• Baltimore Orioles

    On Another Wild, Weird Day, Braves Capture Home Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

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

    Braves at the Deadline: Anthopoulos boosts October odds, Protects Future

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – This is the day made for Alex Anthopoulos, and certainly it has been circled on his calendar since he took over as Atlanta Braves general manager in November. The aggressive gunslinger who never has shied away from a major deal spent the next eight months evaluating his new organization, all with an eye toward Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.

    But when the asking price for Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer – owner of the power strikeout arm and friendly, controllable contract – bubbled beyond the point of comfort, Anthopoulos made the smart move.

    He pushed away from the table.

    Contrary to what he told the assembled media early Tuesday evening at SunTrust Park, the Braves were in on Archer throughout the day. But Pittsburgh offered the duo of Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, a price that would have been akin to Atlanta offering two top-six prospects. That was too much for Anthopoulos, who resisted the emotion of the Braves stunningly sitting ½ game out of first place in the National League East and the pleas of a starving fanbase to overpay for one piece.

    And while there was an initial tinge of disappointment Archer headed toward western Pennsylvania and not north Georgia, at the same time the Braves new head man accomplished what he set out to do. In the five days leading up to the deadline, Anthopoulos improved the bullpen by adding two groundball machines (Jonny Venters and Brad Brach), a right-handed power bat (Adam Duvall), an intriguing starting pitcher (Kevin Gausman) and a veteran reliever who will be available next spring (Darren O’Day).

    The most important part of the past 120 hours or so is the Braves improved the major-league team without so much as tearing the plastic wrap from a minor-league system that is the envy of baseball. Atlanta did not touch 28 of its top 30 prospects. Venters and Brach were acquired for international signing pool money, funds of otherwise little value to Atlanta given MLB’s sanctions against the team. Duvall came at the price of fourth outfielder Preston Tucker and a pair of pitchers (Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims) whose production waned with every failed attempt at big-league success. Tuesday’s deadline deal – announced shortly after the clock expired – sent No. 14 Jean Carlos Encarnacion and No. 30 Brett Cumberland and two unranked prospects (Bruce Zimmermann and Evan Phillips) to the Orioles.

    Trade deadlines are hard to judge. I like to take a timeframe approach when grading the deadline:

    The Immediate (B+): Had Anthopoulos added Archer, Braves fans would have built a statue to their GM outside SunTrust Park tomorrow. It would have been a seismic move, but it would have come at quite the cost. At least two top-10 prospects, plus a prospect ranked somewhere in the 15-to-25 range. It wasn’t from a lack of trying, but Anthopoulos didn’t let the emotion of the day cause a detour from the appointed plan.

    That plan is contingent on ensuring the Braves use their minor-league depth at the right time. There will be a time, perhaps this offseason, where long-loved prospects are shipped away in return for valuable major-league assets. At the deadline, Anthopoulos filled several needs of his team without ripping up four years of careful cultivation of young talent.

    The Short Term (A): The Braves, as currently constituted, have a better chance to reach the playoffs than a week ago. Even without acquiring a top-end starter or a closer, Anthopoulos immediately fixed two glaring needs. First, he shored up a bullpen that’s threatened to sabotage this fantastic season. Venters and Brach are ground-ball machines, good fits with a very good infield defense playing behind them. Swapping Venters and Brach for a pair of recent (wink, wink) additions to the disabled list – Sam Freeman and Peter Moylan – automatically makes the Braves much better in the late innings.

    The second need has become all the more apparent in the past two months. Center fielder Ender Inciarte banged out 201 hits a season ago in hitting .304, but has been awful against left-handed hitters (hitting .207). Duvall – who has struggled to a .205 average in 2018 but does have 15 homers – gives the Braves the opportunity to slide Ronald Acuna into center when a left-hander starts, and Duvall’s presence in the lineup provides a right-handed power source who belted 64 homers in 2016-17. And regardless of whether Duvall or Inciarte are in the starting lineup, the bench automatically is better than a week before.

    Gausman is the wild card. A budding star out of LSU and the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, he sports a 4.22 ERA in 150 career games and struggled at times to find his way in Baltimore (not necessarily a strange thing given how some Orioles hurlers have excelled after leaving town). The Braves view him as an innings-eating dependable arm, one who has worked into the seventh inning seven times in 21 starts – that will thrive away from the AL East and the murderous lineups residing in Boston and New York. Time will tell, but the Braves certainly have a desperate need for more length from their starting rotation, especially given only two off days between now and Sept. 13.

