in the Mix: Marcell Ozuna flirted with the Triple Crown in 2020, and returns to the Braves on a four-year deal.

    To Anthopoulos’ credit, he accomplished both. Drew Smyly is a curious gamble that could pay big dividends at the back end of the rotation. Charlie Morton made sense on every level – his postseason pedigree the biggest lure of all. They join ace-in-the-making Max Fried, ace-on-the-mend Mike Soroka, and the wunderkid Ian Anderson – one of the young arms who at 22 years old appears to have figured it out – to form one of baseball’s best starting quintets.

    Ozuna contended for the Triple Crown in his first season with Atlanta, making more than enough of a case for the Braves to swallow hard while he plays left field in 2021 (he’s not looked bad in camp; with that said, hurry back, designated hitter). With Ozuna mixing it up and back in the fold, the top six in Brian Snitker’s batting order is as good as any in the sport. Certainly, there figures to be some regression from the output across a 60-game season, and while Atlanta won’t have to average 5.8 runs per game to win 90-plus games, this offense will generate plenty of support. Given the bolstered rotation – further boosted by Soroka’s possible return from a torn Achilles by the end of April – the Braves look every bit like a World Series championship contender.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. showed up at camp looking leaner than a season ago, when a wrist injury hampered his otherwise otherworldly skill set. Acuna looks like he’s on the verge of a breakout season, a laughable statement considering he hit 41 homers with 37 steals in 2019. He’s one of the sport’s brightest stars at 23 years old, a generational talent who figures to push heavily for his first MVP award in 2021.

    He’ll try to wrestle that trophy away from Freddie Freeman, the lifelong Brave who finally is getting his flowers nationally following a spectacular 2020. One of the great joys of last season was seeing the laurels cast upon the face of the Braves (sorry, Johan Camargo), the one pillar who endured through the rebuild. Freeman shined in the NLCS and looks poised to have another fantastic year, and the Braves will need it.

    Chasing the Ring: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman comes into 2021 after winning the NL MVP award, and takes aim at the one thing missing from his resume: a World Series title.

    There are a few chinks in all this shiny armor, and they provide enough reason to at least pause. Can Austin Riley find his footing offensively? It’s the biggest X-factor for me entering the season, and it’s the one place where I could see the Braves pivoting by the trade deadline. Can the bullpen overcome the losses of three veteran right-handers? I’m pretty bullish here. Will Smith looks like the Will Smith we saw slamming the door for the Giants in 2018-19, and all Chris Martin does is throw strikes. Can A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek come close to their stellar – and surprising – 60-game campaigns of last season? Jacob Webb will play a big role, after starting the season at the alternate site because he has options.

    Webb has been brilliant the past two seasons, but health has been an issue. Health indeed is critical for this team; it is for every team, but it’s amplified for the Braves because of a bench that looks underwhelming at the moment, to put it nicely. It may seem a small quibble for a team so good, but the difference between winning a World Series and losing the first week of October is razor thin. The bench will evolve; it always does. But the thought of Pablo Sandoval or Ehire Adrianza (both who earned their roster spots with amazing springs) playing every day due to a significant injury is not pleasant.

    They say strength up the middle of the diamond is foundational to building a good team. For the brilliance of Acuna and the steadiness of Freeman and the potential of Riley, I keep coming back to that saying. Travis d’Arnaud was amazing in the shortened season, the catcher arguably becoming one of the steals of the previous free-agent market. Cristian Pache and his jaw-dropping defense take over in center field. He doesn’t have to hit for this team to win, albeit his at-bats in the NLCS were impressive. He will win games with an elite glove and a cannon of an arm, helping offset some of Ozuna’s limited defensive capabilities in left.

    Ready, Aim, Fire: Cristian Pache and his outstanding defensive skills take over in center field.

    Up the middle, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson begin their fourth full season together. Albies was banged up for the first two months of 2020, missing 31 games, but hit .338 with a .953 OPS upon returning in September and shined in the NLCS, batting .333 with two homers and five runs scored. Swanson enjoyed his best full season, posting a .274/.345/.464 slash line (all career highs, along with a career-best .809 OPS). The kid from Marietta finally was healthy, playing in all 60 games and leading the NL with 237 at-bats.

    Roll it all together, and you’ve got something. I’ve watched this franchise for more than 40 years. It means I’m old. It also means these aging blue eyes have seen a lot of Braves squads, good and bad, roll out of spring training. This is one of the best ones on my watch, and while there’s nits to pick, this team is good.

    Dang good.

    Good enough to win the World Series?

    In my opinion, absolutely.

    Getting out of the National League won’t be easy, even for a team as talented as the Braves. The Dodgers have seemingly unlimited resources and are baseball’s best squad. The Padres were the most active team this winter. The NL East has been billed as baseball’s best division, and it will be as tough as advertised.

    The Marlins aren’t that far away and would be a .500 team if they were in three of the other five divisions. Is this the year the Phillies put it together, with a bullpen that has to be better and a lineup featuring Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto? Philadelphia will find a way to stumble at some point, landing around .500 or a shade above.

    The other three teams will jockey for first place all summer. Washington’s hopes hinge on if Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg stay healthy. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber join a lineup that includes the tremendous Juan Soto and the pesky (meant as a compliment) Trea Turner.

    The Mets made noise throughout the offseason, landing the brilliant Francisco Lindor and bolstering a bullpen that, if healthy, is going to be really good. Jacob deGrom is baseball’s best pitcher, but can that rotation survive a first half without Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco? And then there’s the “Mets” factor. They always seem to find a way to turn wine into water.

