• Brian McCann

    Top 10 of the 2010s (Part 1): A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 1

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – To say I’ve been blessed to follow baseball across the past 40 years is quite the understatement.

    I love this sport. I’ve watched thousands of games, from my early days playing (poorly) in Little League, to writing about high school, college, minor league and major league teams during my sports writing career, to coaching my sons for more than a decade, to being a fan of the Braves and attending games for four decades. From tagging along with my grandfather, to going with my high school and college buddies, to taking my sons to their first games. From snagging tickets here and there, to owning partial season-tickets packages in three different stadiums.

    Only God knows how many baseball games I’ve watched in nearly 47 years on this planet, some while wearing a media credential, some while holding a ticket, some while sitting on the couch watching on TV or a laptop or smart phone (or listening to via radio or streamed online).

    With the 2010s ending, I wanted to look back at my top 10 memorable Braves moments from the past 10 years. These are not ranked in any particular order, other than to be segmented into groups of two based on a common theme.

    I established three simple rules:

    • I had to see it live at the ballpark. That’s why you won’t see Brooks Conrad’s walk-off grand slam in 2010 or Chipper Jones’ homer off Jonathan Papelbon in 2012. I wasn’t at either game.
    • Final score didn’t matter. This is a list of the most memorable moments I witnessed, and it would be an injustice to only include Braves victories.
    • I wanted this series to be more than me simply regurgitating the results. Baseball Reference has all that. I wanted to tie in what these moments meant to me, what happened that day, and what it meant to myself and those around me.

    So, forgive the personal observations shared in this series. We all know what happened in the 2012 NL Wild-Card Game, and we all know what happened in Game 3 of the 2018 NL Division Series (spoiler alert: both games made the list). This is storytelling, looking through a personal lens at the games, the surroundings, the people, recalling – regardless of result – the top 10 most memorable moments these aging blue eyes witnessed in person watching this decade of Braves baseball.

    Happy Holidays! Thank you for reading, as always. I hope you enjoy.

    BLE.

    Welcome to the Show: April 5, 2010

    The Hometown Kid Says Hello with A Big Bang

    When we moved back to Atlanta in 2006, there were plenty of things I did with my kids (then ages 4 and 3) to introduce them to my hometown. Braves games. Thrashers games. Hawks games. Day trips to the mountains. And, on one spring day in 2007, we took advantage of living south of Atlanta to go check out one of the top high school baseball players in the nation.

    Fast forward to April 5, 2010, a bright spring day in Atlanta and the Braves season opener at Turner Field, the first game of the new decade. That strapping kid from Henry County High my kiddos and I watched for a few innings three years earlier stood poised to make his major-league debut. Perhaps to that point there hadn’t been a more-heralded arrival for a Braves player than one Jason Heyward, who raced through Atlanta’s minor-league system after being selected 14th overall in the 2007 player draft, then went 18-for-59 with five extra-base hits and 10 walks in 22 Grapefruit League games to earn a spot on the 2010 opening-day roster.

    You could feel the buzz pregame walking through the parking lots at Turner Field, a vibe that ratcheted even higher when Heyward caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Then the game began and Derek Lowe gave up three first-inning runs, putting the Braves in a hole before taking their first at-bats of the season. But even way up on the top row of the upper deck, high above the Braves bullpen in right field, you sensed something special was brewing.

    Maybe it was because the always combustible Carlos Zambrano took the mound for the Cubs that afternoon. Or maybe we had a feeling about what was coming, because I remember telling my boys that three runs would not beat the Braves on this day. And I was right, because after a walk to (pardon me while I puke as I type his name) Melky Cabrera, a single by Martin Prado, an RBI single by Chipper Jones and a two-run single by Yunel Escobar, the game was tied.

    Heyward walked to the plate, runners on first and second, one out, score even at 3-3. Zambrano missed on his first two offerings. With the sold-out crowd chanting his name, J-Hey unloaded on a 2-0 pitch and launched a Hollywood-esque missile, a screaming, soaring liner deep to right, one-hopping the back wall of the Braves bullpen. The stadium absolutely lost its mind. All the hype, all the hope, all the buildup for a kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, realized with an instant lightning bolt in his first swing as a big-leaguer.

    In the upper deck, we went nuts, everybody screaming and hugging and jumping up and down in a way that’s rare for any game outside of late September or October. It wasn’t until we got home and I watched the replay of the homer did I realize just how far Heyward launched that Zambrano pitch. Sitting at the kitchen table that evening, both of my kids and I couldn’t stop watching the replay of the homer on my laptop.

    I thought probably a hundred times that night, “a star is born.” And in a way that’s what happened, as Heyward earned NL All-Star honors before an injury knocked him out of the game. He finished his MLB debut 2-for-5 with the homer and four RBIs as the Braves ran away with a 16-5 victory.

    You never know where this game, or this life, will take you. Some six years and six months after that blast against the Cubs, Heyward helped lead Chicago to its 108-year jinx-breaking World Series title. But that moment the 20-year-old launched his career and brought down the house in his hometown remains memorable to this day, and was quite the way to kick off the decade.

    Over Before It Even Began: Oct. 9, 2019

    Braves Complete NLDS Choke with Epic Implosion

    My recap of Game 3 of the 2019 NLDS for this platform published, I grabbed a beverage and sat down in the Braves Room. After watching the Braves split the opening two games of the series with St. Louis here in Atlanta, the Braves roared off the deck in the ninth inning for a stunning Game 3 victory, one that sent every person into my house into delirium. Even my mom, approaching her 69th birthday, stood in the living room with a fist clenched, screaming at the TV.

    And that’s how I felt the entire day leading into Game 4, and even after a disheartening extra-inning loss that sent this series to a decisive fifth game – a game that never should’ve been played had the Braves not stumbled all over themselves in Games 1 and 4 of the series – my confidence wasn’t shaken. I had such a calm peace about the whole situation. Even my wife and kids were surprised, given that I will walk through the house clapping my hands in excitement hours before the first pitch of a Friday night game in June against the Phillies or Mets.

