• Brian Snitker

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    The rebuild was over.

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

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Play Ball: Plenty to Watch as Braves Open Spring Slate

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN WATERLOGGED NORTH GEORGIA – Some 136 days have elapsed since the Atlanta Braves 2019 season ended far earlier than many hoped, in a manner no one could imagine.

    And through the offseason that’s followed, there has been one constant, recurring theme serving as a backdrop as a division rival won the World Series, the front office worked to bolster the 2020 roster, and the name of the ballpark changed.

    It has rained. Every single day (or at least it feels that way).

    So when the skies cleared and the sun emerged Friday morning, it not only gave us a chance to walk outside without need of a floatation device, it also provided a hint of spring. The Braves will play a baseball game Saturday for the first time since that horrific Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series, opening their Grapefruit League schedule against the Baltimore Orioles at Atlanta’s new spring digs in North Port, Fla.

    What am I doing on this final evening of quiet before the long journey begins anew? Thinking about where my focus lies regarding this team across the next 33 days.

    I Don’t Know is on Third: No, not the famous Abbott & Costello skit from yesteryear. The Braves third base situation, now that Josh Donaldson has signed with Minnesota (he left all his rain behind, though). Johan Camargo showed up in shape and motivated this spring, after looking sluggish and disinterested far too often in 2019. Austin Riley spent the winter working to tweak a swing that took the world by storm for six weeks, then crashed and burned with frightening brutality.

    That’s OK. Riley turns 23 in early April. I still think if he’s not traded at some point, he’s the long-term solution at third because he’ll hit enough with plenty of power to offset a high strikeout rate. But that’s not going to be this year, at least not initially. The kid needs steady playing time, and barring a breakout spring, it’s likely going to be at Triple-A Gwinnett to start.

    Which shifts the focus to Camargo. He cut 18 pounds off his frame from last spring by focusing on his body and his diet. And while manager Brian Snitker has said publicly he will split playing time between Camargo and Riley in spring, don’t be surprised if that mix of time starts shifting in Camargo’s favor in a couple of weeks.

    Camargo doesn’t have to have the type of season he had in 2018. I’m not convinced that’s who he is (at least offensively). But he – and the Braves – cannot afford for the 2019 productivity, or lack thereof, to show up again.

    Long Live the King? We Will See: Felix Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training with something to prove. It is a no-risk flyer for the Braves, but with Cole Hamels likely missing at least the first two or three turns in the regular-season rotation due to a shoulder injury, Hernandez emerging as somebody capable of holding down a back-end rotation spot – even if for a month – would be helpful.

    Here’s my problem. The King has steadily declined each of his past three years. He joked with reporters this week that he’s not old, although he turns 34 in early April. It’s more the mileage on that once-dynamic right arm, one that’s pitched 2,729 2/3 innings in the majors, one that debuted in the bigs the same year (2005) broadcaster Jeff Francoeur and recently retired Brian McCann reached the show.

    Many say the Hamels injury increases the odds of Hernandez making the opening-day roster. I disagree. It increases the opportunity, but if the once mighty King pitches to a 6.40 ERA with a 1.53 WHIP in camp (as he did across 15 starts for Seattle last season), this feel good story will end with a release before the March 26 opener in Arizona.

    Filling Out the Pen: Thanks to the aggression of Alex Anthopoulos at the trade deadline and again in the early days of the offseason, Atlanta’s bullpen arguably is one of the best in baseball. There are six locks in my opinion for the eight spots, and all six have closed at the big-league level. Five are right-handed, and lefty Will Smith likely will be closing for this team sooner rather than later. As for the final two openings? There are a lot of directions in which Snitker may opt to go.

    The bullpen does not have a traditional long man at the moment. Josh Tomlin filled that role admirably last season and is back in camp on a non-roster invite. But with so much depth on the 40-man roster, it’s plausible to not have a “break glass in case of emergency” guy, knowing fresh arms can be shuttled in should somebody have to wear it for two or three innings due to an injury or in a blowout.