    Make no mistake: the Mets should be really, really good. But it won’t be enough to overtake the Braves. Not this year. In what will be a thrilling race not decided until the final week of the season, Atlanta captures its fourth consecutive division crown with 93 wins, four ahead of New York and six clear of the Nationals.

    As difficult as it will be, the East is just the appetizer. The main event comes in October. Yes, getting there is a big part of the battle, and the Braves will get that done. From there, it will be quite the gauntlet, especially considering the two behemoths out West. And the playoffs are the ultimate roll of the dice, a short sprint based on matchups and health and luck and weird bounces as much as sheer talent. That’s what makes winning the World Series – that glorious moment now more than 25 years ago – so difficult.

    But for the Braves of 2021, that’s the solitary objective:

    Win the World Series.

    For this team, this season, winning the ring is the only thing.

    —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.

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 3 and 4

    There are plenty of ingredients needed to create a championship team. Some are well known. Others lurk under the surface. All have to come together if a team wants to win its final game of the season, and stand forever in the hall of champions.

    The Atlanta Braves fell five victories shy of the summit in 2020, a season unlike any other amid the challenges of playing during a global pandemic. With a greater sense of normalcy looming as the 2021 campaign kicks off, Braves Country turns its focus to a team looking to do something only three teams in franchise history have accomplished – and not since the 1995 Braves brought Atlanta its first major pro sports title.

    This is my look at some of the critical pieces of Atlanta’s championship hopes. Yes, it takes good baseball and good health and certainly a dash or two of good luck. But for the Braves to win the World Series, these guys have to play a prominent role.

    – Bud L. Ellis, Braves Wire

    Part 3: The Question

    The Name: Austin Riley, 3B

    The Objective: Establish himself as a viable offensive option, avoiding the wild swings from his first two seasons that alternated between unconscious and unplayable.

    The Story: He has the boyish smile, the Southern drawl, the broad shoulders and the ability to hit a baseball a country mile while flashing an underrated glove. He also has stretches of offensive futility that are so rough, no matter how much you want to see him succeed – and for my money, Austin Riley may be the easiest guy to root for on the Atlanta Braves – you have to bench him.

    Here is the intersection of promising young player trying to figure it out and baseball franchise with a realistic shot to win its first World Series in 26 years. Riley stands in the middle, and there is no way to determine with certainty which way this will go.

    On one hand, there is the optimism of seeing Riley look better against offspeed pitching last season – the pitches that overwhelmed him after he destroyed opposing pitchers in the early weeks of his 2019 debut. His strikeout rate dropped from 36.8 percent as a rookie to 23.9 percent a season ago. On the other hand, his ground-ball rate rose from 26.2 percent in 2019 to 41.7 percent, while his hard-hit percentage dipped to 33.6 percent from 42.3 percent.

    Those are a lot of numbers to say this: we don’t know what Riley is as a hitter. It’s asinine to deliver definitive pronouncement on a player who has 462 career big-league at-bats and doesn’t turn 24 years old until the day after the season opener. And while the sage GMs on social media want to pass their final judgement – or demand a trade, most likely for a player who isn’t available – the fact is the Braves have to hitch their wagon to the kid from Mississippi, let him play third base every day, and see what happens.

    An Important Season: Braves third baseman Austin Riley enters a critical season starting Thursday, one day before his 24th birthday.

    The Upside: There’s reason to believe this, his third season in the majors, is the year Riley takes the step toward consistency at the plate. He’s probably not going to have a 15 percent strikeout rate and he’s likely never going to hit .300, but he doesn’t have to do either to help the Braves reach their ultimate destination. Belting 25 homers and nudging into positive WAR territory with a WRC+ reaching triple digits would be enough. Getting to play every day at third base could be the factor that unlocks that upward progress.

    The Downside: There’s reason to believe this, his third season in the majors, is the year Riley shows the Braves they can’t play him 150 games at third. Riley’s slumps so far have been deep, long slumps, and even as the seventh-best hitter in one of baseball’s best lineups, there’s only so long the Braves can ride that train.

    The Feeling: The Braves are past being able to let players figure things out in the majors for long. It may sound unfair to Riley, but that’s what happens when your World Series window is wide open. It’s even more of a challenge with a at-the-moment unproven offensive player, rookie center fielder Cristian Pache and his otherworldly defense, hitting behind him in the lineup. A slow start only raises the pressure on Riley to produce. If he doesn’t, he’s not this team’s third baseman by Aug. 1.

    Part 4: The Homecoming

    The Name: Charlie Morton, RHP

    The Objective: Provide veteran leadership in the rotation and deliver the type of performances in October that have made him a postseason standout.

    The Story: In a way, Charlie Morton is the link from the Braves vaunted Hall of Fame rotation of yesteryear to the hopes of this generation’s young hurlers.

    Morton was drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 2002 draft and debut six years later. That 2008 season saw Morton make 14 starts for Atlanta, while Tom Glavine (13 starts) and John Smoltz (six games, five starts) made their final appearances in a Braves uniform amid injury-marred campaigns.

    Thirteen years later, Morton is back with his original organization, having experienced his share of injuries, reinvention, and October success. The Braves signed the right-hander to a one-year, $15 million contract the week of Thanksgiving after Tampa Bay did not pick up his option, providing their promising young rotation of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson (and their squadron of other young hurlers) with a valuable source of pitching wisdom.

    Traded from the Braves to Pittsburgh in 2009, Morton’s career stayed stuck in neutral until he landed in Houston in 2017. He won 14 games in the regular season and twice more in the postseason, pitching the final four innings of the Astros’ World Series clinching victory over the Dodgers in Game 7. In 12 career postseason starts, Morton has given up three runs or fewer 10 times, including 5 2/3 shutout innings in Tampa Bay’s Game 7 ALCS win over the Astros last season.

