• Brian McCann

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

    Under .500.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

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

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

    Is the offense better than you thought?

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

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

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What needs to happen this month?

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —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 Go Cyber Monday Shopping, Bolster Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There were plenty of people who did their research, scoped out the best buys, figured out their budget and set their sights on Cyber Monday, one of those holiday events where many of us upgrade our wardrobe, electronics or household.

    Who knew Alex Anthopoulos also had that day circled on his calendar?


    Now granted, the Braves general manager probably did not set out specifically to make the first two moves of this pivotal offseason on the same day you were saving 30 percent on a pair of jeans and a flat-screen TV. But when you slip on those new jeans and fire up that TV come April, you’re going to see a familiar face and a hugely impactful face wearing Atlanta Braves jerseys.

    Atlanta welcomed home longtime catcher, Duluth (Ga.) native and eternal fan favorite Brian McCann on Monday, signing the veteran catcher to a one-year, $2 million deal. Injuries and decreased offensive production diminished his impact the past two seasons in Houston, but one of the better framing catchers in the game did help the Astros win the 2017 World Series. Reportedly, the soon-to-be 35-year-old turned down more lucrative offers for the chance to play in front of family and friends in his hometown.

    Certainly, this move did not move the needle holistically as much as it did for sentimental reasons. This correspondent even tweeted that this move did not look great at the moment, but likely would in a month or two given the moves that would come, taking care of the catching position, not spending but a mere pittance (in baseball terms) to get it done. After all, this is not the same player who made seven All-Star appearance wearing an Atlanta uniform earlier in his career.

    Then came news – merely minutes after McCann’s signing was announced by the club – that made adding a catcher who hit .212 in 63 games last season much more tolerable, sentiments be darned.

    The Braves inked slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal late Monday, reuniting the former Blue Jay with Anthopoulos, the general manager who acquired the Auburn University product after the 2014 season to help Toronto reach back-to-back AL championship series.

    That’s a lot of money for a guy who, like McCann, has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. But any return to form for Donaldson, who will be motivated to parlay this one-year deal into a huge free-agent contract come next winter, would pay tremendous dividends for an Atlanta lineup that – for all its sizzle and shine a season ago – lacked the right-handed power threat to slot behind Freddie Freeman in the cleanup spot.

    There’s a lot to like about these deals together, from an inward and an outward perspective.

    Inward, the Braves are a better team now than they were at sunrise. McCann will provide tremendous leadership behind the plate for Atlanta’s youthful staff, the catcher certainly benefitting from working with the likes of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander since he left the Braves after the 2013 season. He gained valuable experience playing in the postseason with the Yankees (who he signed with after leaving Atlanta) and Houston, including the 2017 World Series title.

    Likewise, Donaldson has his share of playoff experience, including the aforementioned two years with Anthopoulos north of the border. The soon-to-be 33-year-old only played 52 games a season ago, but slugged 33 homers with a .944 OPS in 113 games the year before, and only is three years removed from a MVP campaign in which he blasted 41 homers and drove in 123 runs. Anything approaching those numbers in 2019 gives the Braves one of the absolute most dangerous lineups in the NL, hands down.

    And what of Johan Camargo, the young fan favorite whose anchoring of third base the final four months of 2018 is hailed as one of the reasons the rebuilding Braves transitioned into the playoff-clinching Braves? Folks, I can’t see Camargo going anywhere. He has experience playing three infield positions, will get some work at first base and corner outfield in camp, and profiles exactly as the type of player Martin Prado was at one time and Marwin Gonzalez (McCann’s former Houston teammate) is at this time.

    Those guys are incredibly valuable. Baseball today has changed. Used to be, the best eight guys played every day. Not anymore. Remember the NLDS, where the Braves fell in four games to Los Angeles? Atlanta’s bench was piecemeal, while the Dodgers routinely brought guys off the bench who could’ve started for the majority of teams in the majors.

    Camargo will see time on the bench, sure, but also will get plenty of starts spelling Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Donaldson (the beauty is Donaldson does not have to play 150 games for this deal to be a winner for the Braves), a few starts in a corner outfield spot. Social media lit up immediately after the Donaldson news broke with questions of whether Camargo or Swanson would be moved.

    My feeling is neither. Anthopoulos and Brian Snitker – ironically, the man who as a minor-league manager told a 21-year-old McCann at Double-A Mississippi in 2005 that he was going to the majors for the first time – realize depth is a need if this franchise is going to play deeper into October in 2019. Donaldson’s addition allows that to happen. Consider that on a particular night, you could have Camargo (or Swanson, or Albies, or Donaldson) as your top option off the bench, with McCann as the second catcher on days Tyler Flowers starts, along with the ever-versatile Charlie Culberson?

    Beats Ryan Flaherty and Danny Santana.