    That confidence carried into the day of Game 5. I checked out my oldest son from school. We grabbed barbecue for lunch before hitting the road, chatting about how we felt with Mike Foltynewicz – who we both watched dazzle St. Louis five days prior in Game 2 – on the mound, and how there was no way this Braves offense would spit the bit yet again after wasting so many chances in the fourth game. In fact, the only potential negative was raised by my oldest, who grew up idolizing Brian McCann during his first stint with Atlanta while my kid was learning to catch in Little League.

    “Dad, if the Braves lose, I think B-Mac retires,” he said, then adding, “but we’re not losing.”

    It would be folly to pin what happened on the fact no foam red tomahawks emblazoned with “Relentless,” the 2019 postseason hashtag, greeted fans upon their arrival to the ballpark. But the vibe felt different. Maybe it was the 5 p.m. first pitch. Maybe it was the missed opportunities of Games 1 and 4, conjuring up the ghosts of this franchise’s, and this city’s, past sporting missteps.

    It felt OK when Cardinals leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler foul tipped strike three into McCann’s glove, as I jumped and pumped my fist. Then I noticed the ball on the ground. McCann couldn’t hold onto it, and what transpired over the ensuing 26 minutes is a scenario not even the most scarred Braves fan could think plausible.

    Twenty-six minutes. Ten runs. Season over. And 15,000 people are still trying to get through rush-hour traffic and to their seats.

    There was nothing to say. Nothing. What do you say when you watch an entire season of promise and hope and expectations for the franchise to achieve something it hadn’t done in 18 years, one it should’ve already accomplished two days earlier, evaporate in the autumn sun in about the time it takes to walk from Lot 29 to Murph’s?

    I’m glad my oldest son was with me. He loves baseball like his old man, for better or worse. When Max Fried walked high-school teammate and St. Louis starter Jack Flaherty (who needs to keep his lip zipped on Twitter, by the way) with the bases loaded, my son just started laughing. When a run scored on a strikeout after McCann could not corral a pitch, he laughed again. By the fourth inning, the seats in our section in the upper deck were mostly empty. My kid and I laughed about that, too.

    What else could we do? We were shell-shocked. I kept looking down into the Braves dugout, across the stadium at other fans, and the look was the same. It was like we had watched a train wreck play out in slow motion. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in 40 years of watching baseball. An elimination game, at home, and the better team, the one that should’ve won the series, absolutely getting run off the field in stunning, this-cannot-be-happening fashion.

    In the seventh inning, I said enough. It was time to go home, to spend the 45 minutes in the car trying to think how to put this into words for my recap. But my son said we couldn’t leave. He didn’t want to go. He had school the next day. I had work. I didn’t understand why. This wasn’t funny anymore. He told me:

    “Dad, you know B-Mac’s still in the game. You know JT is getting the ninth. I have to watch them together, one last time.”

    Julio Teheran did make his way from the bullpen to the mound for the top of the ninth. There to hand him the ball was McCann. The two longtime Braves, both of whom made such a profound mark on this decade and on my two little guys’ baseball fandom, walked off the field in the last game of the decade, together as teammates one final time.

    And my son and I walked the steps to the third-base gate, for the final time this decade, fighting back tears.

    —30—

    On Deck: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    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.

    Cole for Christmas is Nice, but Braves Must Pump Up Power

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Many Braves fans felt they were left with coal in their offseason stockings last spring after the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November, then did little else.

    But a different type of coal – Cole Hamels, to be specific – became the latest acquisition of a busy shopping spree for general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday. And while it’s not Gerrit Cole, who figures to sign for a bazillion dollars given the established price of free-agent starters, this Cole will fit into the Braves rotation just fine.

    Atlanta inked a one-time nemesis – stemming from Hamels’ 10 years in Philadelphia – to a one-year, $18-million contract, landing the Braves youthful rotation a veteran left-hander with 422 career games, a career 1.18 WHIP and 2,694 2/3 innings. Add in his 17 postseason games, a World Series MVP award and four All-Star appearances, and it would appear Anthopoulos has satisfied his desire to add an experienced arm to the trio of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

    Since the World Series ended, Anthopoulos has spent like a shopaholic carrying five new credit cards on Black Friday. He remade the bullpen by signing Will Smith, the best closer on the market, and bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. He grabbed Travis d’Arnaud to team with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, after re-signing Flowers and Nick Markakis.

    Including Hamels, Anthopoulos has added $56.25 million to the 2020 payroll. To this point, it’s mostly money well spent (we’ll know for sure after next season). What we do know in early December is this: The bullpen, a source of so much pain and hand-wringing for the first four months last season, is markedly better. d’Arnaud figures to get more than his share of starts following a healthy and resurgent season in a platoon with Flowers. Markakis will work with Adam Duvall in a left field platoon that likely will see Markakis get more starts than he should (because Brian Snitker remains manager, after all).

    Everybody knew Cole (Gerrit, not Hamels) and Stephen Strasburg would command mega deals on the open market, which in turn forced many teams to focus on a second tier centered around Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner. It became clear to the Braves quickly that landing either the East Paulding High alum (Wheeler, who signed a $118-million, five-year pact with Philadelphia later Wednesday) or the Hickory, N.C. native (Bumgarner) would require a heavy investment in years and AAV (average annual contract value).

    So Anthopoulos pivoted quickly to Hamels, who had expressed a desire early in the offseason to take a one-year deal with a contender. And while that World Series MVP award was 11 autumns ago, the soon-to-be 36-year old showed in 2019 he still is capable of pitching at a high level. Hamels posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.39 WHIP with a 3.0 bWAR in 27 starts for the Cubs, both numbers taking a hit after he returned too quickly from an oblique injury.

    Through his first 17 starts (pre-injury), Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP across 99 2/3 innings, allowing nine homers with a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his 10 starts after returning, he pitched to a 5.79 ERA with eight homers surrendered in 42 innings and an unsightly 1.88 WHIP. Most of that damage came in three starts; in the other seven, he gave up a total of 10 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings – a 2.67 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hamels closed the season by giving up three runs on nine hits in 11 2/3 innings across his final three starts.

