• Chipper Jones

    Freeman’s Patience Paying Off as October Nears

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Imagine for a moment the mindset of Frederick Charles Freeman on this Wednesday evening, hours after wrapping up Game No. 1,178 of his stellar major-league career. Consider what the Atlanta Braves first baseman, team captain and face of the franchise – one who has grown from baby-faced slugging rookie to becoming the latest Braves “first-namer,” joining the likes of Hank, Murph, Chipper – must feel on this third Wednesday in September.

    You can add another title to Freddie Freeman, one he shares with Julio Teheran: Rebuild Survivor.

    The Braves welcome the Philadelphia Phillies to town starting Thursday, a four-game series that has Braves Country dreaming of champagne wishes and championship dreams. Atlanta begins its final homestand of this spell-binding 2018 season needing three wins this weekend to clinch its first National League East title since 2013, a team that found Teheran in the rotation and Freeman manning first base.

    The two lone holders from the last Atlanta team to play October baseball, a 96-win squad that fell in four games to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. Teheran was bombed in a Game 3 start at Los Angeles while Freeman hit .313 in the series with four runs scored. My how long ago that seems, considering everything that has happened since.

    Through it all – a four-season stretch featuring 361 losses, a change in manager, a change in general manager, a change in home ballpark – Freeman hit .294 with a .911 OPS, 98 homers and 258 extra-base hits, despite having precious little protection around him in the lineup, two seasons short-circuited by injury, and the general pall of seeing almost every other teammate of value shipped elsewhere for kids barely old enough to shave … or drive.

    Think of how jarring that must have been for a player who grabbed 20 at-bats down the stretch in 2010, Bobby Cox’s final season as manager, one that found the Braves reaching the postseason. His 21 homers in 2011 dampened immeasurably by Atlanta’s September collapse, ending with Freeman grounding into a double play to end Game No. 162 – and the season.

    Sure, there was the 2012 wild-card berth clinched by a Freeman walk-off homer, Hall of Famer Chipper Jones standing at third base with one arm raised in an iconic image, only we all know how that playoff appearance ended. Then 2013, a first All-Star appearance in July followed by another visit to October. It was the end of an era, the dawn of what could be best described as a baseball nuclear winter.

    Now look at Freddie Freeman as 2018 began, a husband, a father, recovering from a wrist injury that cost him 45 games the season before, the veteran linchpin amid the emerging wave of young, yet unpredictable talent. He had hit above .300 each of the past two seasons, honing his craft as his prime years arrived amongst the darkness of a difficult rebuild that saw 2017 conclude with 90 losses, and an offseason that began with a front-office scandal.

    Just 5 ½ innings into the new season, the Braves trailed Philadelphia 5-0, the second season opening at new SunTrust Park looking so much like so many moments he endured through the past four years. But he slammed a 3-2 pitch into the right-field seats, a two-run shot accounting for the first two runs of the season and jump-starting an epic 8-5 come-from-behind victory. Philadelphia intentionally walked him in the ninth inning to get to Nick Markakis, who belted a three-run walkoff bomb just minutes before a thunderstorm unleashed a torrent of rain upon the delirious Braves fans leaving the ballpark.

    The Braves – and their captain – haven’t looked back.

    There is a myriad of reasons why a team reaches the playoffs, claims a division title, gives its fanbase the chance to dream of a pennant or a world title, a ticker-tape parade and memories to pass down for generations to come. These Braves have plenty of authors in this storybook surge to the brink of the postseason, all of whom we’ve waxed poetic about in the weeks and months leading up to this moment, all of whom we’ll tell our children and grandchildren about as we recall 2018 – perhaps in the way the previous generation revers 1991.

    But as it arrives, as Atlanta takes the field for its final 10 games of the regular season – a campaign that seems destined to continue behind Sept. 30 – take a minute to think about the first baseman who rode the descent, slogged through the valley, then helped his franchise rise anew with steady leadership on and off the field.

    For all who deserve credit for how the East will be won, when the moment comes, take a minute to think about Freddie Freeman. There he was Wednesday, with his team riding a four-game losing streak and a fanbase paralyzed by multiple faux pas in multiple sports in this city reaching for the panic button, preaching calm before delivering three hits and three RBIs in a much-needed victory over St. Louis that pushed the Braves ever closer to October.