    It’d be foolish to think the Braves are done, either. Certainly, Anthopoulos will take some of the remaining payroll flexibility and save that dry powder for spring training or the trade deadline, but Atlanta still has money to spend (even more so if it can find a taker for Julio Teheran, knowing it likely will have to eat some of his $11 million owed for 2019). Were Donaldson an everyday player last season, there is no way he takes a one-year deal. McCann three years ago would not have come home for $2 million.

    But here they are, and there still is room for the Braves to work.

    Not to mention Atlanta has dealt exactly zero prospects from its overflowing pantry of young talent. The capabilities are there to make a major move on the trade front, and I think that’s where the Braves will strike next. Could Cleveland’s Corey Kluber be had for a high prospect price, giving Atlanta three years of control of a perennial Cy Young candidate who is a bona fide ace? Could Seattle be enticed to deal outfielder Mitch Haniger and/or closer Edwin Diaz for a big package, allowing the Braves to address corner outfield and closer with long-term controllable pieces?

    Anthopoulos filled two needs on Cyber Monday. Time will tell if he got the most bang for his buck. And with the Winter Meetings looming and plenty of options on the table, today’s spending spree likely is only the beginning.

    —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 fall to Dodgers, begin long offseason

    The story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves season was one of resilience. With a core of young, talented guys, big off season acquisitions and a few veterans, the Braves won the National League East and entered the playoffs despite a season riddled with adversity. That the Braves even made it to the postseason is, in itself, quite surprising. That they couldn’t rise to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers stung, but their postseason performance aside, it was a successful season for Atlanta.

    Take a moment to consider what the Braves overcame this season:

    • Season-ending injuries to starting pitchers Tim Hudson (one of the few veteran leaders in the clubhouse) and Brandon Beachy.
    • Season-ending injuries to two of the best relief men in the business, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
    • Injuries that led to DL stints to nearly every outfielder on the roster including Jordan Schafer, B.J. Upton, Evan Gattis, Reed Johnson and Jason Heyward (the fractured jaw that cost Heyward weeks down the stretch being the biggest blow).
    • Minor injuries piled up for pitchers Paul Maholm, Scott Downs, Luis Ayala and the oft-injured Jordan Walden.
    • Sub-.200 batting averages for starters Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.
    • Losses of Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena to season-ending surgeries.

    Any other team would have crumbled and ended their season at the bottom of their division. But the Braves, to their credit, forged on and made it to the playoffs knowing that they might lack consistent offense, would be without their starting second baseman due to his offensive woes and may or may not get much out of the veteran starter Freddy Garcia.

    The Braves may have headed back home to Atlanta to begin the long offseason with the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths, but they do have a few performances to remind themselves of from their playoff experience.

    • Freddy Garcia, the veteran righty who wasn’t even a lock for the roster until the day the playoffs began, gave the Braves 6 solid innings in Game 4. He surrendered only 6 hits and 2 runs, both runs homers off the bat of Carl Crawford. His performance was timely. Unfortunately, he walked away with the no-decision.
    • Chris Johnson continued his hot hitting, showing the baseball world just how he managed to stay in the batting title race until the final week of the season. Johnson hit .428 in the NLDS (7-for-16) with 5 RBIs.
    • Mike Minor’s NLDS start was reminiscent of his consistency and dominance all season. Minor pitched 6 1/3 innings giving up 8 hits but only 1 earned run (1.42 ERA). Minor struck out 5 batters.
    • Luis Ayala and Luis Avilan were exceptional in their combined 4 2/3 innings of relief. Avilan was in top form when he allowed only 3 hits and 0 earned runs in 4 appearances (2 2/3 innings). Luis Ayala was as brilliant as he had been in the prime of his career. He allowed only 1 hit and 0 earned runs in 3 appearances while striking out 3 batters (2 innings).
    • Craig Kimbrel secured a 4-out save in the single win of the postseason. He did not surrender a hit or a run and struck out 2 batters.

    Following the loss to the Dodgers, there were two story lines that dominated Braves’ coverage.

    Brian McCann was called up in 2005 spending 9 years with the Braves organization. He is now a free agent.

    Brian McCann has spent the first 9 years of his career with the  Atlanta Braves. He is now a free agent.

    The first being that game 4 would be Brian McCann’s final game in an Atlanta uniform. In the business that is baseball, there is no way the Braves can cobble together the money to sign free agent McCann. Unfortunately, the Braves will watch one of their young leaders walk away to a bigger contract, likely with an American League team. McCann was terrible offensively in the playoffs. He went hitless in 13 at-bats, striking out 6 times. However, McCann’s career in Atlanta will be remembered for his offensive prowess and his leadership. Since being called up in 2005, McCann has a .277 average with 1070 hits, 176 homers, 227 doubles and 661 RBIs in 1105 games. He was a 7-time all-star with 5 silver slugger awards. At the age of 29, he may be leaving Atlanta with his best years behind him.