    Just as important is the influence the Braves hope Hamels will have on their young pitchers. Fried in particular resembles a younger Hamels in both stature (both are 6-foot-4) and mechanics. Another southpaw, Sean Newcomb, figures to get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training (barring acquisition of another starter between now and March). Both should benefit from having an experienced lefty mentor in the locker room.

    Yes, Anthopoulos has accomplished a lot so far this winter. As baseball’s glacier-like pace of offseason moves thankfully has sped up this winter, the Braves are showing signs of a team making progress along the journey from rebuilding franchise to bona fide World Series contender.

    But at this point, it’s just that. Progress.

    Work remains to be done, and now is when things get tricky. Baseball’s Winter Meetings kick off Sunday evening in San Diego. For the moves Braves have completed, a glaring hole remains in the middle of the batting order. Donaldson (who was named NL comeback player of the year Wednesday) is one of the hottest commodities on the open market, viewed as the second-base third baseman behind Anthony Rendon and even more in demand now that Mike Moustakas has signed with Cincinnati.

    I expected payroll to rise this offseason, but it’s moving up at a dizzying rate when compared with the historical thriftiness of Liberty Media. Adding Hamels (and sadly subtracting fan favorite Charlie Culberson, who was non-tendered Monday) to the opening-day locks list, I project 21 players who will be owed approximately $128.62 million for 2020.

    Suffice to say, the work cannot stop now. Especially after all the moves of the past month, Atlanta simply cannot settle with a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley platoon at third base without adding a power bat elsewhere. Ideally, it’s Donaldson at third base, which would mean re-signing the Bringer of Rain for something around $25 million AAV for at least three years (if other camps offer a fourth season, I’m concerned the rain will fall elsewhere in 2020).

    Re-signing Donaldson is the simplest path, one that would take the payroll north of $153 million with four spots left (two on the bench; two in the bullpen). Maybe the Auburn football program could put in a good word for the Braves, considering Donaldson watched his alma mater win Saturday’s Iron Bowl from the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    But if he lands elsewhere, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to trade some of the prospect stockpile and likely Ender Inciarte (and perhaps a bullpen piece) to land a power bat, perhaps Starling Marte from Pittsburgh or Jorge Soler from Kansas City or Mitch Haniger from Seattle, provided he can make the deal sweet enough to compel the other side to jump). The trade market is so much harder to pin down, but every GM in baseball will be at the same place in Southern California for four days next week.

    Given the activity we’ve seen across the sport this offseason, it might be quite a week.

    Regardless, the Braves have no choice. Adding Hamels to the rotation, bolstering the bullpen, and addressing catcher early puts the Braves in a great position with the Winter Meetings approaching. But as long as that hole in the lineup remains, Anthopoulos cannot stop doing everything possible to deliver Braves Country the ultimate prize next autumn, one far greater than coal (or Cole).

    —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’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Back in the old days of print newspapers, it wasn’t uncommon to have items that never made it into the morning edition. Those tidbits, musings, observations would remain in your notebook, scribbled as a passing thought or jotted down in case you needed it as a point of reference.

    On the day after the Atlanta Braves saw their season end with a thud in an ugly Game 5 loss to St. Louis in the National League Division Series, it’s time to empty the notebook and touch on a few items that didn’t get flushed out in our coverage of the series. Items that, in retrospect, feel worthy of a few words as the shift from stunned conclusion to pivotal offseason begins in earnest.

    Acuna, Part I: Save for one regrettable moment in Game 1, 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. did more than his part, the emerging superstar hitting .444 in the series with a 1.454 OPS, three doubles, one triple, one homer and four walks. The fact Acuna finished with a .565 OBP in the series and scored just one run only underscores how putrid a large segment of the Atlanta offense was in the five games.

    Acuna, Part II: As brilliant as Acuna was, so much more has been made of the budding feud between him and the Cardinals, stoked by Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina and Jack Flaherty. I had no problem with several Braves calling out Acuna for his lack of hustle on the single off the right-field wall in Game 1 (an inning I contend the Braves were not going to score whether he was on first or second base). It was warranted and necessary.

    I had a huge problem with the indifference displayed in the Braves dugout in the fifth inning of Game 5, when Flaherty gutlessly drilled Acuna in the back with a purpose pitch, on a two-strike count, in a 12-run game. I certainly did not want to see the Braves charge the field, nor do I think Sean Newcomb should’ve hit Flaherty in the following inning. But the disinterest when Acuna wore a pitch between his shoulder blades from his teammates was a bad, bad look. So, too, is the ongoing public referendum around a kid barely old enough to drink who possesses game-changing talent, a vibe the sport is trying to market.

    Let the kid play … and have his back if somebody crosses the line.

    Freddie Failure: This is Freddie Freeman’s team, without question, but I’d be hard pressed to find a five-game stretch in which the unofficial captain of the Braves was this bad. His error on Molina’s ball in the first in Game 5 cost Atlanta an inning-ending double play and opened the floodgates. It’s a play that had to be made. He was awful at the plate, collecting two of his four hits (in 20 at-bats) after St. Louis blew it open Wednesday. His inability to make contact hurt the Braves on multiple occasions (six strikeouts in the series). The Braves three-hole hitter, with the leadoff hitter on base for much of the series begging for somebody to drive him home, finished with one paltry RBI.

    In 39 plate appearances in the past two postseasons, Freeman has two RBIs – both coming on solo homers. He described the Braves as having “failed” in his postgame comments Wednesday, doubling down yet again on the fact his right elbow is healthy. But he clearly wasn’t himself, and while he never was going to come out of the lineup or move out of the third spot, Freeman’s failure to raise his game – as Acuna did – ultimately played a major role in the premature end of Atlanta’s season.

    Soroka For One, Not Two: A huge talking point in the hours after the series was the decision to save 22-year-old ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka for Game 3 in St. Louis, taking advantage of dominant road splits instead of starting the All-Star twice in the series. It’s easy to second guess the decision after the fact, but the feeling here was (and remains) that it was the right call.