    And when they get there, nobody will have earned the moment more than him.

    —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.

    Acuna’s Unbelievable Surge Fueling the Surging Braves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Late Tuesday night, my cell phone buzzed. It was a text from my best friend, who I met on the first day of sixth grade way back in 1984 in the cafeteria at Chapel Hill Middle in Douglasville, Ga. We’ve shared the highest of highs and lowest of lows when it comes to Atlanta sports for nearly 3 ½ decades since.

    On this night, he sent me a text that simply sums up where all of us reside when we try to describe what one Ronald Acuna has unleashed of late:

    “Amazing doesn’t begin to describe it.”

    I responded with “it’s otherworldly,” and yet, even that seems not enough to encapsulate what Acuna has done the past few days.

    Before I try to capture what the 20-year-old phenom has delivered in the midst of this pennant race – one that finds the Braves waking up on Wednesday with a two-game lead, at 16 games above .500 for the first time since 2013 – let’s get the stats out of the way. They’re video-game numbers, but we’ve watched them unfold before our very eyes in recent days:

    Acuna homered as the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the first inning for the third consecutive game Tuesday, and in four of the past five games. In the game he didn’t homer in the first inning, he drew a walk, only to homer in his next at-bat. He’s homered in his first official at-bat in the past five games, the first player to do so since a 23-year-old outfielder accomplished that feat for the New York Giants in 1954.

    Maybe you’ve heard of him. Some dude named Willie Mays.

    Starting with the first game after the All-Star break Acuna, who has been in the leadoff spot, is hitting .358 in 24 games with 11 homers, 24 RBIs and 25 runs scored. He has homered in five consecutive games, in seven of the past eight games. He brings an eight-game hitting streak into Wednesday, batting .485 in that stretch with 13 runs scored.

    If the Braves cap this storybook run with a division title, moving Acuna to the leadoff spot may be the biggest reason why this team reaches the postseason for the first time in five seasons.

    Now to the hard part of this piece, which is trying to frame what Acuna has done on the biggest stage of all in recent days. As someone who has watched baseball for 40 years, from the majors down to the grass-roots level, as someone who always has the right words and the right perspective, I can’t provide you anything definitive.

    That’s because this kid – who is not old enough to buy a drink, who two years ago was playing in Single-A – is doing something that even in high school would turn heads. But in the majors? For a first-place team battling for a playoff spot? In 99 percent of cases, kids who smash in the minors get exposed. There is no way they can be this good at the major-league level.

    And yet, here is Acuna, smashing baseballs (I’d venture to argue that his line-drive single up the middle in the fourth inning Tuesday was his most impressive swing of the night) all over the yard, helping push the Braves to heights none of us dared to dream in March this team could achieve.

    Beyond the raw talent – and many of us think he will become a top-10 player in the majors sooner rather than later – is his raw emotion and love for the game, and his team. He flips bats. He hugs teammates. When Charlie Culberson followed Acuna’s leadoff blast with a homer of his own Tuesday, Acuna was jumping in the dugout. He’s a kid who doesn’t hesitate to let his emotions show, a welcomed sign for a franchise that has been too buttoned-up for far too long.

    Acuna has seven multi-hit performances in 14 August appearances, impressive in its own right, but all the more so considering his team has won 13 of its past 17 games to surge to the top of the division. He has drove home at least one run and scored one run in six of his past eight games. At the time where the pretenders are separated from the contenders amid the dog days of August, one could argue Acuna has not only kept the Braves in the race, but has energized his team at one of the most important junctures of this season.

    He destroyed opposing pitching in spring training, and yes, he was facing some front-line guys because Atlanta gave him starts and at-bats early in Grapefruit League action. He recovered from a knee injury in Boston the final weekend in May. Even with June lost while he recovered, even with Washington’s Juan Soto blazing his own trail at age 19, Acuna has thrust himself squarely into the race for rookie of the year.

    Despite the Nationals falling eight games behind Atlanta in the NL East race, and a crowded field to jump just for wild-card consideration, it may be national belief the uber-talented Washington outfielder deserves the rookie of the year since he’s the youngest player in the majors. And that’s OK.

    Why? Rewind the clock 23 years to 1995. So many people felt Chipper Jones deserved rookie of the year, but instead it went to Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo (who had pitched professionally in Japan). It turned out OK. Nomo won the rookie award.