    The other story line that followed the Braves’ loss was whether or not manager Fredi Gonzalez bungled game 4 when he brought David Carpenter out of the ‘pen rather than go to Craig Kimbrel for a 6-out save. Kimbrel had never been called in to get a 6-out save and though he said he was ready to do so, Fredi was prepared to bring Kimbrel in once there were only 4 outs remaining. Of course, Juan Uribe didn’t allow the Braves to get to within 4 outs with the lead. Was it the right call by Fredi Gonzalez? Whether or not it was, this is not a firing offense. Consider what Fredi had to lead the team through to get 96 wins and the NL East championship banner. If it weren’t for the Pirates’ incredible season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fredi Gonzalez get consideration for manager of the year.

    While the 2013 team had a special chemistry and overcame great odds to reach the postseason, the experience for the young core of starters will be beneficial in 2014 forward.

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

    Braves magic number holds at 4, Nats up next

    Atlanta went into the 3-game set against the struggling San Diego Padres with high hopes of dropping their magic number to within division-clinching distance before the series in D.C. began Monday. However, best laid plans never seem to pan out in these situations. The Braves suffered 2 losses at the hands of the Padres and came away from the series with their magic number of 4 not budging. The next stop for the Braves is a 3-game set in the nation’s capital where they hope to crush the Nationals’ playoff hopes and clinch the division.

    freddie

    Freeman has lifted his batting average to .314 with 160 hits, 21 homers and 99 RBIs.

    In Freddie Freeman’s last 7 games, he has contributed 13 hits (2 doubles, 2 homers) and 3 RBIs. He is currently 1 RBI away from having 100 on the season. Friday, Freeman entered the Padres series with 20 homers on the season. It is the newly 24-year-old Freeman now has 3 consecutive seasons with 20 or more home runs.

    On Friday the 13th, a 2-run blast for Brian McCann marked the catcher’s sixth consecutive 20 or more home run season. Also Friday night, Justin Upton launched his 25th homer on the first pitch he saw in the 4th inning.

    The story of the Padres series was truly the Braves’ starting pitching. Over a 7-game stretch, the Braves will have used 7 different starting pitchers. While the start of Kameron Loe was a disaster for Atlanta, the Braves got more than they expected from veteran Freddy Garcia against the Marlins and rookie David Hale in the Padres series.

    David Hale’s had a great Major League debut, despite the team giving up the 3-0 lead he left the game with. His line: 5 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 87 pitches/56 strikes. Hale’s 9 strikeouts in his MLB debut, including the strikeout of Wil Venable to start the game, far exceeded his season-high of 6 strikeouts, achieved 4 times, at Triple-A Gwinnett. Hale’s 9 strikeouts tied a franchise mark for strikeouts in a Major League debut–it was last achieved by Kenshin Kawakami in 2009. Of course, Atlanta has high hopes for Hale, hopes that don’t include anything resembling what Kawakami went through when he signed with the team. While some questioned why he wasn’t allowed to continue, it was the right move for a young arm that hadn’t started a game in 11 days.

    Kris Medlen pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings on Saturday. He allowed 4 hits, 2 walks and struck out 5. It was the 7th consecutive start for Medlen in which he has pitched into the 7th inning and the 3rd start this season that he made it into the 8th inning. Medlen has recorded the win in his last 4 starts, bringing his season record to a winning 14-12. Over the last 4 games dating back to August 29th, Medlen has given up only 3 runs, 23 hits and struck out 26 hitters in 27 2/3 innings. His ERA in those 4 games was 0.98.

    Unfortunately, pitching just wasn’t enough for the Braves to get out of the Padres series with a win. This season, the Braves went 1-5 against San Diego. Perhaps the best player the Padres have, Chase Headley, had 3 homers in the 3-game set. His 2-run shot off Julio Teheran in the series finale put the game out of the reach for the dead Braves offense.

    Like so many other times this season, the Braves lost a series to a team that shouldn’t have been hard to beat. The Braves have dominated winning teams, teams that will likely be in the playoffs, but they have suffered sweeps and losses to teams like the Phillies, Padres, White Sox and Mets. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. It might bode well in the postseason, however, when the Braves face off against teams they have had success against all season.


    BRAVES HOPE TO PUT AWAY NATS AND SECURE SLOT IN POSTSEASON…

    Heading into Washington, D.C., the Braves are in perfect position to not only clinch the division, but put the rival Nats out of their misery for the season.The Braves enter the 3-game series with a record of 89-60, while the Nats have a record of 79-70. The Nats are 10 games back in the division and 4 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race. A series win would give the Braves the division win and would likely knock the Nats out of contention for the Wild Card spot.

    With the division berth approaching, both Tim Hudson and Jason Heyward will join the team on the trip to D.C.. Heyward, recovering from a fractured jaw, took batting practice while the Braves were at home and the hope is he may be able to face live pitching by the end of next week. J-Hey has been hitting with a special batting helmet that has an attachment to protect his injured jaw. He has said that he doesn’t bother him to be using the helmet and that he feels safe when he steps into the batter’s box.