    A couple of guys I’m watching closely this spring: Jacob Webb, who needs to cut down on the walks and was injured at times last season, but showed flashes of brilliance stuff-wise. A.J. Minter, the co-closer at the start of the season, whose spring 2019 was marred by a fender-bender that tweaked his shoulder, kicking off a lost campaign for the hard-throwing lefty. And I’ll offer a wild card: 27-year-old lefty Phil Pfeifer, who impressed the Braves enough at three levels of the organization last season (1.16 WHIP, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings) that Atlanta added him to the 40-man roster this winter.

    Acuna, Ozuna, and Who: Ronald Acuna Jr. will lead off and play mostly right field, with some duty in center against left-handers. Marcell Ozuna will anchor left field and hit cleanup while looking to rediscover his 2017 production, when he was one of the more feared sluggers in the NL. But what of the final outfield spot, with three veterans on the roster looking for playing time?

    If healthy, Ender Inciarte should play the majority of games, keeping Acuna in right while providing the Braves with a three-time Gold Glove winner in the middle. Inciarte struggled with lower body injuries in 2019, not a good sign for an outfielder whose age (he turns 30 at season’s end) and salary ($7.7 million this season; $8.7 million in 2021) are increasing. Historically a slow starter offensively, Inciarte can ill-afford to not get going at the plate until June.

    Adam Duvall, one of the few Braves who performed in the NLDS, figures to man right field more often than not when lefties are on the mound. But Duvall has struggled when not playing full time, and his $3.25 million deal is not guaranteed (meaning he could be cut in camp and the team recoup a cost savings). If Duvall has a good spring, he certainly will be a trade target. Nick Markakis is back on a one-year deal and finally in the role best suited for him: a good left-handed bat off the bench who, due to injuries, would be fine to start every day for three weeks (not six months, Snit).

    It will be different this year for the dude from Woodstock by way of Young Harris. So too for these Braves, who not only are expected to win now, but win in the most important month of all. But you must get there first, and that journey starts in mere hours.

    —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.

    The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We conclude my look back at the top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s with a focus on the franchise’s emergence from the painful rebuild with the National League East clincher in 2018, followed by a slamming announcement of arrival in Atlanta’s first playoff game victory in five years in that season’s NLDS.

    Did you miss part of the series? Check out the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    Part 3: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    Part 4: Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Braves Are Back: Sept. 22, 2018

    At Long and Blessed Last, the Painful Rebuild Ends

    I stood in a cigar shop off Ga. 400 north of Cumming on the morning of Sept. 22, 2018. A cooler inside my SUV held two bottles of champagne, chilling on ice and poised for the day. As I picked out a couple of stogies (I reserve a good cigar for special occasions), the guy behind the counter looked at my Braves jersey.

    “It’s been a long time coming,” he said, smiling. “It’s so great the Braves are back.”

    That fourth Saturday in September took me back, way back, to my much younger days when it felt like popping bottles late in the year’s ninth month was a birthright. The Braves began 2018 hoping to make progress out of a four-year rebuild, with an international front-office scandal just five months prior still a gaping wound.

    On this platform, I picked the Braves to improve from 72 wins in 2017 to 80 wins in 2018, and I heard quite a bit about that from some folks.

    Turns out, we all were wrong.

    The Braves thrilled us during a dizzying ride though a 90-win regular season, with walk-off victories and emerging young stars as far as the eye could see, the pieces of the puzzle starting to join together to produce something not even the most ardent, optimistic Braves fan could’ve expected when the season commenced. Even how it started was quite remarkable: Nick Markakis blasting a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth as a thunderstorm approached SunTrust Park to cap a five-run rally and lift the Braves past Philadelphia.