    Morton’s quest for a second ring fell short, and his Game 3 start against the Dodgers was an uncharacteristically poor one: five runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. This very well could be his final season of an accomplished career, adding even more motivation to finish things with a championship.

    Back Where It Started: Charlie Morton will start Saturday’s second game of the season, 13 years after making his major-league debut with the Braves.

    The Upside: Morton turned 37 in November, but he’s proven to be more durable as he’s aged. He logged a career-high 194 2/3 innings in 2019, and Morton averaged 29 regular-season starts from 2017-19. The Braves will monitor his usage carefully given his age and the heightened value he can provide in October, but 25 regular-season starts certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.

    The Downside: He is 37, and there always is the chance he gets hurt and turns into Cole Hamels (it’s not a high bar to surpass, I admit). And at some point, father time catches up to everybody, as Morton saw with Glavine and Smoltz during his rookie season.

    The Feeling: Morton is a likely candidate to get a bit of extra rest here and there, especially once Mike Soroka returns to the rotation. He’s here to help guide the Braves aces of the present and future, and he’s really here to help Atlanta win in October. With good health, he’ll get the chance to deliver on those goals, and end his career in crowning fashion.

    —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.

    DONE, BY ONE RUN: Braves Can’t Hold Early Game 7 Lead, Fall 4-3 as Dodgers Advance to World Series

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They only lost three games in a row once in the regular season. They held an early lead in the decisive game of the National League Championship Series. They extinguished a 19-year playoff drought, and came agonizingly close to going to the World Series for the first time since the previous century.

    In the end, the Atlanta Braves simultaneously announced their arrival as a legitimate world championship contender and learned that even the smallest mistakes at the highest level of baseball can prove fatal to one’s title hopes.

    The Braves couldn’t close the door on this NLCS, losing three games in a row after building a 3-1 series advantage. The final nail was hammered shut by Cody Bellinger’s tiebreaking seventh-inning homer off Chris Martin, lifting the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 4-3 victory Sunday in Game 7 and a 4-3 victory in the series, and ending the most successful season by the Braves since the 1999 edition captured the pennant.

    There will be no World Series appearance for the Braves this season, a season nobody knew would even happen due to the pandemic. It was a 60-game sprint to an expanded playoffs where, once there, the Braves swept the Reds and Marlins to reach the NLCS against a Los Angeles franchise making its fifth consecutive LCS appearance.

    And while plenty went right for the Braves in the seven-game series, the missed opportunities in the final three games undoubtedly will stay with them for the months to come. A bit too many quiet offensive innings, a couple of costly baserunning mistakes.

    Consider it a lesson learned, as much as it hurts.

    Let there be no doubt: It hurts. Badly.

    “It’s an unbelievable experience for a really young team,” Braves manager Brian Snitker – whose lineup in Game 7 included five players age 26 or younger – told reporters postgame. “We made some mistakes. We shot ourselves in the foot.

    “In games like this, runs are so hard to come by.”

    The Braves got on the board in the top of the first in Game 7, a Marcell Ozuna chasing home Ronald Acuna Jr. for the game’s first run. Dansby Swanson belted a long homer in the second and Atlanta led 2-0. After the Dodgers tied it with two runs in the third on a Will Smith single, the Braves answered with an Austin Riley single to recapture the lead.

    Then came one of those moments everybody will remember, and not pleasantly.

    With runners on second and third and no outs, Nick Markakis hit a chopper to third. Swanson broke from third and found himself in a rundown, being tagged out running toward the plate. Riley, who was on second, tried to take third and was cut down, a double play on a ball hit 75 feet short-circuiting what could have been a huge inning.

    Seventeen Atlanta hitters would step into the batter’s box after; one reached, an Ozzie Albies walk in the sixth.

    Meanwhile, the Braves were dodging Dodgers threats left and right on the mound. They ran out of magic in the sixth. Shane Greene needed just 14 pitches to get through the fifth, but Snitker elected to go with A.J. Minter – who threw 42 pitches in starting Game 5 on Friday – to begin the sixth. The Dodgers countered with pinch-hitter Kiki Hernandez, who destroyed a 2-2 pitch to left-center to even the score at 3.

    In the seventh, Chris Martin got the first two outs quickly. He made a mistake over the plate to Bellinger, and the former MVP smashed it deep into the right-field seats for the Dodgers first lead of the game. It was the only lead they needed to win the pennant, Austin Riley flying out to Bellinger in center at 11:52 p.m. ET to extinguish Atlanta’s World Series dream one win short.

    Hernandez fouled off three pitches with two strikes before his homer; Bellinger did the same. Even down 3-1 in the series, the Los Angeles offense grinded out quality at-bat after quality at-bat against the Braves, whose vaunted bullpen finally ran out of gas after helping carry the team to the verge of the Fall Classic.

    It’s a tough ending for a team that not many thought had a shot to get here. There will be plenty of second guessing and what ifs asked in the days and weeks to come. Rightly so. But at the same time, allowing that to diminish what Atlanta accomplished in 2020 is a bit short-sighted.

    These Braves were so much fun to watch, at a time in our history when we all needed something to rally around and look forward to other than hospitalization numbers and unemployment figures. It’s incredibly disappointing to fall one run short of the World Series, no matter the environment surrounding the moment, but there is a bit of solace even as the Dodgers begin their celebration.

    For one, the Braves overcame so much just to get here. We don’t need to go chapter-and-verse into the injuries and underperformance. It’s a testament to their toughness. While we can and should point to the lack of execution in several key moments the past 48 hours, nobody can say this bunch didn’t try everything they could to push this ride into the final week of October.