    The Long Term (B-): The hardest grade to give on deadline day. What is the end result of the season? What about the next year? How did the assets you gave up turn out? I’m going B-minus for now mainly because the prospects remain virtually intact, and Atlanta did get players with control. While Venters and Brach are pending free agents, Gausman is under contract through 2020 and Duvall is on a deal through 2021. O’Day is on the shelf with a hamstring injury and won’t contribute in 2018, but is under contract through next season and taking on his $9 million salary for 2019 helped minimize the prospect cost of today’s deal.

    The Braves, through their play through the season’s first 103 games, earned the right for their general manager to make the team better. Anthopoulos delivered, maybe not with star power or  big names, but enough quality to give the Braves a better shot at extending its season beyond game 162.

    —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.

    After Discouraging Homestand, Braves (and Their Fans) Need to Catch Their Breath

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A 48-hour span without a game in the midst of the long slough that is a baseball season is pretty rare, a time to step back from the blur of the day-to-day spent dissecting a team and a campaign and the nearly nightly doings under the microscope of increasing pressure and expectations.

    It should be a time of quiet reflection, a quick respite to catch one’s breath, to look around – maybe introduce yourself to the people with whom you share a house – and perhaps even go to sleep at a decent hour.

    If you seek that calming pause in the midst of this surprisingly successful 2018 campaign for the Atlanta Braves, may I share a piece of advice:

    Shut off your phone/laptop/tablet. Now.

    (Well, not right now. Finish reading this first. Then shut off your device, unplug it, disconnect your internet connection and run to the closest place where wi-fi doesn’t exist.)

    There, my friend, you will find peace. Otherwise, prepare yourself for the wrath that currently consumes Braves Country.

    Atlanta flew home from Toronto last Wednesday staring at a gift from the schedule makers: back-to-back home series against a pair of last-place teams, Baltimore and Cincinnati, a golden opportunity to build onto its National League East lead before a difficult 10-game road trip that will carry the team with a week of the All-Star break.

    (Insert narrator voice: “It did not go well.”)

    The Braves dropped both series, needing an Ozzie Albies extra-inning homer in the middle of the night to avoid being swept by the Reds.

    In the process, Atlanta saw both Albies and Ender Inciarte injured – albeit reports indicate neither is serious – lost Anibal Sanchez to a cramp in the middle of a desperately needed quality start – left enough baserunners to start a small city and, most notably, watched its bullpen crumple into a heap of exhausted arms as closer Arodys Vizcaino landed on the disabled list and the revolving bullpen shuttle between Atlanta and Gwinnett shifted into overdrive.

    How much so? Longtime Braves minor-leaguer Wes Parsons found himself signing a major-league contract Wednesday morning. He was packing his locker six hours later, bound for Gwinnett after serving as an emergency relief arm that was not used.

    Perhaps he should’ve pitched. He couldn’t have fared any worse than the relievers deployed in Wednesday’s come-from-ahead 6-5 loss to the Reds.

    The maddening thing is Parsons isn’t the only Atlanta reliever who experienced the same major-league “debut” during this cursed six-day span, the promising Evan Phillips getting the call Sunday only to sit, then return to Triple-A without throwing a pitch.

    Roll all this together, and you have a fanbase that completely and utterly has lost its collective mind on social media. Braves Twitter has its moments on a good day, but even by longtime observer and participant standards, this week has been one for the books. Or one for the panic button, which it seems the good folks in Braves Country have pushed en masse.

    There is credence to the “sky is falling” argument because, heck, it sure feels that way. The Braves bullpen is gassed, plain and simple. No group in the history of baseball needs Thursday’s day off in advance of a night game Friday in St. Louis more than Atlanta’s relievers. Manager Brian Snitker’s heavy reliance on his bullpen, in part a byproduct of the rotation failing more often than not to pitch deep into games, already is starting to catch up to this team, and we’re still in June.

    It doesn’t help that the offense, while scoring enough runs to win and getting plenty of runners on base, struggled mightily the past week in driving home runners from second and third base. Even getting a fly ball to the outfield with one out and a runner at third base has proven problematic for an offense that has spent most of the first half of the season taking advantage of nearly every opportunity to pounce on opposing pitchers.