    While there were fits and starts, overall, that moment in the season opener seemed to galvanize this team. An early-September weekend in Arizona produced two heart-stopping victories, and I’ve said time and time again the Braves won the East in the desert those two games. But the official moment would come at 3:44 p.m. two weekends later, on a sun-splashed Saturday at SunTrust Park, when Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field.

    Freddie Freeman raised both arms into the air, as if finally freed from the purgatory of rebuilding. Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave, fought back tears while being interviewed on national TV. A few moments earlier, as that fly ball settled in Acuna’s glove, Fox Sports national baseball announced Joe Davis uttered the same words the dude at the cigar shop said to me about six hours earlier: “The Braves are back.”

    And inside the ballpark, it was a party that had been a half-decade in the making, the joyous release of five years of frustration and pain and embarrassment. It hit me at some point during the celebration why I felt just delirious. Sure, I had just witnessed the Braves clinching something (division, wild card, playoff series victory, pennant, World Series title) in person for the seventh time. But it had been more than a hot minute. The last clinch I saw: way back to Game 7 of the 1996 National League Championship Series.

    I sat in Lot 29, finished my preview of Sunday’s game, then fired up that cigar and popped open one bottle of champagne. As I watched so many people walk past me and saw the sheer joy on their faces, it occurred to me that a whole new group of fans was experiencing what I got to enjoy so much in my late teens and throughout my 20s.

    I smiled with each delicious sip of bubbly. The rebuild, at long and blessed last, officially over.

    Indeed, the Braves are back.

    My God! He’s Just a Child: Oct. 7, 2018

    Acuna’s Slam Hints of Great Things to Come

    Look, let’s face it. The Braves exited the rebuild earlier than any of us expected. We saw an improving team with a lot of questions as the 2018 season dawned, figuring we had another season or two before contention would be realistic. Yeah, right. All the Braves did was squash that preordained timeline by winning 90 games and claiming the National League East for the first time in five seasons. And a big reason why was a 20-year-old outfielder from Venezuela who made his major-league debut in late April, smash a jaw-dropping homer in his second big-league game and never looked back en route to NL rookie of the year honors.

    But what Ronald Acuna Jr. did on the first Sunday in October 2018 just didn’t propel Atlanta to its first postseason victory in 1,829 days. It announced to the rest of the baseball world that the Braves were back and were going to be a problem for opposing teams for years to come.

    The first home playoff game in the history of SunTrust Park was met with sheer exuberance from those of us fortunate enough to be there, along with the millions in Braves Country who dreamed of this through every moment of the rebuild. Acuna, with his million-watt smile and unbridled passion, led the way through the regular season as the Braves buried the old narrative and emerged as a playoff team. Granted, it was hard to see any way past the mighty Dodgers in the NLDS, a thought reinforced when Los Angeles outscored Atlanta 9-0 in taking the first two games of the series in Chavez Ravine.

    The series shifted to the South’s capital city and we took full advantage of the moment. The tailgate party in Lot 29 was the best I’ve experienced in years of pre-gaming with Braves fans. There was an aura of, “we’re here, so let’s go” that permeated through everyone amid the smoke from the grills and the flowing of beverages. Perhaps it was five years of pent-up frustration. Perhaps it was the realization that playoff baseball was back in Atlanta after half a decade, in the Braves’ sparkling new palace.

    And while they lost this series in four games, one magical swing in the second inning of Game 3 served notice that the Braves were back on the national stage.

    Acuna found himself in the on-deck circle as starting pitcher Sean Newcomb worked a four-pitch walk against Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler to drive home Atlanta’s first run of the series. With everybody standing and the new ballpark shaking, Acuna stepped to the plate and took three balls from the Los Angeles right-hander.

    The fans in the yard were screaming. My oldest son leaned into my left ear and screamed, “he’s going to walk him. He can’t give up a big hit right here.” I agreed. Buehler responded with a fastball high in the zone, a pitch inexcusably called a strike. The crowd, in full lather and sounding like the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium assemblies in the 1990s, howled its disapproval. At that moment, I was hoping Acuna would settle himself after the blatant missed call, and simply drive the ball somewhere to plate a run or two.