    Chipper won a World Series ring.

    Nobody dared to dream the Braves would be in this type of position in March. But here we are, a team leading its division playing with the confidence of a championship contender, led in part by a kid who keeps making our jaws drop on a nightly basis.

    —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.

    Cooperstown Bound: The Incredible Career of Chipper Jones

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The crowd gathered around the 23-year-old peach-fuzzed kid, who stared into the sea of microphones and cameras, and responded to question after question following a four-hit, four-RBI performance to help lift his team to victory.

    Part of that media scrum late in the evening on June 6, 1995, inside the cramped no-frills locker room of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, included a 22-year-old peach-fuzzed kid holding a pen and a notepad. At some point amid the back-and-forth, the novice reporter summoned up the courage to ask the young baseball player what he hit to drive in two runs in a bases-loaded fourth inning, and followed up with a question about approach given that hit came on the first pitch while the other four at-bats of the night were worked deep into the count.

    The kid in the spotlight provided a quick analysis of his performance, giving the kid holding the notebook a couple of quotes that would land in a college newspaper’s weekly summary of recent Braves games.

    Some 277 months after that exchange, both those kids have kids of their own, are immersed into new realities, carry a few extra pounds and, yes, both have facial hair tinged with gray. Welcome to middle age, Chipper Jones, who Sunday will take his rightful place in baseball’s Hall of Fame, the crowning achievement of a 19-year career which produced a World Series title, an MVP award, All-Star games and 10,614 plate appearances – all with one team.

    The blunt numbers scream Hall of Famer, but for Chipper Jones – a kid from Pierson, Fla. – it goes far beyond just the raw data. It goes to something etched on a plaque hanging in my Braves Room, a quote that sums up the essence of Jones’ relationship with the team he signed with in 1990, the team I’ve loved since the late 1970s and a team that I covered a bit from time to time during a previous life.

    “I’m a southern kid and I wanted to play in a southern town where I felt comfortable.”

    That comfort level brings much discomfort for opposing fanbases, most notably the one who pledges allegiance to the New York Mets. Chipper made a livelihood out of crushing the Mets, from hitting 49 career homers against the team from Flushing in 245 games to his famous smash job against New York during the 1999 race for the National League East title, in which he belted seven homers while hitting .400 with a 1.510 OPS in 12 games.

    But this story goes beyond the numbers. It goes to a relationship between father and son, the elder imparting wisdom and spinning yarns of heroes of yesteryear, of games watched together, of batting practice and little league and travel ball, of going away to play baseball in high school, of growing up and making mistakes and learning to be a man – lessons we have to learn regardless of athletic prowess or lack thereof.

    For me, it goes to the moments. I saw his first major-league hit – Sept. 14, 1993 against the Reds, in the midst of the last great pennant race, a chopper to third base that Juan Samuel could not field in time to throw out the fleet-footed switch-hitter. I saw his last major-league hit – Oct. 5, 2012 against the Cardinals in the NL wild-card game (a game remembered for the worst officiating call I’ve witnessed in 40 years of attending and covering sporting events), another infield single in his final at-bat as a major-leaguer.

    In between, I was fortunate to be in the building when Chipper celebrated winning two pennants and a World Series championship, was a member of the press asking him about the disappointment of losing the first two World Series games at home in 1999, covered him belting a home run in Atlanta in the 2000 All-Star game, and countless other moments as fan and sports writer that are blurred by the passage of time.

    During that stretch, I grew up, got married, became a dad, changed careers and started coaching baseball. Chipper is one of a select few I always pointed to when players and parents would ask for somebody in the majors for their children to watch and learn how to play the game. He never took a pitch off, wanted to be in the lineup every day, wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and put his heart and soul into every game in which he took the field.

    Friday night, I sat in SunTrust Park with my oldest son. Jonny Venters, who the Braves acquired from Tampa Bay the night before, made his first appearance with Atlanta since that 2012 wild-card game. When I showed my son a tweet by Kevin McAlpin of 680 The Fan and 93.7 FM stating how long it had been since Venters pitched for the Braves, my son immediately replied: “Chipper’s final game.”