    We quickly are approaching the time where Atlanta has to decide whether to ride out the good vibes of arriving a season earlier than many expected, or to commit to trying and crash the postseason party come October. No, nobody is saying empty the farm for a rental. Doing so would be foolish.

    But what will Alex Anthopoulos do as the trade deadline approaches in four weeks? Six games do not make a season, but it is clear the Braves need bullpen help. Premium relievers carry a heavy price tag (prospect capital as much as dollars).

    How much of the bullpen management (mismanagement?) falls at the feet of Snitker, who does not have a contract for 2019 and was not hired by Anthopoulos, but clearly is the player’s choice to lead this team?

    To be fair, these questions were going to be asked at some point, regardless. But given the events of the past week, the spotlight shines brighter now on the go-forward plan for this team for the remainder of 2018. And that’s not a bad thing. I mean, who wouldn’t have signed up for this in March, that the Braves would own the East penthouse for the better part of two months, playing at a 90-plus win pace through 79 games?

    And while it feels the sky is falling, it’s important to remember for all the fits and starts of the past six days, the Braves at worst are going to lose only one game in the standings pending Philadelphia’s game late Wednesday. A decent final few days of June will give Atlanta its third-consecutive winning month. Phenom Ronald Acuna Jr., feared lost for the season after a nasty injury at the end of May, likely returns to the lineup this weekend. Vizcaino could be back by the end of the weekend.

    There are 83 games remaining in the season, and the next 10 won’t be easy: three in St. Louis, three in Yankee Stadium, four in Milwaukee. Nary an off day to be found in that stretch. The wild roller coaster of this season resumes before you know it.

    The Braves – and their fans – best take advantage of the next few hours to rest, to recover and to refocus.

    —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 off to Red Hot Start … and It’s Been Fun

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – High-fives in the middle of the diamond, a happy mid-afternoon crowd cheering into the cool Georgia air and another game that feels like something not seen often in these parts recently.

    The Atlanta Braves opening homestand of the season is complete, and it goes in the books as a resounding success. The team currently leads all of Major League Baseball in runs scored with 48, and team batting average, .297. The pitching, on balance, hasn’t been bad either. Braves pitchers boast a 3.86 ERA through 6 games.

    The result: Four victories in six games, a fifth victory just sliding away thanks to a bad slide at home plate. Good crowds, thirsty for signs of spring and perhaps a little more edgy for some winning baseball. Two series victories against NL East rivals, one that dominated Atlanta like Sherman last season, the other who occupies the division’s penthouse suite.

    And yet, as I made my way from the chilly confines of SunTrust Park after the Braves 7-1 thrashing of Washington on Wednesday, I kept thinking about one thing:

    It’s been one week.

    Four words made famous in song by the Bare Naked Ladies 20 years ago, but four words that fit here.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday's 13-6 win over the Nationals.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday’s 13-6 win over the Washington Nationals.

    What to make of these Braves, who sit 4-2 on the season and head out for the Frozen Tundra Trip – let’s face it, who doesn’t yearn for an early-April trip to Denver, Washington and Chicago – looking far more entertaining than the squads that combined to win a total of one game across the opening six contests the past two years?

    For any team to overachieve, there must be surprises. And while it’s been one week, it’s been one week a few guys wearing the tomahawk likely won’t forget.

    Or repeat. Consider:

    Charlie Culberson: Born in Rome – home of Atlanta’s Low-A affiliate – Culberson showed brief flashes of being able to produce offensively to go with his outstanding defensive abilities. He hit .293 in 99 at-bats for Colorado in 2013 and batted .299 three seasons later in 67 at-bats with the Dodgers. A 5-for-11 showing with three extra-base hits in the NLCS last season helped lift Los Angeles to the pennant, but those moments have been few and far between.

    The 28-year-old only has six at-bats in three games, but has made the most of them with two hits and two runs scored. Culberson has matched last season’s hit total (2-for-13 in 15 games). Any offensive production at all is a bonus from a guy who took his one season of regular playing time in Colorado (233 plate appearances in 2014) and promptly slashed .195/.253/.290.

    Ryan Flaherty: I bashed this signing endlessly on Twitter. The Braves already had a guy on the roster, Culberson, who plays great infield defense but can’t hit. Flaherty brought his career .215 batting average in 1,270 career plate appearances to town, and promptly raised that career average by five points in six games.