    The biggest takeaway is the progress made from last season to now. While the end comes with the subtleness of running straight into a concrete wall – it always feels like that, doesn’t it? – this also feels like a continuation of this group’s growth. The experience of getting to this stage can’t be overstated. The expectations should continue to rise, and rightly so.

    With a young core in place, this figures not to be the only deep October push. And perhaps one October in the near future, it will be the Braves playing in the World Series, winning the championship the franchise has chased for a quarter-century. At this moment, the future is as bright as ever.

    Even if in the present it’s hard to see the light, through the tears and pain of a journey stopped just short.

    —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.

    ONE LAST SHOT: Braves Take Final Swing at NL Pennant, World Series Berth as Dodgers Force Game 7

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two teams. One game. One pennant. One World Series berth. One season extender. One season ender.

    Zero margin for error.

    The Atlanta Braves have whiffed on two chances to end this National League Championship Series. They’re down to their last shot Sunday night. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who just two nights ago were down 3-1 in the series, used a 3-1 victory Saturday in Game 6 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas to square the NLCS at three games apiece and push this NL title bout to a decisive seventh game.

    The Braves have come a long way since the start of 2018, but after being unable to close out the proud and more experienced Dodgers, we’ve arrived at the ultimate intersection of sports heaven and hell:

    Game 7.

    They’re the two greatest words in sports … unless you find yourself in one. Then it is a torture chamber of emotions exhilarating and exhausting, dauting and devastating, sheer ecstasy and unconstrained pressure, all rolled into one frothing passion play that ends not just the series for the unfortunate loser and its fanbase, but its season.

    Win a Game 7, and you’ll smile at the memory for decades. Lose a Game 7, and you’ll spend a lifetime wondering what if.

    “Shoot, we’ll go out there and let ’er fly,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame – suffice to say he’d not checked social media, where plenty of Braves fans already were cliff-diving into the pool of doom and gloom. “It’s baseball.”

    Win or Winter: Braves manager Brian Snitker discusses Atlanta’s loss to the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS.

    Perhaps that dread coming from Braves Country stems from their most recent experience in the winner-take-all aisle, the forsaken Game 5 of last season’s NL Division Series. Perhaps that experience, whatever one can take from that rotten late afternoon, will serve the Braves of 2020 well Sunday in what will be the franchise’s biggest game in at least two decades.

    The Dodgers know what this Game 7 business is all about, considering 11 members of their current 28-man roster were part of Los Angeles pennant-clinching victory over Milwaukee in Game 7 two seasons ago. It’s part of the reason so many national pundits picked Los Angeles to beat the Braves and reach its third World Series in the past four autumns.

    The final win of any series is the hardest to get, particularly against a squad ladened with playoff experience. Give plenty of credit to the Dodgers for forcing this engagement to its limit. Direct plenty of blame to the Braves for not closing out this series when they had the chance.

    While the missteps were not as egregious as in Friday’s 7-3 defeat in Game 5, the Braves couldn’t come through in a couple of key moments in Game 6.

    Things teetered on the brink early after Max Fried allowed back-to-back homers to Corey Seager and Justin Turner – followed by a walk and two singles – in a three-run first. Fried, the 27-year-old lefty who grabbed the reins as staff ace after Atlanta’s rotation imploded in the season’s first month, found his footing and kept the Braves in the game with a gutty effort.

    Fried didn’t another run and got the Braves into the seventh inning before succumbing after a career-high 109 pitches. Snitker lauded him for giving Atlanta a chance, but while Fried was posting zeros, his teammates were unable to get much going against four Dodgers pitchers.

    Going the Distance: The Braves fell 3-1 to Los Angeles in Game 6 of the NLCS on Saturday, forcing the series to a decisive seventh game Sunday night.

    The biggest moment to flip this game’s script came immediately after Fried doused the initial inferno. The Braves loaded the bases with no outs in the second, but Walker Buehler carved up the bottom of the Atlanta batting order. Austin Riley struck out on three pitches, Nick Markakis watched a called third strike, and rookie Cristian Pache grounded out.

    Singles from Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson gave the Braves two baserunners in the fourth, but Riley lined a 109-mph bullet to Cody Bellinger in center and Markakis ended the inning on a comebacker to the mound. Freddie Freeman singled in the fifth with two outs, but Mookie Betts robbed Marcell Ozuna of an RBI double with a leaping catch at the wall in right.

    Ozuna’s ball left the bat at 100.6 mph; the Braves hit 11 balls on this day 95 mph or harder. They finally broke through in the seventh on two balls that weren’t exactly scalded: Markakis greeting Blake Treinin with a triple to right (86.4 mph) and Ronald Acuna Jr. scoring him on a double to right (89.6 mph).

    That’s just one example of the fickleness that can decide any individual baseball game.

    In a Game 7, that type of thing can decide who plays on and who goes home.

    Plenty of pressure remains on the Dodgers. The only thing worse for Los Angeles than losing this series in five or six games would be losing Game 7. The Braves now have serious pressure on them for the first time in the series. With the pennant within its grasp the past two games, Atlanta went 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 13 runners on base.

    For Atlanta, Sunday will serve as invaluable experience regardless of the outcome. The Braves hand the ball to 22-year-old right-hander Ian Anderson, 52 months removed from Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., for his 10th major-league start. Four players age 23 or younger will join him in the starting lineup; another starter (Swanson) is 26.

    They’ll play the biggest game of their young lives, to decide a series joined at three games apiece.