    He did much, much better than that.

    Acuna’s swing at the 3-1 pitch not only made him the youngest player in MLB history to launch a grand slam in a postseason game, not only put the Braves ahead 5-0, it delivered a definitive message to the rest of the majors. This team, one that had lost 89-plus games for four straight seasons, not only was here, it was here to play. I screamed above the din to my son, “My God! He’s just a child!” Again, nobody gave the Braves a chance in the series and understandably so, but in Atlanta’s first playoff game held in its shiny new field of dreams, a small part of the payoff was realized, thanks in large part to Acuna.

    Yes, the Braves won 6-5 in Game 3, surviving a furious rally (the Dodgers were so, so much better, to be honest) as Freddie Freeman launched a go-ahead solo blast. And almost as noteworthy, the nation saw the vision behind the ballpark and The Battery Atlanta realized on that Sunday night. We started tailgating before noon, some eight hours before first pitch, and traffic already was stacked around the area. It truly felt like a college football Saturday in Athens, or on the plains of Auburn, or along the river in Knoxville, in the hours leading up to the game. Afterward, the party raged in The Battery.

    It wasn’t just a game. It was an event. The Braves hit a grand slam by securing the land at the confluences of Interstates 75 and 285 on the northwestern rim of the city, and this moment was one the franchise surely had in mind in November 2013 when it announced the move from downtown. And for the first time, the genius of that bold move was realized the day of Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS, a game won in part by the brightest star of Atlanta’s rebuild stepping into the national spotlight and delivering a grand slam of his own.

    Author’s note: All the moments in this series are special to me, and I hope I’ve articulated why well enough the past five days. But if I had to pick a favorite, Acuna’s grand slam would top the list.

    —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.

    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.

    Never-Say-Die Braves Sit One Step From NLCS After Overcoming Wainwright’s Brilliance in Game 3

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Some 13 years ago, the rookie pitcher trying to make an opening-day major-league roster for the first time locked eyes with a reporter from his hometown. After a smile and a head nod, the lanky right-hander said he would pop out of the visitors locker room at Champion Stadium in Orlando and have a few minutes to chat.

    The reporter acknowledged the message. About 10 minutes after this spring training game in mid-March 2006 ended, the 6-foot-7 Southeast Georgia native emerged through the locker room door. There was a handshake, a couple of minutes catching up about family and life in the Golden Isles, then the pitcher decided to turn journalist and ask the sports editor of his hometown newspaper the question he always asked, one born from that December Saturday in 2003 when he was dealt from the Atlanta organization he grew up idolizing (as the reporter did) to St. Louis:

    “So, who were you rooting for today?”

    Adam Wainwright grinned as he asked the question. He always grinned when he looked at me and asked that. I rolled my eyes and responded, “dude, it’s a spring-training game. I don’t care who wins.”

    The times I ran across Waino in the next couple of years or so – before I headed back to Atlanta and eventually left the newspaper business – I always got the same question from him. Didn’t matter if I saw him in person. I got it from his brother’s email on occasion when the Braves and Cardinals crossed paths. I mean, I even wore a red golf shirt on top of a Braves T-shirt when I sat in the front row at Turner Field and watched him start in 2007.

    On his way to the bullpen to warm up that night, he glanced over and briefly grinned.

    Every time he asked me that question, I offered the same answer:

    “I hope you pitch fantastic, and I hope you get a no-decision.”

    We fast forward nearly half a decade to Sunday’s Game 3 of the 2019 National League Division Series. Those two dudes mentioned earlier were invested heavily in this matchup between the Braves and Cardinals, facing off at Busch Stadium with the series all square at one game apiece. Wainwright, now 38 years old, took the ball for his 25th career postseason appearance.