    Jordan Walden joined the bullpen in the nick of time as the fractured finger Scott Downs has been dealing with has really made him a liability. The only player that the Braves are currently hoping to get back before the postseason is Paul Maholm who had a MRI that showed inflammation of his pitching elbow, but no structural damage. They hope he returns on or before September 20th. While the loss of Beachy and Maholm this late in the season would be crippling for other teams, the Braves have been lucky to have Freddy Garcia, Alex Wood and David Hale to rely on.

    To kick off the series, the Braves will send Minor (13-7, 3.15) vs. Haren (9-13, 5.02). Tuesday’s game will feature veteran Garcia (1-1, 1.32) vs. Roark (6-0, 1.30). The series finale will pit Wood (3-3, 3.45) vs. Ohlendorf (4-0, 3.15). The first game of the series will be featured nationally on MLB Network.

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

    Notes from Braves sweep of the Tribe

    The Braves swept the visiting Tribe at the Ted this week, bringing their total number of sweeps this season to 12. They now hold a record of 81-52 (.609), the best record in Major League Baseball, with a 13 game lead in the National League East.

    Here are a few notes from the Braves’ sweep of the Indians:

    Medlen on Thursday: 7 inn, 6 hits, 6 K's, 0 BB, 0 ER.

    Medlen on Thursday: 7 inn, 6 hits, 6 K’s, 0 BB, 0 ER.

    • With his 3-run home run in the series finale, Brian McCann has not recorded 19 homers on the season. He now has 4 HR and 18 RBI in situations where there are 2 outs and RISP this season.
    • In Kris Medlen‘s 5 August starts, he pitched 33 innings, gave up 11 earned runs, walked only 4 batters, struck out 28 and had a 3.00 ERA. The series finale got Kris Medlen his 4th win of the month, including the strange outing when he was needed in the ‘pen and recorded the win. In Thursday’s win, Medlen went 7 innings, giving up 6 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 6 and strikeouts on 96 pitches.
    • On Wednesday, Dan Uggla (2B) was activated from the 15-day DL after undergoing successful Lasik surgery to correct his vision. Todd Cunningham (OF) was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett.
    • Atlanta is 16-3 with 2.21 ERA in their past 19 home games.
    • As a starter this season, Joey Terdoslavich (OF) is hitting .375 (12-for-32). As a bench bat, he is hitting a poor .192 (5-for-26).
    • Luis Avilan, one of the most dependable set-up men in the league, has allowed a run in 3 of his past 7 appearances. He had just 1 unearned run in his previous 35 appearances.
    • In Tuesday’s home opener, Elliot Johnson‘s first home at-bat with the Braves resulted in a 2-run triple. Before that 2-run triple, Elliot had 1 hit in his previous 39 ABs when facing American League pitchers.
    • Justin Upton left Thursday night’s game with a left hand contusion after being hit by a pitch at the plate. While the x-rays were negative, he is listed as day-to-day. Each of the Braves starting outfielders (Upton, Upton and Heyward) have sustained injuries this season, as have backup outfielders Schafer, Johnson and Gattis.
    • Craig Kimbrel continues to dominate opponents. In the series finale, he recorded his 43rd save of the season, 32 of those saves consecutive. Kimbrel’s ERA is now a ridiculous 0.97. Despite having what appears to be his best season yet, Kimbrel has 12.9 Ks per 9 innings, his lowest SO/9 rate of his young career. He is on pace to surpass his Rookie of the Year season high of 46 saves.

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

    Braves’ look to build a new streak vs Phils

    Despite a 54-minute rain delay in game 2, Alex Wood pitched 6 shutout innings, allowing only 2 hits.

    Despite a 54-minute rain delay in game 2, Alex Wood pitched 6 shutout innings, allowing only 2 hits and striking out 7. He walked away with the no-decision, bringing his record to 2-2 (2.78 ERA).

    Taking their lucky 13-game hit streak into a series against the last-place Miami Marlins, the Braves had high hopes for carrying through the series. Unfortunately, the Marlins and the weather had other plans. Game 2 snapped the Braves’ winning streak, but Game 3 got the ball rolling again for a hot Atlanta club that now has a 14 1/2-game lead in the National League East and the best record in the league.

    The Braves finished the 3-game set with the Marlins as one of only 6 teams in the National League with a winning percentage over .500 and the only NL team with a percentage above .600. Their .610 winning percentage is the highest in either league. The Braves even have a winning percentage over .500 on the road where they have certainly had their struggles this season, especially in the first half when they had one of the most demanding road schedules in baseball.

    As Kent Covington noted in his piece, the Braves have had the benefit of production from the outfield they thought they had when the team signed the Upton brothers over the winter:

    “Since the All-Star break, in 169 combined at-bats, Heyward and the Uptons are batting .331 with 9 HR and 27 RBI (BJ Upton missed 17 games over this stretch due to injury). Only 4 stolen bases between the three of them over that span, but with so much power up and down the lineup and the offense humming at the moment, why risk running into outs?”