    There are no more excuses for either side, and there is no tomorrow. Look how the week has unfolded. The Braves won two in a row. The two teams swapped one victory apiece. The Dodgers won two in a row. One could argue the Braves should be preparing for the World Series by now. One could say the same about the Dodgers.

    Somebody’s going to make it. One game to go, with the pennant and a shot at the ring hanging in the balance.

    —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.

    ON THE BRINK: Braves Bash Dodgers in Game 4, Sit One Victory from the World Series

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves were pounded into submission in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday, and while they held a 2-1 advantage in the series even after allowing 11 runs in the first inning, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the national prognosticators who spent Thursday shoveling dirt on the Braves grave.

    This just in: those reports of the Braves demise were greatly exaggerated.

    And now, they’re one victory away from the World Series.

    Atlanta responded to that blowout loss with a breakout performance of its own, moving one step away from its first NL pennant and World Series trip in 21 years with a 10-2 rout of the mighty Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    Catch your breath, folks. The Atlanta Braves, who 30 months ago were coming off four straight seasons of 89-plus losses, are THIS CLOSE to the Fall Classic. The sport’s grandest stage. A stage the franchise has graced just nine times since the NL and AL champs begin squaring off in 1903.

    They have three shots to punch their ticket, starting Friday night in Game 5. A fully rested Max Fried and Ian Anderson are lined up to start Games 6 and 7, if needed.

    Atlanta – and its championship-starved franchise – hope that’s not necessary. If Marcell Ozuna hits Friday like he did Thursday, you might as well print the T-shirts, snap some fake selfies and clear your calendar for next week. Ozuna helped fuel the Braves run to a third-consecutive NL East championship while putting up MVP-type numbers through the 60-game season, but has been relatively quiet in these playoffs.

    He entered Thursday hitting .200 in the postseason with a .565 OPS and 14 strikeouts in 35 at-bats. But the NL leader in homers and RBIs in the regular season was in the middle of things throughout Game 4, helping Atlanta deliver a definitive statement in a game that began with every member of the Fox Sports pregame crew (and honestly, probably 95 percent of the country) picking the Dodgers to even the series. David Ortiz lobbed the ultimate insult, picking Los Angeles to win 14-3.

    Yeah, about that, Big Papi.

    Ozuna became the first Braves player to homer twice in a postseason contest since Chipper Jones in the 2003 NLDS, and set a franchise record for most total bases in a playoff game with 11. He finished 4-for-5 with three runs scored and four RBIs, mixing it up and taking selfies the whole way.

    The first of his two homers on this night banged off the second deck in left field in the fourth inning, tying the game at 1. More importantly, it broke the seal against future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. The big Los Angeles lefty was supposed to start Game 2, only to be scratched with back spasms, and Atlanta made him work Thursday.

    Lined up to face the three-time NL Cy Young award winner in Game 4 was Bryse Wilson, owner of seven career big-league starts who had not pitched in a competitive game since Sept. 27. Nobody gave the 22-year-old righty any chance of holding his own in such a pivotal game, one the Braves needed to keep the Dodgers from evening the series at two games apiece.

    All Wilson did in his playoff debut was baffle Los Angeles through six sparkling innings, surrendering only an Edwin Rios homer on a fastball over the middle of the plate in the third. Wilson used a fantastic breaking ball and a plus changeup with great control of his fastball to limit the powerful Dodgers lineup to just that one hit in six stellar innings, throwing 50 of his 74 pitches for strikes and pitching the game of his life.

    Owning the Moment: Bryse Wilson shined in his postseason debut, holding the Dodgers to one run on one hit in six innings in Game 4 of the NLCS.

    He didn’t allow the Rios blast to rattle him, retiring nine of the final 10 hitters he faced. He punctuated his outing with back-to-back 12-pitch innings in the fifth and sixth innings. On a day spent wondering how long he could go and could he keep the game close, Wilson didn’t just deliver.

    He dominated.

    “Wow,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame, summing up the mood everybody had in watching Wilson dazzle. “How he’d handle that situation, he answered that question.”

    And the Braves offense issued its own answer during a relentless six-run sixth, a 35-minute half-inning that turned a stomach-churning 1-all matchup into a margin with plenty of wiggle room. After Ronald Acuna singled and got second on a throwing error, it was likely NL MVP and team captain Freddie Freeman delivering the go-ahead double to right.

    The Braves were just getting started. Ozuna doubled home Freeman to send Kershaw to the showers, the veteran allowing four runs on seven hits in five-plus innings. After a Travis d’Arnaud lineout, the Braves seized control: an Ozzie Albies blooper, a Dansby Swanson double, an Austin Riley single, a Johan Camargo walk and a Cristian Pache single blowing things open.

    A Sweet Sixth: The Braves took control of Game 4 of the NLCS on Thursday with a six-run sixth.

    The Braves did what the Dodgers do so well: work counts and ambush mistakes and roll up runs with a deep lineup. Atlanta went 6-for-9 with runners in scoring position in the inning, delivering the biggest blows in the pivotal moments in the biggest game the franchise has played in forever.

    Friday night’s game is even bigger. And if the Braves can win just one more time, they’ll go play in the biggest games of them all.

    —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.

    JUST ENOUGH: Braves Hold On At The Finish, Take 2-0 NLCS Lead

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Supposedly, the Atlanta Braves owned the second-best lineup entering this National League Championship Series. Supposedly, their hitters could not work counts, lay off close pitches and string together quality at-bats like the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    And even though things got hairy in the bottom of the ninth, that offense had built just enough of a cushion to down the favorites from the west coast for a second consecutive day.