    That reporter who used to field calls from the right-hander at the sports editor’s desk when Wainwright was a minor-leaguer and just wanted to catch up on how the teams in Glynn County (and not just his alma mater, either) were faring on the diamond, the gridiron, the hardwood, the golf course, the soccer pitch?

    I sat in my room dedicated to the team that Wainwright was hell-bent on beating on this first Sunday in October while trying to push his Cardinals to a 2-1 series lead, and struggled to breathe for 3 hours, 22 minutes.

    Tell me baseball isn’t the absolute best.

    By now, y’all know how the third game of this series transpired.

    The St. Simons Island (Ga.) native and Glynn Academy alum Wainwright mixed his pitches in a beautifully, inspiring, perfect mix to befuddle the Braves offense. Atlanta’s counterpart on this day was The Kid from Calgary, 22-year-old Mike Soroka, who was two months shy of his third birthday when I sat in the press box at Turner Field in June 2000 and included a sentence in that night’s notebook that the Braves took some kid named Wainwright with their first-round draft pick.

    On this opening Sunday in October, the dude so many call Waino (in this house, the wife and my kids and I still call him, “AW” or “A-Dub”) lasted 7 2/3 innings, allowing four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts but no runs. It was a masterful performance by a grizzled veteran, so many years after I remember two young kids trying to find their way in our respective fields, laughing together.

    As good as Wainwright was on this day, Soroka was even better in his postseason debut. He allowed a bloop double to the opposite field from Marcell Ozuna in the second, and that run would score on a groundout to the right side and a fly ball. For the vast majority of this night, it appeared that lone run would stick as the only tally, as Wainwright and Soroka – separated in age by 16 years – kept the opposing offenses at bay.

    But a delicious irony would occur near the finish line by the banks of the Mississippi River. Sitting some 35 miles northeast of SunTrust Park and nursing a voice that was stretched to the max after attending the first two games of the NLDS in Atlanta, I couldn’t help but think of the first time I saw Wainwright pitch in person.

    It was the 2003 Southern League All-Star game. It was held at the Baseball Grounds in Jacksonville, the first year the new stadium was open, and Wainwright started that game – en route to going 10-8 with a 3.37 ERA at Double-A Greenville in his final season in the Braves organization that only whetted the Cardinals appetite when it came time to talk about trading another South Georgia product, J.D. Drew. I still remember AW helping the grounds crew pull the tarp off the bullpen mound to warm up.

    I also remember who his manager was that season.

    A lifelong Braves organizational guy named Brian Snitker.

    Since being promoted to take over the big-league club after Fredi Gonzalez was fired in May 2016, the Braves have rallied for Snitker in dream-like fashion. Atlanta has become one of the best teams in the majors in rallying from late-inning deficits. Some of those comeback have been the stuff of storybook and fantasy.

    But what the Braves did staring at the death in Game 3 will resonate for years to come.

    It started with Josh Donaldson, the $23-million man who has proven to be worth every penny but yet had just one hit in his first 11 at-bats in the series, lining a double down the left-field line to start the ninth. Wainwright was gone, replaced with starter-turned-closer Carlos Martinez with two outs in the eighth. Martinez, an emotional sort on the bump, struck out the next two hitters in the ninth after the leadoff two-bagger, setting up what may be the most pivotal managerial decision of the entire postseason.

    St. Louis skipper Mike Shildt, who may wrestle away the NL manager of the year award from Snitker given the Cardinals play in the second half, decided to walk left-handed hitting Brian McCann. He wanted the right-handed Martinez facing the right-handed hitting Dansby Swanson. Never mind that Swanson hit .310 with a .916 OPS from the seventh inning on in the regular season with eight homers and 23 RBIs in 145 at-bats.

    Never mind that Swanson wanted the basketball in his hands when he played at Marietta High – a mere nine miles from SunTrust Park – and how he loved clutch situations while playing at Vanderbilt. The shortstop, who already had two hits on a day when offense was in limited supply for both teams, banged a game-tying double off the left-field wall.