    It was interesting to watch the All-American boy with the good looks and the immense talent grow up before our eyes. Consider the greats of that era of Braves baseball. Glavine was drafted in 1984. Smoltz was traded for in 1987. Neither transaction moved the needle because, to be blunt, the Braves were irrelevant in a town captivated with Hawks basketball (and I loved me some Atlanta’s Air Force back then) and college football and little else, especially a baseball team that finished buried in the old NL West every year from 1985-1990.

    Maddux? Sure, that was a huge move, but it came in the winter following the 1992 season, after the Braves had captured the city’s heart and soul with two consecutive NL pennants. Cox? He managed here from 1978-1981, left for Toronto, then came home to serve as general manager starting in 1986 until he moved back to the dugout in 1990, during the aforementioned awful years. Even Schuerholz, the architect of that worst-to-first 1991 squad, had been here nearly three full seasons before Chipper arrived.

    The point being: Chipper went from start to finish in the midst of one of the greatest runs in American pro sports history, with all eyes on him, with the pressure of a city and a fanbase eager to shake its reputation of being a bad sports town. And Chipper delivered, often in dramatic, “did you see that?!” fashion. Even his last homer, the walkoff blast off Jonathan Papelbon on the Sunday before Labor Day in 2012, still elicits tremendous emotion nearly six years later.

    I started my third year of college as a 20-year-old when I sat in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched Chipper leg out an infield single for his first knock in the majors. I sat in Turner Field as a 39-year-old husband and father of two, with my oldest son by my side, when Chipper legged out an infield single in the ninth inning of the 2012 wild-card game in his final at-bat.

    Off the field, Chipper made his share of mistakes. His biography, “Ballplayer,” written by the fantastic former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Carroll Rogers Walton – who was more than kind to a young sportswriter trying to find his way once upon a time – is a tremendous tell-all of that side of the guy who went from hot-shot, cocky top prospect to franchise icon.

    And now the journey arrives this weekend in Cooperstown, and enshrinement in the hall of baseball immortals. I’ll spend Sunday in a hotel room next to SunTrust Park at a private watch party before the Braves game with the Dodgers, and I’ll lift a glass in honor of a player who brought this fanbase so much joy for two decades.

    Seventy-eight days after Chipper’s first big-league hit, a song was released that played constantly on radio during my college days. “Mr. Jones” became Counting Crows’ biggest hit, and I think often of this lyric from that song anytime I think about Chipper’s journey:

    “We all wanna be big stars,

    “But we don’t know why, and we don’t know how,

    “But when everybody loves me,

    “I wanna be just about as happy as I can be.”

    Suffice to say, Chipper became one of the biggest stars of all. And it sounds like he’s happy with his life. Any of us who go through life pray for happiness and contentment. That transcends any success we find in our chosen profession. As someone who is in that place, I’m so happy Chipper has found that peace.

    Sunday, in a small village in upstate New York, he will cement his rightful place amid the greatest of the greats. And to think, we’ve been watching this journey for a quarter-century.

    Well done, kid.

    —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.

    Acuna-Mania in Here at Last, and ‘That’ Swing is the Thing

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Most of us have seen it before, through Periscopes from spring training backfields, over MILB.tv game streams, via video clips on the internet or in person at minor-league ballparks across the South.

    But at 12:51 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, along the banks of the Ohio River in the southwestern tip of Ohio, the baseball world saw it:

    “That” swing.

    “That” amazing, violent, powerful, fascinating, jaw-dropping swing that has helped Ronald Acuna race from the lower depths of the minor leagues to his rightful place in the Atlanta Braves outfield.

    Acuna followed a tantalizing major-league debut Wednesday – in which he nearly went deep on the first swing of his first at-bat, then later singled and scored to jump-start a late-inning rally – with “That” swing in the second inning Thursday.

    A 3-1 pitch, launched high and far into the Cincinnati sky, settling in the hands of a Braves fan standing five rows in the upper deck in left field, some 416 feet from the point where “That” swing we’ve heard so much about the past two years launched Homer Bailey’s slider onto a one-way journey to the cheap seats.

    And the kid only was getting started Thursday, falling a triple short of the cycle, legging out an infield single, then blooping a double to right field to drive in the eventual game-winning run as the Braves moved four games above .500 with a 7-4 victory. The 20-year-old is 4-for-9 through his first 24 hours as a big-leaguer, sporting a .444 batting average and a 1.333 OPS.