    With playoff veteran Dallas Keuchel starting the opener at home and as hot as Mike Foltynewicz was entering his Game 2 assignment, you had to feel Soroka’s matchup was quite favorable considering he would pitch on the road as opposed to in Atlanta (4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP at home in the regular season vs. 1.55/0.96 in away games). As I mentioned in the run-up to the series, the vast majority of the time you want your No. 1 or No. 2 guy lined up to get two starts across the five games. But the decision to start Soroka just once, while painful in hindsight, did not lose Atlanta this series.

    Best Laid Plans: There are a lot of people for whom I feel awful after this belly-flop performance, but Chris Martin sits near the top of the line. Out of baseball, working in warehouses, started throwing again, went the indy ball route, eventually ended up with the Rangers, then after becoming a strike-throwing machine was acquired by the Braves at the deadline.

    Martin’s left oblique injury, suffered before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1, not only eliminated another layer to this tremendous story, it also had an equally painful ripple effect on the Braves pitching plans. Shane Greene pitched the sixth inning in Game 1, with Brian Snitker looking to close the game with Max Fried in the seventh, Martin in the eighth and Mark Melancon in the ninth. Martin’s absence shoved Fried into a full-time bullpen role for the rest of the series (he would’ve been quite the option to start either Game 4 or 5). Instead, Snitker had to bring on Luke Jackson in the eighth in Game 1, who struggled before Melancon imploded in the ninth.

    But Sometimes, The Plan Isn’t Worth Following: Honestly, Martin never should’ve trotted in from the bullpen in Game 1. Fried absolutely dominated the seventh inning (14 pitches, nine strikes, two punchouts) and should’ve gotten the eighth. With Paul Goldschmidt leading off the eighth (who would hit one nine miles off Jackson), it would’ve been great to scrap the best-laid plans after watching Fried shove in the seventh and give the lefty at least a chance to work the eighth.

    Absurdly Offensive Offense: The Braves were carried by Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall in the series offensively, but got precious little help from most of the lineup. We’ve talked about Freeman, but he had company. Ozzie Albies had a strong Game 4 but mostly was pedestrian. Josh Donaldson disappointed. Nick Markakis was invisible (certainly, he’s made his final appearance with Atlanta, right?). Matt Joyce struggled before being benched for Duvall in Game 5.

    One of the top offenses in the NL all season, the Braves slashed .225/.302/.385 in the series. They finished with 16 extra-base hits, nine from Acuna-Swanson-Duvall. Game 5 was over before the Braves registered a plate appearance, but in the first four games they went 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and left 30 on base, including 17 in the two games they had no business losing – eight in Game 1; nine in Game 4.

    How else to explain why, after Acuna doubled to lead off the ninth of a tied Game 4, Albies didn’t bunt? Because Freeman-Donaldson-Markakis were so bad in the series, the Braves best chance was hoping their second baseman – who had a homer and a sacrifice fly in the game – could punch through a hit. It wasn’t going to happen if Albies didn’t get it done.

    Above any other reason, the inability to hit with runners in scoring position in the first four games cost the Braves this series.

    Finally, A Toast To B-Mac: Brian McCann was my oldest’s son’s favorite player growing up. The kid would crawl into my lap and ask a million questions about what the Duluth High graduate and Gwinnett County product was doing behind the plate, sparking a love of catching that led to that little boy squatting behind the dish in little league for eight years.

    McCann put together a very good career. He struggled mightily in the second half, but homered in the division clincher against San Francisco, capped the big rally against Philly with a walkoff in mid-June, and something just felt right about him being at home and going to the playoffs in, what we learned after Game 5, was his final big-league season.

    The Braves were facing the need to upgrade at catcher entering next season before McCann’s announcement. But that does nothing to minimize the impact B-Mac had on everybody who saw him play. And even more important, from everybody who crossed paths with him, from the newspaper sports editor who delighted in a 15-minute conversation at spring training 2006 talking to him about the impact the 1990s Braves had on himself and a generation of Atlanta-area kids, to my son – who refused to leave SunTrust Park on Wednesday until he saw McCann catch the final inning of his career.

    —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.

    Nightmare First Inning Ends Season, But Braves Blew NLDS Before Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The witnesses looked at each other in absolute shock at what had unfolded during the 26-minute train wreck of a half inning they just watched. The energy, the enthusiasm, the hope of ending an 18-year playoff series drought, absolutely obliterated beyond recognition by the time fans could finish their first beer.

    But make no mistake: the Atlanta Braves 2019 season isn’t over just because they gave up 10 runs (yes, 10; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) in the top of the first inning of a 13-1 faceplant Wednesday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Truth be told, the Braves never should have been on the field on this splendid autumn afternoon along the northwestern rim of the capital city, even though it appeared they weren’t anywhere to be found as St. Louis sent 14 hitters (yes, 14; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) to the plate in the opening frame.

    No, the Braves should’ve been at home, relaxing and getting ready for either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals, relishing in the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001, focusing on the NL Championship Series and securing four wins that would send them to the World Series for the first time in 20 years.

    They should’ve won this series long before Game 5 flew off the rails and straight off a cliff into a bottomless lake.

    They had this NLDS won, and they blew it.

    Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

    The Braves kept flubbing opportunities to put away the series, and baseball has a funny way of biting teams that don’t take care of the business at hand. Afford an opponent with enough opportunities to flip the script, and sooner or later it’s going to happen.

    It happened in Game 1, when Atlanta melted down at various times throughout the contest before allowing six runs in the final two innings of a 7-6 defeat, a sequence beginning with one of its key bullpen pieces acquired at the trade deadline (Chris Martin) leaving with a left oblique injury before throwing a single pitch.

    It happened in Game 4, when the Braves started their free-agent veteran rotation piece possessing postseason experience (Dallas Keuchel) and saw him serve up three homers in 3 1/3 innings. The offense responded by stranding nine runners and left the bases loaded in the sixth and seventh innings, before two St. Louis hits that traveled with the velocity of a horse and wagon tied the game in the eighth to set up an extra-inning defeat.

    In the two losses leading into Wednesday, Atlanta’s offense was a combined 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 17 runners on base. It started all the way back in the first inning of the series, when the first four Braves hitters reached, yet Atlanta emerged from the frame with just a 1-0 lead. Young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. tripled leading off the seventh in Game 4 and doubled to start the ninth, and neither time dented home plate.