    That sent Wainwright to a no-decision.

    Yes, I wished for it.

    No, it wasn’t fair.

    But the redemption story of this series, Adam Duvall, delivered the striking blow of one of the greatest Atlanta playoff comeback stories ever. The outfielder stroked a two-run single after Swanson’s game-tying knock. In the blink of an eye, a 1-0 loss and a 2-1 series deficit flipped on its ear.

    Mark Melancon locked down the ninth inning. Just like that, Atlanta went from playing for its lives Monday to playing for a shot at its first playoff series victory in 18 years. Wainwright spent 2001 pitching at Low-A Macon, going 10-10 with a 3.77 ERA in 28 starts. Some three months after his first full season in pro ball ended, I joined the staff of his hometown newspaper, and six weeks later I found out I would be a father for the first time.

    My kids are in high school. They have not been alive to see the Braves win a playoff series.

    They – and the rest of us – are nine innings away from a shot at the pennant.

    —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.

    With East All but Secure, Braves Turn Attention to Greater Goals

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Once upon a time, back in the early days of spring when the prognosticators were offering their forecast for the 2019 season, there was little national regard paid to a defending division champion. A 90-game winner the previous season. A team awash with young talent, with more on the way. A team with money to spend.

    And yet, everywhere from MLB Network Radio to armchair experts on Twitter, the view was pessimistic surrounding the 2019 Atlanta Braves. Yes, the defending National League East champion, the team in the division (we exclude the Miami Marlins from this conversation because, well, they’re the Marlins) that did the least in the offseason. The term “financial flexibility” was deadpanned from coast to coast, and a season-opening sweep at the hands of the buffed-up Phillies did nothing but fan the flames of discontent.

    Fast forward to Sunday morning. Walking into SunTrust Park for the finale of a series we all circled months ago, and there was a strange feeling. One of finality. One of arrival. One of … dare we say, calm?

    The Atlanta Braves lost Sunday to the Washington Nationals, the 9-4 final score not indictive of the type of day it was for the home team. Max Scherzer pitched like an ace, Yan Gomes homered twice, Braves pitchers gave up 17 hits. And yet …

    It felt like it didn’t matter.

    Because it didn’t.

    Certainly, a victory Sunday would have made for the perfect bow on top of the perfect package, but the real story was what the Braves did in the three games leading into Sunday, the nine games leading into Sunday and, in a sense, the four months leading into Sunday.

    Imagine the preseason pundits now, pulling up the MLB app on their phone and gazing at the NL East standings. The Braves, trashed and torched far and wide throughout the winter and spring, sitting nine games clear of the Nationals with 18 games to go, a magic number of 11, a breakneck pace that looks unstoppable on its way to another Choptober.

    Those vaunted Phillies and Mets? Not even worth the keystrokes to mention how far back that pair of preseason darlings sit from first place.

    What the Braves did this weekend was deliver the loudest of statements. We’ve seen it happen time and time again since May 10, when in the midst of a four-game losing streak featuring an overwhelming sweep by the Dodgers and a walk-off loss in Arizona, manager Brian Snitker shook up the lineup. He re-deployed Ronald Acuna Jr. to the leadoff spot, moved newly acquired Josh Donaldson to cleanup, slotted Ozzie Albies lower in the lineup and elevated Dansby Swanson to the two-hole.

    Since that moment the Braves are 71-35, a .669 winning percentage that over the course of a full season equates to a 108-win season. It’s featured a 20-win June, a 19-win August, victories in six of their first seven games in September, series victories over the Twins and Dodgers, a split at Wrigley Field, and wins in nine of their past 13 meetings with the Nationals.

    Those last three triumphs most likely buried Washington’s shot of contending for the division title with two weeks left in the season. It started, as always, with pitching, and Atlanta starters Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran combined to allow one run in 19 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. It ended with solid work from the bullpen, two games closed by Mark Melancon and one by Shane Greene. It featured the lethal top of the Braves lineup unleashing its deadly duo of speed and power, from Acuna’s assault on 40/40 to Albies homering in consecutive games to the steady Freddie Freeman to Donaldson bringing rain and dancing with an umbrella in the dugout.