    The outfield isn’t the only part of the Braves’ roster that is firing on all cylinders. Despite some of the biggest blows to any pitching staff, including the season-ending injuries to dominant relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty as well as a grizzly play that saw Tim Hudson carted off the field for the season, Braves pitching has been electrifying. When the starting rotation has faltered, a rare occurrence, the lights-out bullpen has picked it up. David Carpenter, Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden have been a brilliant bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel on any given night.

    What the 14-game winning streak signaled to all of baseball, especially the young guys in the clubhouse who have heard otherwise, is that this team is built for the postseason.

    BRAVES FACE FIGHTIN’ PHILS…

    As the Phillies arrive at Turner Field, the Braves have a runaway lead in the NL East. However, the Phillies are attempting to keep pace with the Nationals and Mets. With a 52-65 record, on paper the Phillies can hardly compete with the 72-46 Braves. However, you can count on the Phillies doing everything in their power to make sure the Braves take their lumps, too.

    The Braves have Jordan Schafer back from the disabled list, a needed bench bat and outfield replacement. The timing of Schafer’s return may be very important given the hamstring trouble of Justin Upton who called his own bunt play in game 3 and came up with a gimpy hamstring. Upton’s bat has been a huge part of the Braves’ recent success and is important to get back in the lineup quickly. The same can be said for catcher Brian McCann who hasn’t played since pinch-hitting on the 10th due a sore right knee.

    A high point going forward is the return of Brandon Beachy’s command. It’s quite possible that his velocity won’t return entirely to normal until spring of 2014, as it takes at least 18 months to fully recover from “Tommy John” surgery (Beachy had the surgery in June of 2012).

    Monday’s game will feature Hamels (4-13, 3.81) vs. rookie Teheran (9-5, 2.96). Tuesday’s game will pit Martin (1-1, 6.75) vs. Medlen (9-10, 3.85). The final game of the series before the Braves again welcome the Nats will feature former Nat Lannan (3-5, 4.81) vs. Beachy (1-0, 5.00).

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

     

    Braves win 7th straight, hope to take momentum on road

    While Shelby Miller of the Cardinals has been the talk of the NL Rookie of the Year race, Julio Teheran is asking voters to give him a chance.

    While Shelby Miller of the Cardinals has been the talk of the NL Rookie of the Year race, Julio Teheran is asking voters to give him a chance.

    In the last 7 games, the Braves have put on a show for all of baseball. With their offense, defense and pitching firing on all cylinders, the Braves have been ridiculously good. In the 7 games of the home stand, they outscored opponents 51 to 16 and notched 84 hits. Game 3 of the series marked the first time the Braves have scored at least 9 runs in 3 consecutive games since 4 straight in April of 2012. They are now 11 1/2 games up in the NL East and on pace for 95 wins.

    Julio Teheran was nothing short of spectacular against the Rockies. His 11 strikeouts matched his career high thrown against the Pirates on June 5th. Teheran finished his start with 5 innings pitched, 5 hits and an earned run in 103 pitches.

    Teheran wasn’t the only pitcher with an outstanding start against Colorado. Mike Minor pitched 7 innings against the Rockies, allowing only 2 hits, no runs and striking out 6. Teheran and Minor have led Braves pitching this season from the back of the rotation.

    Reliever Luis Avilan remains untouchable. Despite a run crossing the plate, charged to the pitcher before him, Avilan held his streak of not allowing a run in tact last night. He now hasn’t allowed a run in his last 29 appearances. His ERA on the season is down to 1.22.

    One last note on pitching during the series: Brandon Beachy’s season debut was, well, rocky. Beachy came out after allowing 8 hits, 6 runs, 1 walk and 5 K’s in 3 2/3 innings of work. It took him 84 pitches to reach the 3 2/3 mark. He was then picked up by a solid bullpen effort that included David Carpenter retiring 7 straight, another scoreless frame by Luis Avilan and Scott Downs’ first appearance in a Braves’ uniform. Scott Downs walked away with the win.

    Perhaps even more important than pitching the the series and the home stand was the consistent, dominant performance by the offense.

    In the final game of the series, Chris Johnson went 3-for-5, It marked Chris Johnson’s 10th three-hit game of the season, his 36th multi-hit game of 2013 and his 7th consecutive multi-hit game.. His average is now .346 and continues to lead the National League. Over his last 33 games, Chris Johnson is hitting .388 (50-for-129) with 20 runs scored, 2 dingers & 17 RBIs.

    The other player in the trade that brought Chris Johnson to Atlanta, trade headliner Justin Upton, appears to be coming out of a slump. In the final game of the series, Upton recorded his 6th career multi-homer game with 2 blasts. It was his 2nd multi-homer game with Atlanta, his 1st came April 6th against the Cubs.

    Andrelton Simmons did something unusual in the final game of the series–he struck out. Despite being on a team of notorious strikeouts, Simmons has been one of the most difficult players in the big leagues to strike out. His streak of’ 61 straight at-bats ended in game 4. Simmons’ previous strikeout came in the bottom of the 1st inning on July 14th. The whiz kid at shortstop can be allowed that strikeout given his heroics in game 2 when he hit the game ending triple, the first by the Braves since 1953.