    That sent the NLDS to one final act, a winner-take-all affair with a shot at the pennant hanging in the balance. The old baseball axiom says in one game, anything can happen.

    The Braves inability to close out this series before Wednesday led to a first inning that still feels like a nightmare:

    Mike Foltynewicz – so brilliant down the stretch and in a Game 2 victory (by far Atlanta’s best game of the series) – gave up seven times the number of runs (seven) as outs recorded (one, on a sacrifice bunt) before hitting the showers after 23 pitches.

    The combination of Foltynewicz and Max Fried – the young lefty so good in relief in the opening three games of the series – teamed up to surrender five hits with four walks.

    Freddie Freeman – whose miserable performance in this series cannot be stated enough – flubbed a potential inning-ending double play that would’ve allowed the Braves to escape with only one run allowed.

    Brian McCann – who returned home to chase another World Series ring in what turned out to be his final season; he announced his retirement after Wednesday’s loss – could not secure a foul tip from leadoff hitter Dexter Flower that would have been strike three, instead leading to a walk that began a half-hour even the most cynical Atlanta sports fan never could have envisioned.

    Sometimes, young teams must go through difficult times to learn valuable lessons that will serve them well moving forward. And there is no denying the future is ultra-bright for this team. The Braves are set up to contend for the foreseeable future. They are a fun, enjoyable bunch to watch play the game, one of my favorite teams in 40 years of following this franchise. And they’re good, very good.

    But in October, the best team doesn’t always win. These Braves were better than the Cardinals. They should’ve won this series. Presented with opportunities to take control of games in October, you cannot emphasize enough the urgency to execute. Not delivering with runners in scoring position, not calling for a bunt with a runner on second, not getting a fly ball with a runner on third and less than two outs, not getting outs in the final innings, not fielding ground balls to start double plays, those things will lose you games in the regular season.

    Not doing those things in the 10th month of the year will end your season.

    Atlanta learned that in the worst possible way the past seven days. The hope is this pain leads to better things in the Octobers to come.

    But that’s little solace on this night. A Braves team good enough to play deep into the postseason choked, and now finds itself in a place so many of its predecessors landed:

    Home far too early, wondering what could’ve been.

    —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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —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.

    WINNERS, AND STILL CHAMPIONS!! BRAVES SILENCE DOUBTERS WITH BACK-TO-BACK DIVISION TITLES

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It never gets old. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens. It doesn’t matter if it comes out of left field or becomes an annual occurrence. It never, ever, EVER gets old.

    But had you bought into the national pundits and the long-since-beaten-to-oblivion storyline in spring, you would think the Atlanta Braves would hold tight to the memories of winning the 2018 National League East championship as if it were a summertime fling with that girl who visited her grandparents in your neighborhood for six weeks, because there would be no chance at reliving that moment from Sept. 22, 2018.

    Welcome to Sept. 20, 2019.

    Welcome to Atlanta.

    Welcome to the home of the NL East champions.

    Again.

    The Braves officially answered the national media and the naysayers in the best way possible at 9:42 p.m. Friday, when Alex Dickerson’s fly ball to short center landed in the glove of Ronald Acuna Jr. Some 363 days after Acuna gloved the final out to clinch the Braves 2018 NL East crown, Atlanta again ascended the mountain, completing the first step of a journey that feels – unlike last season’s surprising surge to the playoffs – like it only has reached an initial benchmark, and not a final destination.

    The Braves of 2018 surprised so many, a newness for a franchise coming out of a painful four-year rebuild. This year’s edition, despite being overlooked by so many, shook off an 18-20 start and put the hammer down with a torrid four-month stretch that blew the doors off the revamped NL East. The Nationals, Phillies and Mets made plenty of headlines in the cold, windy days of winter.

    Amid the heat of summer, the Braves shined brightest. Now they get the chance to turn autumn upside down.

    From the moment the sun came up Friday, there was a sense of finality around the series opener with the Giants, the beginning of the final home series of the season. A chance to lock up the division title in front of a huge crowd, on a weekend, much like the Braves experienced last season on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon against the Phillies.

    But the path to bottles being popped in the home clubhouse was a bit different this time around. The Braves stumbled out of the gate, and in early May were two games under .500 after being swept by the Dodgers and losing on a walk-off homer the next night in Arizona. The bullpen was a mess, scuttled by injuries and underperformance. The offense wasn’t clicking. The rotation was inconsistent.

    You know what happened next.

    Let’s fast forward to tonight. There were redemption stories as far as the eye could see.

    Start with the front office. Yes, the front office. Financial flexibility be darned, Alex Anthopoulos knew what he was doing from the jump. He pulled the trigger for Dallas Keuchel and not Craig Kimbrel. He rolled the dice on Josh Donaldson. He took a bit of a chance in bringing Brian McCann back to his hometown. He hedged his bet on Nick Markakis, hoping the second-half regression we saw last summer wouldn’t repeat itself.

    Despite non-stop criticism from the national media and from large segments of the fanbase, Anthopoulos never caved. He remade the bullpen at the trade deadline. He supplemented the roster by coming up aces with every August move off the waiver wire.

    And his biggest splash of the winter? Suffice to say it’s worked out perfectly.

    Donaldson, who looked a shell of his former self due to injuries in 2017-18, stayed healthy all season. He’s been one of the top third baseman in the game since finding his rhythm in early June. Moving to the cleanup spot has provided the protection Freddie Freeman has lacked in his big-league career. Watching Donaldson celebrate with his teammates makes one feel he would be happy to return to Atlanta for 2020 and beyond, provided the length of contract and money involved is right.

    But the biggest story on this third Friday in September was focused on the mound. Throughout the winter, so much was made of question marks about Atlanta’s rotation. Mike Soroka and Max Fried went a long way toward answering those questions with breakthrough seasons. The addition of Keuchel provided a sorely needed veteran boost, a previous World Series champion who swam through Chattahoochee Falls during the postgame party with the joy of a child on the first day of summer vacation.

    Mike Foltynewicz pitched the clinching game for the division title a season ago, a crowning moment of a 13-win, All-Star season. But things went south after a bone spur in his elbow short-circuited his spring training, and a disastrous two-month stint send the right-hander to the minors to find himself.