    It goes in the books as an 8-7 victory over the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS on Tuesday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. All seven Los Angeles runs came from the seventh inning on, and while it was a white-knuckle finish and certainly wasn’t pretty, the Braves avoided what would’ve been a disheartening collapse.

    Now they hold a 2-0 series lead. The Braves are halfway to the pennant, halfway to punching their ticket to the World Series. And even after a four-run ninth by Los Angeles, kept alive by an error from Ozzie Albies, this fact is indisputable:

    If the Dodgers are going to keep the Braves from winning the pennant, they must win four of the next five games.

    There was drama at the finish, and there was drama several hours before first pitch. The Dodgers scratched Clayton Kershaw due to back spasms. Los Angeles turned to Tony Gonsolin, a prized pitching prospect known for pounding the strike zone. All the right-handed did was mow through the first nine Braves in 28 no-stress pitches, while Atlanta rookie Ian Anderson struggled with command but kept the Dodgers off the scoreboard.

    Gonsolin’s dominance didn’t last long.

    Freddie Freeman followed Ronald Acuna Jr.’s leadoff walk in the fourth with his second homer in two games, staking Atlanta to a 2-0 lead. Gonsolin would need 33 pitches to close the frame and began the fifth at 61 pitches, delivering the first pitch of the inning to Austin Riley at 7:38 p.m. ET.

    The Dodgers recorded the third out 35 minutes later. In between, nine hitters came to the plate, four walked, four scored, the Los Angeles bullpen door opened twice, and the Braves tripled their lead. It was a doctorate-level class in how to grind down and chew up an opposing pitching staff, taught by the team many thought would be the students before the series started.

    Nick Markakis, who has struggled to catch up to velocity in the postseason, battled through a 10-pitch at-bat before drawing a walk off Gonsolin. Cristian Pache – the 21-year-old with four regular-season at-bats who started for Adam Duvall (season-ending oblique injury) – yanked a 3-2 pitch inside the third-base bag for a double to score Markakis and extend the lead to 3-0. Acuna followed with a five-pitch walk, and Gonsolin gave way to Pedro Baez.

    Freeman flicked his third pitch into center to score Pache, Acuna racing to third on the play. Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud drew back-to-back walks to force home another run, and an Albies sacrifice fly to center made it 6-0. Dylan Floro struck out Dansby Swanson to end the inning, but not before Los Angeles needed 53 pitches to get three outs.

    But the postseason isn’t easy, and the Braves bullpen cracked for the first time this October. Darren O’Day gave up two hits and A.J. Minter surrendered a three-run homer to Corey Seager in the seventh to cut Atlanta’s lead to 7-3. In the ninth, Josh Tomlin gave up three runs, Max Muncy’s two-run shot pulling Los Angeles within 8-6.

    Melancon – who a few minutes earlier caught an Albies ninth-inning homer in the left-field bullpen for the second straight night – came on and saw his home-run tag-team partner boot Will Smith’s grounder that would’ve ended the game. Cody Bellinger tripled to the right-field corner to cut the lead to one, but Melancon got a groundout to end the madness.

    Some fans will hyper-focus on the harrowing final moments, but the Braves are in good shape. Minter had allowed a homer to exactly one of 88 hitters he faced before Tuesday. Tomlin’s not going to pitch the ninth inning unless there is plenty of margin for error. Albies makes that play 49 times out of 50.

    In October, there are no style points. It’s simple: find a way to win.

    The Braves have done it twice in two games.

    Do it two more times, and they’ll play in the World Series.

    —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.




    FINE IN NINE: Late Power Show Vaults Braves in NLCS Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It started as Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to home plate for the first at-bat of the first game of the National League Championship Series on Monday. It echoed through Globe Life Field after a ninth-inning explosion washed away eight innings full of stranded runners, unexpected substitutions and for many fans, an impending feeling of doom.

    The chop and the chant, loud and proud and rolling through the stands in Arlington, Texas. If you listened closely enough, you probably heard it from every single part of Braves Country.

    Dead in the water offensively for eight innings against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers – who the entire Fox Sports pregame crew anointed with the NL pennant before Acuna stepped into the batter’s box – it was the Braves serving notice they are here to play with a four-run ninth in a 5-1 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

    It’s a statement victory for a team playing on this stage for the first time in nearly two decades. It’s a shot across the bow that the Braves indeed feel this matchup between the two best teams in the Senior Circuit is much closer than many pundits spent Monday opining.

    It’s the type of moment that can vault a team to greater heights than even it dares to dream.

    The Braves stumbled and scuffled their way into and out of scoring opportunities all night, stranding 10 runners on base and finishing 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Brian Snitker, who managed brilliantly through Atlanta’s sweeps of Cincinnati and Miami to get to this point, pushed every button imaginable in the eighth inning to try and break the offensive stalemate.

    It didn’t work. Pablo Sandoval and Charlie Culberson came to the plate as pinch hitters – they combined for 11 plate appearances in the regular season. Sandoval hit for Cristian Pache, after the organization’s top prospect (who had four regular-season at-bats) was pressed into duty when Adam Duvall left with an oblique injury.

    It didn’t work. Sandoval was hit with a pitch. Culberson struck out. Bases left loaded. On to the bottom of the eighth, where the Braves deployed Sandoval at third base, moved Austin Riley to left, and stuck Culberson in right.

    In a 1-1 game.

    In Game 1 of the NLCS.

    And the Braves won, conventional thinking and wisdom and sense be damned.

    They did so because, as they often do, they found a way to mix up some late-inning magic. And this was the most delicious rally we’ve seen from this bunch since they exited the rebuild, because this was the biggest game they’ve played in years.