    There is no denying it, even this early.

    This is different.

    Different than any prospect I’ve seen come up in a Braves uniform in the past 40 years. Different than the Jones boys (Chipper and Andruw), different than the Atlanta boys (Jason Heyward and Jeff Francoeur), different than the rest.

    That’s because Ronald Acuna is different. The swagger, the speed, the arm, the entire package.

    And certainly, “That” swing.

    Acuna finds himself settled into an Atlanta offense that is giving opponents fits with aggressive baserunning, consistent clutch hitting and a knack for coming from behind late in games. While I get why some folks were upset Acuna started the season in Triple-A, it made sense to sacrifice a few games in April 2018 in order to keep Acuna under club control for an extra season, in 2024.

    After all, that early stretch featured 12 consecutive games against playoff teams from a year ago, including a brutal three-city road trip in which the Braves not only battled postseason teams, but snow, rain, freezing cold and biting wind.

    Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr had 4 hits through his first 2 Major League games for the Braves.

    Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr had 4 hits through his first 2 Major League games for the Braves.

    The Braves didn’t just survive that stretch, they emerged from it above .500. The two most disappointing efforts of the season – save that wind-blown nasty Saturday in Chicago – came in the first two days in Cincinnati, where Atlanta managed to drop two games to baseball’s worst team.

    Then came the text messages, the tweets and the notifications in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. The wait was over. Acuna was being promoted. For a fanbase yearning to win, even more so after a taste of unexpected early-season success, would this be a tipping point?

    It’s just two games in a 24-hour span, but it sure feels that way.

    Normally that would be nonsense to say about a 20-year-old kid. But like I said, this is different.

    Atlanta will play three games in Philadelphia and three in New York before coming home to face the Giants a week from Friday. Tickets already are going fast.

    You should get yours. The Braves are playing a fun brand of baseball, one the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite some time in these parts.

    And you want to see “That” swing for yourself. A guy like this doesn’t come along too often, and while there are no guarantees in baseball or life, this feels like as sure of a bet as you will find.

    Because “That” swing, belonging to one Ronald Acuna, is a sight to behold.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

    It’s been one week.

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

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

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

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

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

    Or repeat. Consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The catchers? Nobody could see this coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And it’s been fun to watch.

    —30—

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

    Braves begin offseason amidst change

    On August 1st, the Braves were 6 games over .500 and had lost in spectacular fashion to the offense-challenged San Diego Padres on a night that the team once again trotted out the struggling Mike Minor amid the worry that his downhill slide could be costly to Atlanta down the stretch. As it would turn out, Mike Minor was only one part of the behemoth that kept the Braves out of the playoff and began a huge shakeup in their front office.

    Since September 22nd when the Braves announced quite suddenly that they had fired general manager Frank Wren, they have made several additional moves.

    Hitting coach Greg Walker resigned after three seasons with the club. Given how poorly the bats performed this season, especially the bats of high-potential players Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, Justin Upton and the high-contract players B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, the resignation of Walker wasn’t nearly as surprising as the departure of Wren. In addition to Walker leaving the coaching staff, the Braves hired recent Astros manager Bo Porter to be the third base coach under returning manager Fredi Gonzalez. His duties will include working with the outfielders and serving as base running coach. Porter served on the coaching staff of Gonzalez during his time with the Marlins. Gonzalez has been assured of his return in 2015, backed by his predecessor and mentor Bobby Cox.

    With John Hart as the interim GM while a search for Wren’s replacement continues, the Braves have shuffled the front office beginning with the hiring of the former renowned Yankees scout Gordon Blakely. Blakely will serve under the yet to be found GM as the special assistant to the GM.

    Blakeley and assistant GM John Coppolella have a history together going back to their days together with the Yankees. Blakely has a strong track record of successful international signings including now-Mariners’ slugger Robinson Cano.

    All of this change has certainly fed speculation about two potential candidates for open jobs within the organization: Dayton Moore and Chipper Jones.

    Dayton Moore, currently the GM of the ALCS-bound Royals, began his career with the Braves as a scout. He went on to be Atlanta’s assistant director of scouting, assistant director of player development, director of international scouting, director of player personnel development and eventual assistant GM. He left the Braves organization in 2006 when he was offered the GM gig in Kansas City. His contract with the Royals will expire this year.