    That demotion paid dividends in more ways that one. Beyond the numbers Foltynewicz has compiled since returning to Atlanta’s rotation in early August, it’s the manner with which he has owned the mound that should give Braves fans a ton of confidence. Eight shutout innings Friday on just 95 pitches (65 for strikes), complete dominance extending a streak of impressive starts to six for the 27-year-old. Once an afterthought for the postseason roster, Foltynewicz very well may be Atlanta’s most important arm in the playoffs.

    And when it was over Friday night and the team assembled on the field, Brian Snitker stood in the middle of the diamond with tears welling in his eyes. As the big screen showed the skipper, SunTrust Park roared its approval, and the emotional, stoic leader of this emerging powerhouse raised his left arm in the air.

    The lifelong Brave, in his 43rd year in the organization, walked toward the dugout with arms raised. He, and his team, destroyed the national storyline. Now, these Braves of 2019 have a chance to write their own script in October, a script for the ages.

    —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.

    Bullpen Stumbles Aside, Braves Country Should Be Excited As Big Week Begins

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Monday’s off day for the Atlanta Braves came at a much-needed time for a squad wrapping up 17 games in 17 days with Sunday’s victory at Miami, concluding a stretch that included pulling off several trades at the July 31 deadline.

    The respite also provided the well-meaning-yet-sometimes-maniacal denizens of Braves Country with a chance to do something it doesn’t do nearly enough – breathe.

    Then around lunchtime, Major League Baseball dropped the 2020 schedule right into our turkey sandwiches and side salads. Immediately, thoughts turned (albeit briefly; there’s a division title and hopefully more to pursue in the here and now) to how each week next season will unfold. It gave me a chance to think back to last winter, when the prematurely-bursting-into-prominence Braves were looking toward this 2019 season.

    It wouldn’t take long back in those cold December days to look at the second full week of August, spy three home games with the Mets, followed by the Dodgers for three, to realize that, “aye, that’s going to be a big week.” And here we are, that big week arriving with the first game against the red-hot fellas from Queens unfolding Tuesday night at SunTrust Park, when Max Fried takes the ball against the pride of East Paulding High, the almost-traded at the deadline and unscored-upon-since Zack Wheeler.

    On those cold winter nights, sipping on a beverage while watching Jets hockey or Hawks basketball, you think about where your team will be at certain points in next season’s schedule. Nobody could have foreseen the Mets rolling into the ATL winning 15 of their past 17 games after being nine games under .500 and rumored to trade everybody not named Pete Alonso in the days leading to the end of July. Certainly, most figured the Dodgers would sit atop their perch above the Senior Circuit, a juggernaut that looks hell-bent on rolling to a third-consecutive NL pennant and hoping a third trip to the World Series will be the charm three-decades plus in the making.

    As for these Braves? We thought they would be good. And they have been. But mercy, it’s been a bumpy ride at times, especially once the late innings arrive. The acquisitions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline were supposed to smooth the final two to three innings, pushing closer-by-circumstance Luke Jackson back into lower-leverage situations. And yet, there was Jackson, battling through what remains unworldly bad BABIP luck to escape Miami with a save in a 5-4 victory Sunday that salvaged a series split to send Atlanta into its off day with at least a less-foul taste in its mouth.

    On to this week. As the kids say, it’s about to get lit. One may say the Braves bullpen has been in a perpetual state of getting lit up. The first 11 days of the Martin-Greene-Melancon era (which sounds like a law firm advertising on local TV at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning) have not fostered any feelings of confidence and calm. Quite the opposite. Their struggles have fanned the flames of relief discontent, although Sean Newcomb did his part in an inadvertent way to put out the fire in the visitors clubhouse of Marlins Park after Saturday’s train wreck finish.

    No, Greene was not going to pitch to a sub-1.20 ERA all season. No, Melancon is not the guy who saved 51 games for the Pirates a few years ago. Yes, Martin is not too far removed from working in a warehouse and thinking a chronic shoulder injury had derailed his big-league dreams permanently. In a vacuum, that statement doesn’t spark a lot of optimism, just like the vacuum of 11 days and sub-par performance makes one think, “why couldn’t we do more?”

    The steadier view is all three guys are better than they’ve showed in their initial forays with a tomahawk across their chest, that four days in their new “home” city right after being uprooted from their previous ports-of-call, followed by a week-long road trip, hasn’t allowed for the settling that has to happen anytime somebody transfers for a job with less than 24-hours notice.

    The thought here is all three will settle in this week. Their team needs them, too. This is an important week. The Mets are carrying a New York-sized dose of attitude, and rightly so. This series is a chance to shove it to their cynics, who fairly point out most of the work during their spellbinding surge came against some of the dregs of 2019 big-league baseball. Then the Dodgers arrive, a team that swept the Braves out of Chavez Ravine with little regard in May, a team that dominated the plucky-yet-overmatched Braves in last season’s NL Division Series.

    And now, a word regarding the hometown nine. Atlanta leads the NL East by six full games over Washington, eight over the hard-charging Mets, nine over the stupid-money Phillies. When the Braves take the field at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, 48 days will separate them from the end of the regular season and a potential second-consecutive division crown. While nobody is suggesting Atlanta try to sit on the lead and run out the clock (we all know the scar-inducing disaster that unleashes), the fact remains the Braves are a half-dozen games in front of the Nationals.

    It’s a very good team. Ronald Acuna Jr. has exploded into the transcendent star we all believed he could be, as the first 30/30 season since Ron Gant on the worst-to-first 1991 Braves is a mere formality, and baseball’s fifth-ever 40/40 season is a possibility. Ozzie Albies has found his stroke from the left side, locking down the second spot in the order moving forward, even upon Dansby Swanson’s return from a bruised right heel that has shelved the Marietta High product far longer than any expected.

    Freddie Freeman is Freddie Freeman. Mike Soroka continues to make the “Maple Maddux” moniker seem more realistic every fifth day. Fried has steadied himself after a rough stretch in early summer. Julio Teheran, the quiet veteran who’s seen the awful days, keeps shoving and shining. A nod to Ender Inciarte, burned at the stake by Braves fans on social media, who is healthy and contributing; Brian McCann, and his solid homecoming season; and Josh Donaldson, who with each passing day makes the front office seriously consider if paying for his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons would be a worthwhile investment (for the record, I’m far more onboard with this than I was two months ago).