    Riley, swinging over the top of slider after slider in the ninth spot on Snitker’s lineup card, smashed a Blake Treinen pitch 448 feet into the left-field seats to snap that 1-all tie leading off the ninth. It opened a waterfall that saw Acuna double, Freddie Freeman launch a sacrifice fly 405 feet to dead center, Marcell Ozuna work a tremendous at-bat to serve a single to right for another run, and Ozzie Albies homer into the Braves bullpen.

    By the time the dust settled, the Dodgers were the ones looking up at a series deficit. And probably in a bit of shock, to be honest, even if the perennial NL powerhouse says the right things publicly. Treinen, Dave Roberts’ likely closer if Kenley Jansen can’t rediscover his velocity, gave up three runs on three hits while retiring one hitter.

    The Dodgers were lucky this didn’t end up as Atlanta’s fifth shutout in six postseason contents. Max Fried made one mistake, a hanging curveball to Enrique Hernandez in the fifth that was deposited into the seats to tie the game, but gave up just three other hits across six sparkling innings with two walks (both in the first inning) and nine strikeouts.

    Then the Braves bullpen took over. For all the chatter nationally about the depth of L.A.’s firemen, there is no doubt: Atlanta owns the best bullpen in baseball, and it shined in the NLCS opener. Chris Martin, Will Smith (the left-handed reliever, not the Dodgers catcher) and Mark Melancon teamed up for three scoreless innings of relief, Melancon pausing between warm-up pitches in the bullpen to catch Albies homer.

    It was that type of night for the Braves, who sit three victories from a World Series trip.

    There’s work to do before thinking about that, although you can be excused to dream a bit bigger. A seven-game series is not secured in Game 1, but it can send quite the message.

    Message delivered, along with a chop and a chant for good measure.

    —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.

    RISE AND SHINE: Acuna Plunking Awakens Braves in Game 1 Victory

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It took him about 10 seconds to race 270 feet, from a first base he occupied after wearing another fastball from another Marlins pitcher to a head-first slide at home plate.

    Safe at home, Ronald Acuna Jr. jumped up with a spin and gazed toward the third-base dugout at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Like somebody who leaps from bed as their snooze alarm goes off for the third time, the Braves outfielder might as well have told the opposition his team was awake.

    The Braves smashed their NL East rivals 9-5 in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, scoring eight unanswered runs after falling in an early 4-1 hole. Staff ace Max Fried stumbled for the first time this season, but Miami resorted to a tired tactic after Acuna’s leadoff homer in the first gave Atlanta a short-lived 1-0 advantage.

    Miami starter Sandy Alcantara buried a fastball in Acuna’s left hip, the fifth time Atlanta’s 22-year-old outfielder has worn one against Miami in three seasons.

    “He hit a long homer, and got hit by 97 (mph),” Braves manager Brian Snitker – choosing his words carefully – told reporters in his postgame press conference aired on MLB Network. “In that situation, if you’re going to go in there, you’ve got to make sure you don’t hit him.

    “It’s happening too much.”

    Slow Start, Fast Finish: The Braves trailed Game 1 of the NL Division Series 4-1 before scoring eight unanswered runs in Tuesday’s 9-5 victory.

    Leading 4-1 after touching Fried for one run in the second and three in the third, all the early momentum sat with the upstart Marlins, who are in the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons. But there was a discernable shift in the tenor of the game after the HBP. And the Braves responded immediately, using back-to-back doubles by Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud to trim the deficit to a lone run.

    “Three-run lead, then give two runs right back,” Miami manager Don Mattingly told the media in his postgame comments, adding he did not think Alcantara intentionally hit the Braves young star. “We had the momentum.”

    But with one wayward inside pitch, it was gone. There is a time and place for everything. If Miami was trying to send some sort of message after Acuna became the youngest player in MLB history to lead off a first inning in a playoff game with a homer, it’s mind-boggling the Marlins would do it in this situation. Even with the recent history between the two division foes, there wasn’t anything leading into the series to foretell something would happen.

    (In case you’re wondering, the Braves host a four-game series against the Marlins on April 12-15, 2021. Mark your calendars accordingly.)

    Alcantara’s fastball may have been a sucker punch, but four innings later the Braves delivered the knockout blow for the game and, perhaps, the series. Honestly, it felt like just a matter of time once Acuna trotted to first base.

    The deficit stayed at one run thanks to two aspects of Atlanta’s game that’s been fantastic all season: its defense and its bullpen. Ozzie Albies made two sensational plays in a row in the fourth inning, and added a basket catch in short center field to open the fifth. Freddie Freeman ended the frame by diving to his right and snagging a Miguel Rojas chopper, flipping to Darren O’Day for the out.

    O’Day restored order after Fried scuffled through four innings (four runs allowed on six hits), needing only nine pitches in a scoreless inning. Tyler Matzek added another impressive frame to his postseason resume, striking out the side on 11 pitches in the sixth. Will Smith threw only eight pitches to sail through a clean seventh.

    Then the Braves offense, which scored just two runs in the first 20 innings of the Wild Card series against Cincinnati, exploded. It started with Austin Riley and Acuna recording singles to chase Alcantara, who otherwise kept the Braves in check with a high-90s fastball and nasty changeup. Ozuna and d’Arnaud came through after Yimi Garcia recorded an out, Ozuna’s single to left tying the game before d’Arnaud – who finished 3-for-3 with two walks and four RBIs – belted a 421-foot homer to dead center.

    Braves 7, Marlins 4.

    Braves wide awake. Marlins one step closer to bedtime.

    d’Arnaud Doubt About It: Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s three-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Braves the lead for keeps in Game 1 of the NL Division Series Tuesday.