    These Braves have morphed into something very few of us saw coming this soon. Yes, there was a prevailing feeling in spring this team could be really good, but I doubt many of us saw them being a 100-win squad. But here we are, a new era dawning right before our eyes.

    Last year’s Braves took the baseball world by surprise. From listening to the national media this spring, you would think those 90 wins and a division crown were a fluke, a feel-good story that wasn’t sustainable. That line of thinking, while popular, was foolish … even more so in retrospect.

    What we have here is an elite team, one that has seen its goals shift. It’s been 18 years since the Braves won a playoff series. It’s been two decades since they won a pennant. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since they won it all.

    This team is capable of accomplishing all of that. It doesn’t fit the national storyline. Even to this day, there still remains the “yeah, but they didn’t do much in the offseason” narrative. And that’s fine. It’s worked out, from the lineup changes to the midseason acquisitions to the fact that, to a man, this baseball team has played like champions.

    They soon will be champions of the East, yet again, pundits be darned. And they have a better chance than anybody outside of Braves Country will give them of being champions of far, far more.

    —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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —30—

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

    Braves at the Deadline: AA Says Enough ‘Bull,’ Positions Braves for Deep October Run

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Since taking the reins of the Atlanta Braves as general manager in November 2017, Alex Anthopoulos has followed a measured approach, one that belied his aggressive reputation and track record from his days leading the Toronto front office.

    Fans rubbed their hands together in frustration, screamed from every social media mountaintop, and vented to any and all who would listen as last year’s trade deadline and a full offseason passed with a few notable moves, and many more opportunities – perceived or real – missed.

    But there would be no such consternation Wednesday as the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline passed, almost simultaneous with the Braves concluding a 4-2 road trip with a hair-raising victory at National League East rival Washington. The finale saw Atlanta follow a script recited far too often during 2019, the Braves bullpen coughing up a late lead before its offense saved the day to ensure a lead in the division standings of no less than six games.

    Now, that team will be better when it takes the field Thursday at SunTrust Park for the first of four games with Cincinnati.

    Much, much better.

    At the very moments Anthony Swarzak, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb were trying to tip-toe through the eighth and ninth innings, Anthopoulos was putting the finishing touches on two deals that immediately transforms Atlanta’s biggest vulnerability into one of its strengths. The Braves authored two trades for proven veterans with closing experience, acquiring All-Star closer Shane Greene from Detroit and moments later landing former All-Star Mark Melancon from San Francisco.

    Add the Tuesday night trade that netted Texas setup man Chris Martin, and the Braves suddenly have a trio of high-quality, impactful relievers at the back end. How impactful? Jackson – the default closer who admirably has given his all in the role while walking the tightrope for large portions of the season – now slides to at least fourth on the big-league depth chart. His stuff will play outstanding in a setup role. He’s not a closer.

    The deadline’s aftermath was a stark contrast from what Braves fans are accustomed to, as the praise rang in from the national media talking heads that never hesitate to bash Anthopoulos and the franchise at every turn. Several reporters traveling with the team reported cheering in the locker room when news of the Greene and Melancon deals broke. Even Braves fans on social media universally treated the news like someone stumbling across a water fountain in the desert.

    In some respects, who can blame them? A very good team, one that many pleaded with to be aggressive at the deadline, did just that. The Braves now have a bullpen as capable of mixing and matching in the middle of games as anybody, a strategy that plays in October when starters don’t go as deep and quality arms in the middle innings can swing the balance of playoff series.