    The path to October never is easy (well, unless you’re the Dodgers, and you’re clearly better than anybody else in the league). There are fits and starts, struggles and injuries, along with plenty of “did you see THAT” moments. That’s what makes baseball so great. It’s every single day. Win? Lose? Process it, go to tomorrow. That cadence is why, even on a day off, you see a clean slate for a season that doesn’t start for another 7 ½ months and begin pondering the possibilities.

    And that’s why, for the hiccups and finding of roles from the relief corps, you should look to Tuesday and the week to come with excitement. When you’re losing 90 games and trading assets at the deadline for prospects, these games in August and September don’t matter. That was the Braves of 2015, 2016, 2017.

    That’s not these Braves. They’re clearly in the window now. Sure, the glass gets smudged at times. Sometimes there is dust (or residue from a fire extinguisher) that blows in and makes things messy. But beyond the calamity of the moment the view remains glorious, one this team has a chance to bring into full focus starting with this homestand.

    —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.

    Culberson’s Perfect Throw Provides Perfect Exclamation Point to Stellar First Half

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – I’m not sure what moved me to move, but move I did.

    Let me explain.

    Typically, when I am on deadline with a preview of the next day’s Braves game and I’m at SunTrust Park, I will leave my partial-season seats in Section 431, navigate down a stairwell, and take my place standing on the concourse at the top of section 131, just a quick sprint up a small set of stairs to the third-base gate. That gets me out of the stadium as soon as the game ends ahead of the crowd, and sets me on the way to Lot 29, where I finish my preview and file before pulling out of the parking lot.

    But I faced no such deadline pressure Sunday afternoon, not with it being the final day before the All-Star break and no game Monday to preview. But still, something was bugging me in the eighth inning, after Chad Sobotka got a bit too much of the plate with a fastball to Miami’s Garrett Cooper, who launched the pitch for a three-run homer to trim the Braves lead to 4-3.

    Up to that point, the day had been quite comfortable, although it felt like watching baseball in a sauna thanks to a few scattered North Georgia rain showers that raised the heat index to somewhere near the surface of the sun. Dallas Keuchel looked every bit like the veteran ace in his fourth Atlanta start, effectively mixing his cutter, sinker and changeup to keep the pesky Marlins off stride during a stellar outing that carried him into the eighth inning. Josh Donaldson brought his own type of rain, belting another soaring laser over the fence in right-center field, his 200th career blast capping a three-run third inning.

    Perhaps it was restlessness, or just a desire to beat the traffic, but whatever the reason, I took to my typical last-inning outpost for the top of the ninth. And it was the absolutely perfect move, because I got to watch the absolutely perfect play – maybe THE play of a first half chock full of “my goodness, did you see THAT” moments for the NL East leaders.

    Luke Jackson navigated his way into deep trouble in the top of the ninth, although very little of it was of his doing. Jorge Alfaro nubbed one slowly to third base and Donaldson initially appeared to throw him out by a step; replay correctly overturned the call on the field. Harold Ramirez’s single up the middle just eluded the glove of a diving Dansby Swanson, who undoubtedly took the field with an extra spring in his step on this day after his girlfriend, Mallory Pugh, and her U.S. Women’s National teammates captured the World Cup in France a few hours prior.

    Yadiel Rivera then bunted so poorly it turned out great for the Fish, the ball flying above the heads of a charging Donaldson, Jackson and Freddie Freeman, nestling on the grass behind the pitcher’s mound. The perfect lob wedge loaded the bases for the Marlins with no outs, and unbeknownst to us at the moment, set the stage for the latest chapter of Braves Magic, circa 2019.

    Ten-year veteran Neil Walker lofted a line drive to left field. Defensive replacement and team utility knife Charlie Culberson scooted to his left, caught the ball and unleashed his throw as he left his feet. The ball took one hop and settled in the glove of catcher Brian McCann just an eyelash before Alfaro slid for home, McCann making the tag for a 7-2 double play that sent the 30,514 inside SunTrust Park into sheer hysterics.

    (Well, make that 30,513. Check out this picture of McCann unleashing a primal scream after making the tag, and the young gal in a Braves bucket hat seated directly behind home plate. Her reaction is the direct opposite of McCann’s; maybe she was following the advice of Pugh’s soccer teammate, Alex Morgan, and merely sipping the tea.)

    The rest of us were losing our minds. When the ball left Walker’s bat, I immediately looked at Alfaro, glanced briefly at McCann, then turned my eyes toward Culberson. Alfaro tagged up with third base almost directly in front of my vantagepoint, and at that point I muttered aloud to nobody in particular: “well, that probably ties it.”

    Nope, not a chance. I should know better by now. I should know these Braves, as they’ve proven time after time after time through the first 90 games of this season, as they would prove Sunday in game No. 91, always seem to find a way. Sometimes, it’s by blunt-force trauma. Sometimes, it’s by a thousand cuts. Sometimes, it’s surgical.

    And sometimes, like Sunday, it’s magical.

    You know how this story ends. Jackson finishes off the Marlins, the Braves win another series and register their 54th victory of 2019, then scatter to various ports of call for four days of R&R with a six-game lead over Washington and a 6 ½ game advantage over Philadelphia in the East standings. They own the second-best record in the National League and the fifth-best mark in all the majors. Freeman and a pair of the superkids – Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mike Soroka – head to Cleveland for the All-Star hoopla. They’ll be joined there by their skipper, Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave a part of the NL coaching staff, a noble gesture by Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts.

    Roberts’ bunch bested Snitker’s squad in the NL Division Series last October. There’s a long way between now and the 10th month of this year, but you start to sense there is a collision course setting up here between those two teams. Especially after games like today, when you move physically for no rhyme or reason, and end up seeing a play unfold before your eyes that move you – and an entire fanbase – on a completely different level.