    How? By going 10-for-23 with four doubles and six runs scored. He became the third Atlanta third baseman to score four times and collect four hits in one game, joining a couple of fellas you may have heard of (Terry Pendleton, and some dude named Chipper). His on-base percentage, which was .284 in six seasons with Baltimore, sits at .500.

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves' bullpen Wednesday

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves’ bullpen Wednesday

    Preston Tucker: He made the team out of spring training as the DDTFIUAT (Dude Designated To Fill In Until Acuna Time). The 27-year-old has flashed promising power – 13 homers in 300 at-bats with Houston in 2015, and 100 career minor-league homers in 535 games – but strikes out in bunches. Like 40 strikeouts in 140 plate appearances in 2016 with Houston bunches, and 102 whiffs in 128 games in Triple-A last season.

    Now? Tucker has struck out four times in 21 at-bats, but when he hasn’t whiffed, he’s produced. Two homers, four runs scored and eight RBIs. Not bad for a guy who drove in 41 runs in his first 146 games before this season. His first-inning homer Tuesday into the Chop House flipped the script after the Nationals built a 3-0 lead, and his three-run opening-frame blast after a Washington error off the impenetrable Max Scherzer Wednesday launched Atlanta ahead for keeps.

    Shane Carle: Admit it, you had no clue who this dude was two weeks ago. Acquired in a quiet offseason deal with the Pirates for the ever-famous “player to be named later or cash considerations,” Carle earned a roster spot by not allowing a run in five of his final seven spring-training appearances.

    He took the loss Friday against Philadelphia by allowing one run in a two-inning stint, but he absolutely saved Julio Teheran and the Braves in Tuesday’s slugfest. Summoned in the third inning, Carle threw 26 of his 37 pitches for strikes and allowed only one hit in 3 1/3 steady innings of relief as the Braves bludgeoned the Nationals.

    The catchers? Nobody could see this coming.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    Atlanta already has started four guys in six games, as Tyler Flowers is on the disabled list and Kurt Suzuki is lucky he didn’t land there. Chris Stewart came on to replace both after injuries in the first two games, made three starts – complete with a two-hit, two-RBI performance Saturday – then was designated for assignment.

    Wednesday’s starting catcher? Carlos Perez. He was in the Angels organization Saturday.

    It’s been one week. An interesting one, for sure. And yet, a successful one for the Braves, who found themselves 1-5 after six games last season and 0-6 en route to a 4-17 start in 2016.

    Surely, there will be regression back toward the mean for these guys. Right?

    Here’s what we do know. Freddie Freeman may be putting the opening brushstrokes on a MVP-caliber season. Dansby Swanson looks confident at the plate. Ozzie Albies, albeit hitting just .172, is putting together solid at-bats. Nick Markakis, whose ninth-inning homer on opening day capped a furious late-inning comeback, owns a .934 OPS.

    And reinforcements are coming. Suzuki should be back early on the road trip. Third baseman Johan Camargo, provided all goes well in his injury rehab, could join the team in Denver. And there’s that Acuna kid, who we presume is a little more than a week away from making his much-ballyhooed debut.

    By then, it will have been more than one week. At this juncture, it’s been one week.

    And it’s been fun to watch.

    —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 sign Markakis, Johnson

    In a much anticipated move, the Atlanta Braves made a deal for a right fielder today with long-time Oriole Nick Markakis. It was the second move of the day for John Hart and the front office in Atlanta after signing former Oriole closer Jim Johnson. Markakis agreed to a 4-year, $44 million deal while his former Baltimore teammate signed for 1-year, $1.6 million.

    Markakis, a 9-year veteran of the AL, is coming home to Georgia with today's signing.

    Markakis, a 9-year veteran of the AL, is coming home to Georgia with today’s signing.

    While it was clear after the Braves traded Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins that they would be looking for a replacement for Heyward in right field, it wasn’t clear where they would look to fill that hole. The possibility of moving Justin Upton back to right field while utilizing Evan Gattis in left field was the only in-house scenario available. On the trade market, the free agents available included Markakis, Nori Aoki, Michael Morse, Melky Cabrera and Torii Hunter. With Hunter signing yesterday with the Twins, it was clear the pieces were going to begin falling. Enter the talks with Nick Markakis.