    One of the biggest stories of the season for the Braves is their search for a leadoff man. For several years, the Braves have not had a prototypical leadoff hitter. With B.J. Upton joining the club, they thought he might be able to leadoff, but given his season-long slump, that didn’t pan out. Simmons isn’t a leadoff hitter, either. However, Fredi Gonzalez took a chance and plugged Jason Heyward into the leadoff spot. Probably the largest leadoff hitter in the league, Heyward may stick out, but so far the results have been impressive. Since he began leading off, Heyward has hit .296 (8-for-27) with 2 homers & 7 RBIs. Heyward homered 3 times on the 7-game homestand, 2 of them from the leadoff spot.

    BRAVES MAKE TRIP TO STADIUM OF NOT-SO-BROTHERLY LOVE…

    As the Braves head to Philadelphia for a 3-game series against the Phillies, they hope to take some of their home stand momentum on the road. They have been much better at home than on the road, not helped by the fact that they spent much of the first month of baseball on the road with one of the toughest schedules in baseball. Holding their 11 1/2 game lead in the division will be a top priority for the Braves.

    In injury news, B.J. Upton began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett. In 6 innings in centerfield,  he went 3-for-4 with 2 doubles, including a double in his 1st at-bat, 3 runs and 2 RBIs. Without B.J., the Braves have gone 10-5 and in their previous 15 with B.J., they went 8-7. Oddly enough, they had fewer strikeouts as a team when B.J. was with them for those 15 games. Baseball cannot be predicted.

    Another injured outfielder that is making strides in his rehab is Jordan Schafer who could be seen running the bases before the games against the Rockies. He has been able to run a lot more aggressively in the last few days and should be healthy enough to begin a rehab assignment soon.

    Brian McCann will be an important story for the Braves in August. In his 22 games in the month of July, Mac hit .337 with 6 doubles and 6 homers. If he can continue on this pace and stay healthy, this will be huge for the Braves who missed his bat a great deal last August when he finished the season with a .181 average and a soon-to-be surgically repaired shoulder.

    Though the Braves technically carry 3 catchers with McCann, Laird and Gattis, the Braves were without one against Colorado. Laird has been unavailable to play few days, he’s on pain medication trying to pass a kidney stone that had him in hospital Sunday. Atlanta will have all 3 once again available in Philly.

    Friday night’s series opener at Citizens Bank Park will pit Medlen (7-10, 3.74) vs. Martin (0-0, -.–). Saturday’s nationally broadcast game on FOX will feature Beachy (0-0, 17.18) vs. TBD. Sunday’s series finale on ESPN will feature Wood (1-2, 3.51) vs. Lannan (3-4, 4.10).

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

    Braves drop series to Philly, take talent to South Beach

    Closer Craig Kimbrel was the single Braves selection to the 2013 All Star Game.

    Closer Craig Kimbrel was the single Braves selection to the 2013 All Star Game.

    Since the Braves swept the Diamondbacks, they have gone 2-4. They now fly south to Miami to face off on the vast expanse that is the field at Marlins Park. Hoping to pick up a few wins within their division, the Braves will play a 3-game set in Miami before returning to Turner Field to face the Reds on the eve of the all star break.

    On Saturday, the Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel, was named to the National League all star roster. Kimbrel has a 1.72 ERA in 31 1/3 innings pitched this season with 46 strikeouts and 23 saves. He was the sole selection to the roster for the first place Atlanta Braves. Snubbed were pitcher Mike Minor and first baseman Freddie Freeman. Freeman is one of 5 players on the final vote ballot including Adrian Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, Yasiel Puig and Hunter Pence. Freddie has a .306 average, 9 homers, and 56 RBIs this season. He leads the other 4 final vote contenders in RBIs. Freddie trails only Yasiel Puig in average, but has played in over 40 games more than rookie Puig.

    Game 1:

    W: Lee (10-2) L: Maholm (9-7) SV: Papelbon (18)

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Braves 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 0 4 9 1
    Phillies 1 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 x 5 10 0

    The Braves were unable to get to Cliff Lee further adding to the story of Lee’s season. Unfortunately, the entire game didn’t remain in Lee’s favor. Atlanta put 4 earned runs on the board in the 7th inning, all charged to Cliff Lee. Those 4 earned runs in the 7th inning matched the total number of ERs Lee had allowed in his previous 52 innings pitched against Atlanta.