    Chipper Jones, of course, hasn’t been gone long from the club. Since his retirement in 2012, Jones has been around the club during spring training and throughout the season. He has worked with B.J. Upton on his swing and has been willing to offer advice to his former teammates. However, now may not be the time for Chipper to return to the club as hitting coach. Despite his credentials, he seems to be set on continuing to raise his sons and take over his family’s ranch in Texas. If he were interested, he certainly would be an attractive candidate to the club and a respected voice by the players.

    Until decisions are made for the open positions and, honestly, the postseason concludes, the rumors will continue to fly about the future of the Braves. There are times when an organization needs change and as the team begins building for the big debut of their Cobb County stadium now seems to be the right time.

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

    The rise of a new Mets killer

    Chipper Jones, for years "Larry" to Mets' fans, finished his career with a .309 average against the Mets.

    Chipper Jones, for years “Larry” to Mets’ fans, finished his career with a .309 average against the Mets.

    Do a Google search for “Mets Killer” and you will be inundated with articles about and images of retired third baseman Chipper Jones. There is no player in the history of the game that has hit the Mets harder than Jones. It is certainly no coincidence that Chipper’s named one of his sons Shea. But in that same Google search you will find a new trend developing. Freddie Freeman’s name is now linked to the New York ball club because of his early success against them. You’ll hear him referred to as the new Mets killer in Braves’ circles and for good reason.

    Take a look at a comparison of Freddie’s offense against the Mets and that of Chipper:

    PA AB R H HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
    Chipper Jones 1019 858 168 265 49 159 .309 .406 .543
    Freddie Freeman 232 208 36 65 12 46 .313 .379 .563

    Take a moment to consider just how impressive Freeman’s numbers are given that he has played in 3 full seasons plus a mere 20 games when he first came up with the club in 2010. Chipper had 19 years big league and 245 games against the Mets (compared to Freddie’s 56 games).

    Over the last 3 games, Freddie Freeman continued to put up good numbers against the National League East rival. Though the series was ultimately a losing one for the Braves, minus a superb outing by Ervin Santana in his Braves debut (8 IP, 3 H, 6 K, 0 ER), Freeman lead the Braves’ offense.

    His Met-killing numbers in the series:

    PA AB R H 2B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
    Apr 8 to Apr 10, 2014 12 12 1 5 1 0 3 .417 .417 .500

    With Freeman’s 8 year/$135 million deal (through 2021 when he will be 32) with the Braves, it’s certainly possible that Freeman will surpass Chipper Jones as the Atlanta Braves player with the best numbers against the New York Mets.

    Freeman had a torrid spring, hitting .368 with 21 hits, 4 doubles, 2 homers, 9 RBI and 7 walks (in 57 ABs). For Freeman the season couldn’t begin soon enough.

    Taking his dominant spring into the season, Freeman has a .419 average, on-base percentage of .514 and .677 slugging percentage in the first 9 games. He has gone 13-for-31 with 5 runs scored, 2 doubles, 2 homers, 5 RBIs, 6 walks and only 4 strikeouts.

    In addition to stellar offense, Freddie Freeman puts on a defensive clinic nightly with shortstop Andrelton Simmons who routinely makes outstanding plays that Freeman stretches out for and picks better than any first baseman in the big leagues. His defense is underrated for many reasons, but the stretch he utilizes to get runners out by a step is under-appreciated in the league.

    Freeman has the opportunity to not only continue slaying the Mets, but making multiple MVP and batting title runs in the National League. His 8-year deal with the Braves may turn out to be the best financial decision the Braves made in their busy offseason. Freeman’s time with the Braves may turn out to be just as successful as Braves’ greats Dale Murphy and Chipper Jones.

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

    Braves retire no. 10, kick off series against Arizona

    On any other night, the fact that Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado were facing off would be the headline. On any other night, it would have been big news that former Braves Delgado, Martin Prado and Eric Hinske were returning to Atlanta to face their old team. On any other night, it would have been a storyline that the Braves were five games up in the National League East and sailing, despite being viewed as the second-best team in the division all postseason, into the season and still even now by some. But last night was not any other night. Last night was Chipper’s night.