    Markakis, who attended high school and college in Georgia, has spent his entire big league career with the Baltimore Orioles. He has 9 years of service on his stat sheet with a career .290 average, .358 on-base percentage and .435 slugging. He has averaged 152 games per season, notching 155+ games in all but two of those seasons. He is coming off his second Gold Glove season in right field and a season where he batted .276.

    Atlanta has not had the best luck with long-term contracts in recent years, eating significant money on Derek Lowe and Dan Uggla as well as continuing to watch the B.J. Upton disaster play out. The structuring of Markakis’ deal could turn out to be a bargain during an offseason that finds nearly every team needing OF help. The signing of Markakis also leaves many wondering if this was merely setting up the club for a further move that would send Justin Upton elsewhere for pitching help and prospects. If this is to be the case, the Braves’ outfield would presumably be Gattis, the elder Upton and Markakis.

    Prior to the Markakis signing, the Braves announced that they had signed former Orioles and A’s closer Jim Johnson to a 1-year deal. Johnson, also a 9-year veteran of the league, spent 2006-13 with the Orioles before signing a big contract with the Oakland A’s that fizzled. He ended last season with the Detroit Tigers.

    Over his career, Johnson has posted a 3.57 ERA. Though he was unlikely to return to closing duties with any club after losing command of his sinker when he signed with Oakland, his services were needed by the Braves with the departure of Walden. He will likely serve as set-up man for Kimbrel. The hope is that Roger McDowell, who lived and died with an exceptional sinker in his big league career, will be able to straighten out Johnson and get him back on track.

    When his career went off the rails with the A’s, Johnson posted a 7.14 ERA with 2 saves in 38 appearances for the A’s. His time in Detroit, beginning in August, saw him appear in 16 games where he posted a 6.92 ERA. While both of those numbers are elevated, his ERA was inflated by a few games of no command when he was left in. Many baseball commentators contend that 2014 was an anomaly for Johnson.

    The two former Orioles round out several new additions or returning additions to the club and could still be joined by other new faces before the winter is over.

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

     

     

    Braves lose to Orioles, prepare for rematch with Yanks

    The Braves were unable to cash in on a sensational start from Randall Delgado Sunday

    The Atlanta Braves are 3-6 during interleague play this season, a record that hardly tells the full tale of their recent struggles. In the space of one week, the Braves were swept by the New York Yankees, lost young star Brandon Beachy to an elbow injury, and were 1-hit by the Baltimore Orioles. Will leaving the Ted for the Bronx and Fenway be conducive to turning around this interleague turmoil?

    Let’s start with the highlights of the 3-game series with the Baltimore Orioles. The Braves were able to end their 5-game losing streak by coming out of the gate and beating Baltimore in game one. Rookie Andrelton Simmons showed why his offense is thought highly of in game one and then flashed the leather in game three to remind us that his defense is a step up from his predecessor as well. Craig Kimbrel continues to remind us why he was the 2011 Rookie of the Year. In game one, he notched his NL-leading 19th save of the season. In that same game, Kris Medlen returned to the ‘pen from his boondoggle in Triple-A and pitched 2 innings of scoreless ball. Chad Durbin also pitched well–something he has done consistently in recent weeks. And though Randall Delgado took the loss in the final game of the set, he was remarkable in his 8 innings of 2-run ball.

    Unfortunately, the highlights for the Braves were far fewer than the low points.

    The worst moment of the series came when Brandon Beachy left game two with an elbow injury. Beachy, who was pitching on extra rest due to soreness in that elbow, threw two breaking balls in the dirt and was immediately lifted in the 4th inning. Beachy will undergo an MRI today.

    Jason Hammel took a no-hitter into the 8th inning against the Braves, but lost that bid when the Braves only hit of the game came off the bat of Jason Heyward. The no-hitter erased, Hammel was still able to throw a complete game shutout.

    The entire homestand was full of roster moves, the final 3-games being no exception. To begin the series, Kris Medlen was called up from Gwinnett and veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez was designated for assignment. Following the injury to Beachy, he was placed to the disabled list and in his spot Todd Redmond was called up from Gwinnett. Redmond, a starter in Triple-A for three years, has been added to the big league bullpen. Fredi Gonzalez announced yesterday that Jair Jurrjens will be called up from Gwinnett on Friday to start. Whether that will be a spot start or more long term remains to be seen. This, presumably, has something to do with Julio Teheran only pitching 4 innings in his most recent start at Gwinnett. Kris Medlen will remain in the ‘pen for now, but could do a spot start or more in the rotation if needed without having to go back down to Gwinnett now that he is stretched out.