    Game 2:

    W: Hudson (5-7) L: Kendrick (7-6)

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Braves 1 2 0 1 2 0 4 1 2 13 19 0
    Phillies 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 2 4 9 1

    In Hudson’s previous 8 starts, the Atlanta offense had scored a total of 11 runs of support. Through 5 innings Saturday, they had given him 6 runs to work with. They went on to score 13 runs on 19 hits in the game. It was one of the first games in Hudson’s 2013 season when he was given breathing room to use his sinker without the fear that opposing batters would get the ball out of the infield and eventually score. Huddy’s win added to his ridiculous stats of being 157-6 in his starts when he has been given four or more runs of support before being pulled from the game.

    votefreddieEvery starter in the lineup got at least one hit. Starter Kendrick was knocked out of the game after 5 innings. Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla and Chris Johnson led the offense. Simmons, Uggla and Heyward had homers in the game and Andrelton finished the game a double shy of the cycle.

    Since the Braves’ doubleheader on the 18th of June, Andrelton Simmons is batting .286 with 20 hits in 70 at-bats, 2 triples, 2 homers, 2 stolen bases and only 5 strikeouts. Like Simmons, Uggla has turned around his season since trying out new contacts. Since June 23rd, Uggla is hitting .286 with 12 hits in 43 at-bats, 2 doubles, 1 triple, 3 homers and 12 RBIs. Uggla holds the team lead with 16 homers. When Jason Heyward went on the disabled list after an emergency appendectomy on April 20th, he was hitting for a .161 average. He is now hitting .228. Since J-Hey’s return on the 17th of May, he has hit .264 with 11 doubles and 5 homers.

    Chris Johnson continues to be the most consistent hitter in the Braves’ lineup. Johnson leads the club in average and doubles. He trails only Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman in hits despite trailing them both by at least 40 at-bats. Oddly enough, Johnson has given the Braves more offensive production than Justin Upton–the player he was traded with to the Braves.

    Game 3:

    W: Pettibone (5-3) L: Medlen (6-8)

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Braves 0 0 0 0 1 0 2 0 0 3 10 1
    Phillies 2 0 0 2 1 2 0 0 x 7 10 0

    On another day, Kris Medlen may have walked away with a win against the rival Phils. However, his outing was marred by early command issues and though he recovered after the first inning, his command disappeared again in the 4th inning. For their part, the offense was terrible. Medlen actually was the first batter to get a man across the plate in the 5th inning. That run was quickly eclipsed by the solo shot he surrendered to Domonic Brown in the bottom of the inning. Frustration was rampant on the part of the offense, displayed by B.J. Upton when he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes at the plate following yet another strikeout.

    Brian McCann continued his 8-game hitting streak with another multi-hit game. Sunday’s game was the first of his 8-game streak in which McCann didn’t have at least 1 extra-base hit. Coming into the game, McCann was 16-for-28 with a .571 average. Since June 23rd, McCann has 19 hits in 39 at-bats, 6 doubles, 3 home runs and 11 RBIs. He has a .487 batting average, .535 on-base percentage and is slugging .872. Since the 23rd, he has improved his batting average from .246 to .293.

    BRAVES BEGIN QUICK TRIP TO FLORIDA…

    As the Braves arrive at Marlins Park, they will face a team that no longer has starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco. The Marlins are 3-3 since the start of July. While the Braves hold a 4-game lead on the Nationals in the division, the Braves have not fared well against teams in the NL East. The Braves need to scratch out wins against the Marlins, Phillies and Mets to keep the Nats at bay (and the Phillies, for that matter).

    An injury update: Evan Gattis started swinging Thursday and throwing Friday. His oblique is progressing, but he obviously will not return before the all star break. Brandon Beachy will make a rehab start in the next several days barring any setbacks in his recovery from the fluid that developed on his pitching elbow following his return from Tommy John surgery. The schedule for his rehab start will hinge on Gwinnett’s schedule with the Triple-A all star game on the horizon. As the Braves currently have only 2 catchers on their roster, the emergency backup catcher would be recent call-up Joey Terdoslavich. We will inevitably hear talk once again about what happens to the rotation when Beachy returns in the coming weeks. At the moment, Maholm, Medlen and Hudson have had an equal number of struggles and the bullpen has a rhythm now with the current arms available.

    The first game of the series will feature all star-worthy Minor (8-4, 3.15) vs. Slowey (3-6, 4.24). Tuesday’s game will pit Teheran (6-4, 3.23) vs. Alvarez (0-0, 5.40). The finale game of the series will feature Maholm (9-7, 3.81) vs. Turner (2-1, 2.30).

    One last note on the ASG Final Vote ballot: You can vote for Freddie Freeman online or on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (EST), any tweet that includes the designated player hashtag (#VoteFreddie) will be counted. Vote early and vote often!

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

    Braves hit snag against Fish, face middle-of-the-pack Phillies

    Likely All Star, Craig Kimbrel surrendered the go-ahead run to the Marlins in the final game of the series.

    Likely all star Craig Kimbrel surrendered the go-ahead run to the Marlins in the final game of the series.

    If there is anything more inexplicable than the feast or famine offense for the Braves, it is the way they can sweep one of the better teams in baseball and then drop the following series to presumably the worst team in baseball. That is precisely what happened in the 3-game series against the Miami Marlins this week as the Braves entered the series fresh off a sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It wasn’t all on the offense, however. The bullpen faltered last night in a big way and we saw that rare event when the game ended and Craig Kimbrel left the mound without the save. Such is the game of baseball and in a season consisting of 162 games, the Braves are bound to lose their fair share.