    Yesterday the Atlanta Braves inducted Chipper Jones into the franchise hall of fame. In a ceremony that included franchise greats like Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy and Bobby Cox, Chipper Jones was rewarded for his two decades of dedication to the Atlanta Braves and to baseball. Like ceremonies before it, Chipper was spoken of as one of the greats in baseball. Much was made of him having more hits than Lou Gehrig, a higher career average than Pete Rose and more RBIs than any third baseman in the history of the game. The accolades were many.

    The hall of fame induction luncheon and the number retirement ceremony before last night’s game are something Atlanta’s fans have become accustomed to in recent years. Since 2009, the Braves have retired the numbers of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox, John Smoltz and now Chipper Jones. The regularity of the hall of fame induction and number retirement ceremonies in recent years reflect how dominate the Braves were in the 90s. And it is likely that Braves Country will be treated to another regular occurrence in the near future–the induction of Atlanta’s 90s dynasty into Cooperstown.

    If you ask any Braves fan, there is nothing surprising about the way crowds react to Chipper Jones. On the night he was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame and had his number retired, the crowd was electric. Now, if you ask that same Braves fan about the second loudest ovation of the night, that, too, wasn’t a surprise. With a shout out from Chipper Jones as he spoke as his number ten was retired and displayed on the facade (next to the likes of Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Bobby Cox and Greg Maddux), the one and only Martin Prado received the second-loudest ovation of the night.

    Martin Prado, sent to the Diamondbacks in the trade for Justin Upton, was a fan favorite. His versatility was highly valued by both the club and its fans. But what you hear most about Prado is what a great guy he is, what a great teammate he is and how great he is in the clubhouse. Braves fans were understandably shocked, some livid, when Frank Wren sent Prado to Arizona. Martin, too, was stunned. However, as is often said, baseball is a business and you often lose someone great to gain someone great. In the Upton trade, the Braves picked up the consistent hitter Chris Johnson as a bonus. That turned out to be an important throw-in and allowed the Braves to trade the strikeout-prone Juan Francisco to Milwaukee. Prado is widely respected in Atlanta and that was on full display last night. When Chipper Jones circled the field in a white convertible, the only time the car stopped was so Martin Prado, who was warming up on the field, could approach the car and give Chipper a hug. Prado stepped to the plate for the first time, receiving a prolonged standing ovation as well as a hug from catcher Brian McCann. You don’t see an opposing catcher hugging the batter coming to the plate very often, if at all. Prado tipped his cap to the crowd and the game went on. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Prado in a Braves uniform someday down the road, similar to how the Braves have brought back other veteran players (Glavine, Diaz, Franco).

    In Chipper’s speech, he mentioned he wished the Diamondbacks luck “four games from now” with that trademark smirk. He, like everyone else, was anxious to see the pitching matchup of Teheran and Delgado. The Upton trade could have gone another way–sending Teheran to Arizona rather than Delgado. Teheran’s evolution as a young man coming into his own has been what the Braves had hoped for both he and Delgado. Unfortunately, Delgado’s improvement has been slow going. He had spent the majority of the season in Triple-A for the Diamondbacks. Neither pitcher disappointed in what was a duel for much of the game. Teheran pitched another scoreless gem in his 6 innings of work. And the only criticism of Delgado’s game is that he isn’t as polished under pressure as Teheran has become. That’s truly the difference between Teheran this season and last. He has been able to work out of a pinch and limit damage.

    Unfortunately, the third former Brave that everyone was looking forward to seeing was Eric Hinske. Hinske had been suspended for the fracas between the D-backs and the Dodgers, but returned from serving his suspension just in time to be designated for assignment by Arizona. That announcement was made just before the game and it is unclear if Chipper even knew of it before he gave “Ski” a shout out in his speech.

    While it seemed a bit odd that the guy representing Chipper’s former teammates was Dan Uggla, Uggla does have an interesting perspective on Chipper as a guy who grew up in the south watching the Braves on television then becoming their opponent and eventually a Brave himself. Uggla spoke about Chipper during the on-field ceremony, received the first pitch from Chipper and then had himself a game. Uggla had 2 hits and scored a run. His performance upstaged only by young Andrelton Simmons who hit his 6th homer of the season off Delgado.