    HEADING TO THE BRONX…

    Monday: Minor (3-4, 6.01) vs. Sabathia (8-3, 3.70)

    Tuesday: Hudson (4-3, 3.90) vs. Kuroda (6-6, 3.43)

    Wednesday: Hanson (7-4, 3.32) vs. Hughes (7-5, 4.50)

    The Braves hope to put an end to the Yankees’ surge in their own house over the next three games. They have their work cut out for them.

    Mike Minor took the loss in his last outing against the Yankees at Turner Field, though he pitched 7 1/3 innings of 1-run baseball. He hopes to continue his success against the Bronx Bombers in today’s start. The keys for Minor’s success will be similar to previous outings. Keeping runners off bases with the Yankees is important, especially with the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium. This New York lineup can do damage from every up and down it, so Minor’s job will be to keep his walks down and his pitches in the strike zone. Continuing his recent trend of not giving up homers, especially multiple homers will be important as well. Given how badly the Yankees beat up the Braves’ bullpen in their visit to Turner Field, going deep into the game would be especially helpful from the young rookie.

    Hiroki Kuroda has been exceptional in his last several outings. He has also pitched better at home than on the road. However, Tim Hudson may be due to finally get a win at Yankee Stadium where he holds an 0-2 record in 6 starts. On the road this season, Hudson has held his opponents to a .196 batting average. This, strangely enough with two veterans on the mound, may be the pitching matchup to watch.

    Behind Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson has been the most consistent and reliable starter for the Braves. A solid outing from Tommy is desperately needed by his team right now. He faces a tough opponent in Phil Hughes who seems to have found himself and righted the ship, as they say. Hughes has looked like the 2009 Phil Hughes once again and has been helping his team immensely.

    Perhaps the biggest key to the Braves’ visit to the Bronx this week will be offense. The offense has been struggling mightily without Freddie Freeman’s presence in the lineup. He recently had two cortisone injections into the knuckle of the injured finger that was nailed by a throw as he was sliding into second base and was finally able to bend the knuckle. Getting his bat back in the lineup is very important for a team that has shown throughout the season how instrumental his bat is to their overall offense.

    Brian McCann may be heating up, a good sign for the catcher whose production is down so far this season. Jason Heyward got the only hit against Jason Hammel and seems to be getting key hits. More consistent production will continue to be a need the Braves have with J-Hey. This entire season could hinge on what they can get from Jason Heyward. At the beginning of the season many would have said that Braves’ offense would hinge on Heyward, but also Martin Prado. Martin Prado has stepped up in a big way and is showing every day how valuable he is to this team. Not only has his bat been huge for this struggling offense, his versatility has been a god send as the Braves deal with injuries. Prado even stepped in to play a little first base in the absence of Freddie Freeman and started an outstanding double play while there.

    The Braves and Yankees get underway tonight in the Bronx at 7:05 (EST). Tonight’s game is the featured game on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.

    Braves swept while ‘pen struggles, welcome 2nd place O’s

    Anytime the New York Yankees are in town, you want to win. That was the feeling in the Braves’ clubhouse throughout the 3-game set in Atlanta, but things did not go as anyone would have liked. The Yankees swept the Braves and saw firsthand the glaring holes in the Braves bullpen right now.

    The tone at Turner Field this week is unlike anything fans have seen this season. The Bronx Bombers brought out a huge contingent of their own fans. When Yankees fans would cheer for their players, Braves fans would boo them–the Yankees fans, just as much as the players. While many were making comparisons to these two teams matching up in the postseasons of 1996 and 1999, the Braves didn’t play like either of those teams. Though starting pitching was, for the most part, solid, the bullpen was a mess and the offense struggled once again with runners in scoring position.

    Delgado pitched 5 innings, allowing only 3 runs. The bullpen was solid with newly recalled Cory Gearrin, Durbin and Venters, but the offense just couldn’t make anything happen. Only one runner made it into scoring position and four runners were left on base.