    Game 1:

    W: Medlen (6-7) L: Jennings (0-1)

    While much is made of the Braves offensive struggles on nights when they don’t homer, the Braves managed a hit parade in game 1, their only win of the series, without going yard. Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons each had triples, not a regular occurence for the 2013 Braves. Freeman, McCann and Johnson contributed doubles. And even pitcher Kris Medlen got in on the act, notching a single and double for his own cause.

    Kris Medlen pitched 6 innings of 3-run ball and then handed the game over to a flawless bullpen. Anthony Varvaro and Alex Wood each pitched 1 scoreless inning in relief.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Marlins 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 3 11 2
    Braves 0 1 1 1 0 4 1 3 x 11 16 1

    Game 2:

    W: Nolasco (5-8) L: Minor (8-4) SV: Cishek (16)

    Each of Ricky Nolasco’s recent starts have been referred to likely his last in a Marlins’ uniform. Unfortunately for the Braves, Nolasco wasn’t traded before he pitched against them in Atlanta. The Braves were unable to get much going against Nolasco in the 7 innings he pitched and their rally in the 9th fell short, scoring only 1 run.

    Mike Minor was on his game until the 5th inning when the wheels fell off for him. Up until the 5th, Minor was cruising along just as he has in so many of his starts this season. For their part, the bullpen was hit and miss. Varvaro and Carpenter did their job, but Gearrin allowed 2 additional runs, putting the game out of reach for the Braves by the last chance in the 9th inning.

    Chris Johnson, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons each had multi-hit games and Brian McCann hit his 10th home run since his return from the DL. McCann has continued a torrid streak, returning to the offensive threat he had been prior to the 2012 season when he struggled mightily and then required shoulder surgery.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Marlins 0 0 0 0 3 1 0 2 0 6 9 1
    Braves 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 3 10 0

    Game 3:

    W: Ramos (3-2) L: Kimbrel (2-2) SV: Cishek (17)

    The Braves had a series win within their grasp when Craig Kimbrel went to the mound in the 9th to hold the Marlins at 3 runs, giving his club a chance to win the game in a walk-off in the bottom of the 9th. However, that wasn’t in the cards for the closer. Kimbrel allowed the run that won the game for the Marlins. Though, his offense didn’t bail him out in the bottom of the 9th with any runs on the board. This certainly isn’t a sight that the Braves are used to, but the young closer does have to fall to Earth every now and then. Kimbrel is a lock for the All Star Game at Citi Field. ASG participants will be named tomorrow on FOX at 6:30 (EST).

    Atlanta was 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position in the final game of the series, despite doubles by Jason Heyward and Brian McCann. Julio Teheran pitched 5 innings, giving up 3 runs and notching 7 strikeouts in 104 pitches.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Marlins 0 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 4 10 0
    Braves 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 7 0

    THIRD PLACE PHILLIES ARRIVE AT THE TED…

    The Philadelphia Phillies are quietly sitting in the middle of the pack in the NL East behind the Washington Nationals. Though they aren’t making much noise, the Phillies could be the spoiler in the NL East as we get closer to the playoffs. Though the Braves have a lead on the Nationals, once healthy, there is still the possibility that the Nationals will put pressure on the Braves for the NL East crown. They’ll each have to win games within the division to make that happen and the Braves know from the series with Miami that they have to work much harder at this.

    Heading into the series, the Braves have a few key pieces in their favor. Brian McCann is raking. In his last 8 games, McCann has 13 hits in 31 at-bats with 4 doubles, 3 homers and 11 RBI. In those 8 games he is batting .419 with a .486 on-base percentage and is slugging .839. In the month of June, first baseman Freddie Freeman was the Braves’ most consistent hitter. He hit for an average of .291 with 30 hits, 6 doubles, 4 homers and 19 RBIs. All of this bodes well facing a team that both hitters have done well against. Additionally, both Justin Upton and Dan Uggla have come alive of late and are contributing semi-consistently.

    Jordan Schafer was placed on the disabled list as his ankle contusion continues to heal. In his place, the Braves have called up prospect Joey Terdoslavich from Triple-A Gwinnett and will use his bat off the bench. Terdoslavich is the Braves no. 14 prospect. With a .318 batting average, 18 home runs and a .926 OPS in his 85 games at Triple-A this season, the switch-hitter will be a good addition to the bench until the Braves get Gattis and Schafer back from injury. The Braves lost Ramiro Pena for the entire season.

    The series opens tonight with veteran Hudson (4-7, 4.22) vs. Lee (9-2, 2.59). The middle game will pit Maholm (9-6, 3.69) vs. Kendrick (7-5, 3.59) and will be nationally broadcast on FOX. The final game of the series on Sunday will feature Medlen (6-7, 3.11) vs. Pettibone (4-3, 3.99).

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