    With no waiver-wire trade deadline in August, teams entered the dying days of July knowing they had one shot to get it right. It brought about some weirdness, such as the Mets dealing for Marcus Stroman and the Reds (the Reds!) trading for Trevor Bauer, who incidentally will make his Reds debut in Atlanta this weekend. Some of the names speculated about the most, such as Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, and Rangers hurler (and former Brave) Mike Minor, stayed put. Some of the deals pulled off Wednesday would have been executed in August if the waiver-wire deadline still existed, the Braves acquiring catching depth by trading for Arizona backstop John Ryan Murphy as an example.

    In the final 72 hours before the deadline, experts repeatedly talked about teams trying to “thread the needle” and balance cost effectiveness with acquisition impact on this season and, for some teams, next season. Anthopoulos pulled it off flawlessly, striking the right balance of addressing the team’s most glaring need while not sacrificing its future:

    • Martin (3.08 ERA, four saves, 43 strikeouts, four walks – no, that’s not a typo – in 38 innings) was acquired for Kolby Allard, the Braves No. 10 prospect according to MLB Pipeline who had been leapfrogged by one group of arms and was close to getting passed by another batch.
    • Melancon (3.50 ERA in 43 games, 183 career saves) cost Tristan Beck, ranked No. 17 and one member of a deep core of Atlanta pitchers, and reliever Dan Winkler, who battled inconsistency this season while toggling between the majors and Triple-A.
    • Greene (1.18 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings, 22 saves) was secured for promising lefty Joey Wentz (No. 7 prospect) and Travis Demeritte, an infielder-turned-outfielder who was acquired from Texas for Lucas Harrell during the depths of the Braves rebuild and did not have a clear path to the majors at any position.

    While some fans may be shocked Anthopoulos did something to this scale, the real stunner is the cost – or rather, the lack thereof – to Atlanta’s vaunted farm system. The Braves have horded prospects like canned goods to the point where their minor-league pantry is overflowing. Some of that depth needed to be thinned out, and the time was now to do it.

    Mission accomplished. The crown jewels of Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson and Drew Waters remain in the system. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, William Contreras and Kyle Muller are still here, too. Only 10 percent of the Braves Top 30 was sacrificed to add three arms that could take the ball in the ninth inning for a playoff team.

    Landing a starting pitcher would have put the cherry on top of this day, but Anthopoulos told reporters late Wednesday it was pretty clear there wasn’t a match as the deadline approached. He pivoted quickly, ensuring the bullpen was fixed with a double-barrel approach that addressed the source of so much frustration not just for this year, but moving forward as both Greene and Melancon are signed through 2020.

    There is delicious symmetry in the fact these moves occurred in tandem with what could have been the two most devastating losses of the season. Atlanta sprinted to a 9-0 lead Tuesday and all was well when the Martin news broke, but the Braves bullpen leaked for six runs with three walks and five hits in 2 1/3 innings of an 11-8 triumph, a game in which Jackson had to be summoned to throw 27 pitches and survived despite giving up three hits and a walk in the ninth.

    Then came Wednesday when Jackson – inexplicably brought on by Brian Snitker to start the ninth with a two-run lead – surrendered two tough-luck hits to begin the frame. Enter Newcomb, who has shined as a reliever this season but gave up a hit and a walk in allowing the two inherited runners to score. A nod here to the big lefty, who got out of the inning with the winning run on third, an escape that allowed Josh Donaldson – one of the few big moves Anthopoulos has made since arriving in town – to launch a 10th-inning homer for the winning margin.

    It came down to Josh Tomlin, a 10-year veteran pitching in his 220th career game, surviving a hit and a walk to earn his second save of the season – and of his career. It capped a scary roller-coaster ride that could have ended with the Braves lead whittled to 2 ½ games in the East.

    Suffice to say Tomlin, or Jackson, won’t be closing games for this team moving forward.

    Anthopoulos has taken his share of criticism, in some respects warranted. But at this moment, he deserves kudos. He’s given Snitker multiple viable options in the late innings, and in turn a team poised to reach October again has a much better chance to do serious damage once it gets there.

    —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 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.