    —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 Rule the Stage in Latest Act of NL East Saga

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The battle for division supremacy unfolds during a six-month passion play that carries teams from coast to coast, from the warmest enclaves in the heat of summer to far-flung ports of call amid the brisk winds of late winter or early fall. Though the drama presents itself in 162 neatly packaged portions across 187 days of the calendar, some acts carry more weight than others.

    Such was the case as the lid lifted on the 2019 season, an opening chapter that saw the Atlanta Braves play second-fiddle to the Philadelphia Phillies – a three-game sweep in eastern Pennsylvania during which the Phillies showed off all their shiny new toys, many acquired with “stupid money,” with the goal of wrestling the National League East title out of the grasp of the we-arrived-a-bit-earlier-than-expected-in-2018 Braves.

    Eleven weeks have elapsed since the Braves left the cradle of our democracy in the dying hours of March, wearing an 0-3 record around their necks as the cries of the Philly faithful rang in their ears. Three games doth not make a season, especially before the dawn of April, but any Braves fan who watched those 27 innings couldn’t help but wonder if Philadelphia’s massive measures of addition would result in a summer spent chasing them for the East’s catbird seat.

    Look who’s chasing who now.

    The Braves spent much of the past 2 ½ months trying to sort out and properly stack a group of misfit, unknown and forgotten parts comprising their bullpen, hoping veteran starters in their rotation could match the early accomplishments of their shining young arms, and waiting for an offense that looked better on paper to translate that improvement from the stat sheet to the batter’s box. And after their first meeting since that opening series in Philly, a weekend set in Atlanta that saw the Braves capture two of three games – the finale a 15-1 thumping on a warm Sunday afternoon at SunTrust Park that extended Atlanta’s cushion in the East to 2 ½ games – we have our response:

    Game. On.

    Sunday was devoid of any sorts of drama after a pair of passionate, stomach-twisting paths to resolution in the opening two meetings of the series in front of jammed-packed crowds at the meeting point of Interstates 285 and 75 along the northwestern rim of the capital city. Friday night, Atlanta authored a comeback for the ages, a 9-8 victory on Brian McCann’s ninth-inning walkoff that brought many fans to tears. One night later, the Braves carried a lead into the ninth, only to see Luke Jackson stumble as the Phillies even the series, activating the “doom-and-gloom” button of Braves fandom even though that 6-5 defeat ended an eight-game winning streak.

    On the scale of edge-of-your-seat emotion, Sunday would’ve been canceled shortly after Josh Donaldson continued his torrid week with a two-run homer in the third to push the Atlanta advantage to 5-0. The former MVP, who has hinted at going off on a huge run only to be humbled by a steady diet of breaking balls and liners smoked right at defenders, recorded his second straight three-hit game to raise his average to .370 with four homers and eight RBIs since a Joe Musgrove pitch ticked his jersey Monday, leading to a benches-clearing, hold-me-back-bro session that resulted in the Braves third baseman receiving an ejection and a one-game suspension.

    Good thing he’s appealing that mandated day off to MLB’s high court, because Donaldson is riding quite the wave at the moment. And his teammates are along for the ride, while adding plenty of logs to the roaring offensive fire. Ronald Acuna Jr. extended his hitting streak to eight games Sunday with a 4-for-4 performance, and in 16 games dating to May 31, the 21-year-old center fielder is batting .375 with 14 runs scored, five doubles, five homers – including an opposite-field laser into the Braves bullpen amid a five-run seventh on Sunday – and 16 RBIs.

    That production is a far cry from that opening series, when Atlanta mustered just 11 runs in the three games while allowing 23 to the Phillies and being totally dominated in every facet of the game. The finale of that series, played on a raw, cold night and broadcasted for the nation to see on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, saw Acuna hit cleanup, Donaldson penciled into his preferred two-spot in the order, and shortstop Dansby Swanson slotted in the eight hole. Rookie hurler Kyle Wright struggled to find his grip on a night where the wind chill slid into the 30s, walking five in 4 2/3 innings, and reliever Shane Carle walked two en route to allowing two runs in one inning of relief.

    Acuna – who hyper-jumped the Braves to last season’s NL East title once he moved to the leadoff spot after the All-Star break – slid back to the top of the lineup on May 10 at Arizona. Swanson bumped up to second that night. Leading into that game, Atlanta had averaged 4.8 runs on 8.8 hits through its first 38 games, owning an 18-20 mark and riding a four-game losing streak into that Friday night contest in the desert. The Braves responded by winning seven of their next eight, and in 34 games since Acuna and Swanson set up anchor in the 1-2 spots, Atlanta is averaging 5.9 runs on 9.6 hits.

    The Phillies had no business losing Friday’s game. The Braves had no business losing Saturday’s game. That raised the stakes coming in Sunday, a contest that figured to favor the Braves slightly only because Philadelphia opted to go with Vince Velasquez – a starter banished to the bullpen – as an opener. Atlanta countered with Mike Foltynewicz, who struggled mightily after missing a month with an elbow injury, but had provided flickers of hope that the hard-throwing, All-Star right-hander may have found something. And on this day, the advantage stayed with Foltynewicz throughout, thanks in part to ample support from his offense.

    By the time the Phillies cracked Foltynewicz, the Braves led by a touchdown. They would add another trip to the end zone and two-point conversion by the time the seventh inning closed. The day concluded with Philadelphia deploying former Braves utility infielder Sean Rodriguez to the hill for the eighth inning – S-Rod throwing seven of his nine pitches for strikes in a perfect frame – and Atlanta giving Huascar Ynoa his big-league debut, the flame-throwing 21-year-old who started 2019 at High-A Florida giving up a hit in two innings, but striking out two while consistently spotting three pitches for strikes.

    As dire as those moments after their first meeting felt for Braves fans late on the final day in March, the fading hours of Father’s Day bore just as much hope. There won’t be anywhere near the wait for the next act in this battle, as the Phillies return to Atlanta on July 2 for a three-game series concluding on the Fourth of July.

    Summer is here, and the race is on. The fireworks that will light up the North Georgia sky on the first Thursday night in July won’t be the only salvos fired, as these two newly renewed NL East rivals play out the next act in the race to October.

    —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.