    The second game of the series was a real heartbreaker. Mike Minor really stepped up, something he has done in his last two starts and maybe in response to all the talk that he would be sent down. Minor pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing 5 hits, 1 earned run and only 1 walk. In the top of the 8th, Derek Jeter got on base and Fredi Gonzalez immediately pulled Minor and sent in Jonny Venters. A single by Curtis Granderson and a walk to Mark Teixeira loaded the bases for Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod hit a grand slam off Venters, his 23rd career grand slam, tying him with the great Lou Gehrig for the most grand slams in baseball history. Venters and Gearrin went on to allow 2 more runs in the top of the 8th. The Braves were unable to make up the 2-run deficit and lost the game 6-4.

    Tim Hudson made the start in game 3 after missing a start due to ankle soreness attributed to bone chips. Huddy pitched 6 innings, allowing 6 hits and 3 earned runs. Hudson struck out 8 batters. Minus a missing his spot on a pitch to Granderson that just barely made it over the right field fence and scored 2 runs, Hudson looked as good as he has all season. The ‘pen, in a nice rebound from the night before, didn’t allow a run. The Braves couldn’t capitalize in the final innings and lost by one run.

    The Braves continue interleague play 3rd in the National League East, 5 games behind the 1st place Washington Nationals with a record of 34-29.

    INTERLEAGUE CONTINUES WITH THE SURGING ORIOLES…

    Friday: Brian Matusz (5-6, 4.82) vs. Tommy Hanson (7-4, 3.55)

    Saturday: Jason Hammel (6-2, 3.22) vs. Brandon Beachy (5-4, 1.98)

    Sunday: Wei-Yin Chen (6-2, 3.68) vs. Randall Delgado (4-6, 4.34)

    The Baltimore Orioles come into town as one of the hottest teams in baseball, not to mention one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season. The Orioles are in 2nd place in the American League East, 1 game behind the equally tough New York Yankees. The Orioles have a record of 36-26. Orioles’ pitching has been strong,

    While it is hard to ignore the struggles of the Braves’ offense, especially with runners in scoring position (they finished the New York series 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position), the glaring downfall of the team right now is the bullpen. As the Yankees series hinged on the ‘pen, so could the series with the Orioles.

    Jonny Venters was lights out last season. In 2011, Venters made 85 appearances for the Atlanta Braves. His line: 6-2 record,  88 IP, with a 1.84 ERA. He only allowed 53 hits, 19 runs, 2 home runs, and only hit 5 batters the entire season. This season? His line so far in 2012: 3-3 record, 24 1/3 IP, with a 4.44 ERA. He has allowed 33 hits, 14 runs, 4 home runs and has hit 4 batters. The team is saying publicly that Venters is healthy, but his performance is saying otherwise.

    Eric O’Flaherty, who combined with Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters to be the most effective ‘pen trio in baseball last year, has struggled this season as well. O’Flaherty has not been available for Fredi Gonzalez since Tuesday when he woke with a sore pitching elbow. Fredi said he would give him a few more days of rest. In 2011, O’Flaherty had an incredible run. His line: 2-4 record, 73 2/3 IP, with a 0.98 ERA. He allowed 59 hits, 9 runs and 2 home runs. This season, O’Flaherty has struggled. His 2012 line so far: 1-0 record, 22 2/3 IP, with a 3.97 ERA. He has already allowed 24 hits, 12 runs and 3 home runs.

    As the starting rotation solidifies, the bullpen needs to shut down games. That’s the bottom line and the bullpen has failed repeatedly at this of late. While Venters and O’Flaherty are not the only problem, long man Livan Hernandez has struggled in his last few outings, they’re struggles have left the bullpen depleted and added to its inconsistency.

    The biggest question mark right now is Kris Medlen. Medlen was providing consistency and the ability to pitch in a variety of situations out of the ‘pen. When Mike Minor and Randall Delgado were both struggling in the rotation, Medlen was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to stretch out in preparation to join the starting rotation. While Medlen has been in the minors, Delgado has settled in nicely, Julio Teheran made a spot start and Minor has had 2 back-to-back quality starts. The need for Medlen in the ‘pen seems obvious. Unless the Braves plan to trade for bullpen depth or rush pitchers currently at Triple-A, they need to work with the pieces they have and for now that means utilizing the versatile Medlen where he is needed most.

    The Orioles series gets underway at Turner Field tomorrow at 7:35 (EST).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.