    “We just got it going,” d’Arnaud told Fox Sports 1 after the game. “No matter how far we’re down, we’re never out of it.”

    As d’Arnaud’s homer sailed over the fence, Acuna jumped out of the far end of the dugout, waving a white towel in his right hand. Ozuna and Riley raised their arms in celebration. d’Arnaud turned toward the dugout after rounding first base, doing the Braves patented mix-it-up hand gesture. There would be another faux selfie in the dugout upon his return and, two hitters later, Dansby Swanson launched a two-run shot to push the Braves lead to 9-4.

    Perhaps by that point, Miami needed to wave something white. Through the first 2 ½ innings, the Marlins looked like they belonged on the postseason stage. Then they did something an underdog absolutely cannot do:

    Wake up the favorite.

    “Our focus remains on winning and moving forward,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    The Braves have won three playoff games in a seven-day span, matching their win total from the past six years. They look every bit the favorite now in this series, and odds are they won’t need another wakeup call.

    —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.

    As Braves Close In On East Clinch, A Moment To Appreciate The Journey Here

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two years ago today, I stopped by a cigar shop and liquor store on a bright autumn Saturday morning. I bought two expensive stogies, four bottles of champagne, and cruised toward what was then called SunTrust Park.

    A few hours later, Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field, the Braves raced out of the first-base dugout, and tears of joy fell as Atlanta celebrated the 2018 National League East championship. Amid the mosh pit behind the pitcher’s mound, hugs were exchanged, T-shirts and hats were handed out, and Braves Country exploded in joy as the long five-year nightmare had ended.

    The rebuild was over.

    My, how things have changed as we sit here on this Tuesday in late September, the Braves potentially being able to clinch a third-consecutive division crown in just a few hours. I won’t be inside what’s now called Truist Park. You won’t be, either. We haven’t attended a Braves game all season, but while the pandemic has kept fans at home throughout this truncated 60-game season, we can take solace in two things:

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

    The “we” in the previous sentence isn’t just applicable to the Braves, but all of Major League Baseball. I certainly had my doubts and fears in the early days of this season like no other, especially after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experienced outbreaks in the initial weeks of this campaign. But here we are with six games left to go, a four-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins!) in the East standings, and another date with October looming on the horizon.

    It pales in comparison to what so many have endured the past six months, but these Braves have relied on a ton of resiliency to reach this point. They watched their pitching rotation fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane – the latest shoe dropping Monday when Cole Hamels, the biggest mistake of the Alex Anthopoulos era, landed back on the injured list and being done for the season after getting 10 outs in a Braves uniform. He joins the laundry list of hurlers who won’t help the Braves moving forward, a list that if you knew in mid-July would be a thing, nobody would blame you for wanting Atlanta to tank the season or just forget it altogether and move on to 2021.

    But these Braves had other plans. We wondered how the offense would look with Marcell Ozuna replacing Josh Donaldson, with the platoon of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo playing every day, with Adam Duvall and the ageless Nick Markakis getting some semblance of regular playing time. It’s turned into arguably the best Braves lineup top-to-bottom since the team moved to Atlanta 55 years ago, Ozuna earning himself a big payday on the open market this winter and Duvall looking like an extension candidate and Acuna and Ozzie Albies overcoming injuries to shine and Dansby Swanson – a recent slump notwithstanding – continuing his offensive progression and Travis d’Arnaud looking like the steal of last winter.

    And of course, Riley winning the third-base job and showing a much better approach at the plate. He’s never going to hit .280 in my opinion, but the power is real and the plate discipline has been much better and he’s showed he can play above-average defense at the hot corner. Duvall is a legitimate comeback player of the year candidate, ranking among the league leaders in homers. Were it not for the massive focus the front office must have (that’s not negotiable at this point, Alex) on starting rotation in the offseason, the Braves would be justified to hand Ozuna a huge four-year deal.

    But as always, the story of these Braves centers not on the prolific offense, the swagger of Acuna, the emergence of Riley and Duvall, the lock-down bullpen, or the way Max Fried has developed into a co-ace with the injured Mike Soroka. No, this story circles back to a tall first baseman from California who has been the one constant in the Atlanta lineup for a decade.

    Freddie Freeman didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball less than three months ago, stricken with COVID-19 and a 104-degree fever. We laughed when he took 30-plus at-bats in a five-day span across intrasquad games and two exhibitions against the Marlins, attempting to ramp up for the season opener. He struggled through the first 13 games, hitting .190 with a .656 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

    Since then, the Braves captain has slashed .382/.492/.711 for a scorching hot 1.202 OPS in 41 games, with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 41 games. The DH coming to the NL spurred manager Brian Snitker to move Freeman to the second spot in the batting order, where the 31-year-old is hitting .407 with a 1.233 OPS and 20 walks in 102 plate appearances.

    Freeman has placed in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times in his career; in my opinion, he should finish no lower than first this time around. The list of Braves who have helped move Atlanta to the verge of another East title is lengthy, but as always, steady Freddie stands front and center.

    Two years ago today, as Acuna gloved the final out of the division clincher, my enduring memory was of Freeman walking away from first base, both arms extended in the air, an expression of unbridled joy and relief awash across his face. He’ll soon have an opportunity to revel in another division crown, another punched ticket to the postseason.

    Who knows what awaits come October? We’ll worry about that soon enough. The moment that will come in the next day or two is one we wondered if we’d see. But it’s here now, as it was each of the past two Septembers. At least that hasn’t changed.

    For Freeman, for the Braves, for their legion of fans, the moment in and of itself is worthy of celebration.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

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