    It seemed rather fitting that in the final inning on the night the Braves honored Chipper Jones, Craig Kimbrel came in and was guided by Brian McCann behind the dish for the save. Chipper had the privilege of watching Kimbrel’s Rookie of the Year campaign as well as Brian McCann’s early years in the big leagues. While the Braves’ roster is getting younger, there were few men on the field last night that hadn’t been teammates with Chipper or in some way influenced by his career. In fact, there were few people in the stands, watching on television or listening on the radio who weren’t touched by Chipper’s career in some way. There will never be another Chipper Jones.

    The series against the Diamondbacks resumes today with veterans Kennedy (3-4, 5.21) vs. Hudson (4-7, 4.10). The season finale features Cahill (3-9, 4.29) vs. Maholm (8-6, 3.75). The Braves will then welcome the Marlins for a 3-game set at the Ted before beginning a road trip in Philly.

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

    Braves’ remaining trade and free agent options

    With the loss of Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves were left with a major vacancy in their lineup—one they may not fully compensate for this winter alone. Replacing a future Hall-of-Famer, after all, is a difficult task. Gone too, presumably, is fleet-footed leadoff man Michael Bourn.

    Newly acquired slugger BJ Upton figures to take Chipper’s place somewhere in the middle of the Braves’ lineup. In inking Upton to a 5-year contract, Braves’ General Manager Frank Wren closed the deal with their top free agent target fairly quickly, filling the right-handed power hitter role. The hole atop the batting order, however, remains.

    If the Braves are able to score a capable leadoff hitter, it will make life easier on Braves’ Manager Fredi Gonzalez, but that quest is proving difficult. Wren and Co. do, however, have a plethora of ways to sort out their lineup for the 2012 campaign.

    Given Martin Prado’s ability to play a multitude of positions, we may see him slide over to third base and take Chipper’s spot on the field. This would give the Braves the opportunity to go after someone to play in left: a position that is much easier to fill than 3B.

    The Braves could patch up the empty LF position from within, which would be the simplest and most cost-efficient way to go about this. If Wren chooses to go with players already in the system, we’ll probably see some sort of a platoon like we did when Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske manned LF during the 2011 season. Not the most inspiring option, but an option it is.

    In a platoon, we could see Jose Constanza and Reed Johnson splitting time, as each bat from a different side of the plate. Prospect Evan Gattis is another possibility, and could see time in the big leagues this year regardless of what the starting lineup shapes up to be. Now 26 years old and no longer a kid by baseball standards, Gattis and his powerful swing could be ready to make the jump to Turner Field, and perhaps become a valuable player for the Braves off the bench. He currently has 13 home runs in the Winter League and is turning some heads.

    Of course, all this left field talk could be moot if Juan Francisco steps up and shows enough improvement to take over at 3B (which would keep Prado in left).  Francisco hit for a .234 average last season in 192 at-bats. At times, however, he did display the big-time power that attracted the Braves to him in the first place. Though Fransisco, like Gattis, is tearing up the Winter League, I wouldn’t bet rent money on his earning a starting role.

    Ideally, given the choices from within, the Braves will bring in a new starter from the outside. With the winter meetings done with, Frank Wren may have missed his best opportunity to land a new LF; however, that doesn’t mean his search is done.

    There are plenty of feasible options to choose from—both via free agency and the trade market.

    One player who could be had via trade is Emilio Bonifacio. While he was part of the blockbuster deal that sent most of Miami’s foundation to Toronto, the Blue Jays may be looking to free up some space in their budget after acquiring R.A. Dickey.

    Bonifacio hit just .258 but had a .330 on-base percentage in an injury-plagued 2012 season in which he played in just 64. In 2011, when he was healthy, he batted .296 and finished with a .360 OBP in 152 games. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, Bonifacio would be a significant upgrade in the lineup over the likes of Francisco and Johnson.

    Cody Ross, who batted .267 last year and hit 22 home runs, was on Atlanta’s radar. However, he has reportedly agreed to a deal with the DBacks.

    Someone else the Braves could go after, even if it may be a long shot, is Josh Willingham. The 33-year-old veteran is currently signed by the Twins, but the Braves might have the assets necessary to make a trade happen (if Minnesota is willing, of course).

    Willingham hit 35 home runs last season with a .260 average. Throw him into Atlanta’s lineup along with Heyward, Upton, McCann, Uggla and Freeman, and we’re looking at perhaps one of the best power-hitting teams in baseball.

    Other than the aforementioned players, there are other alternatives out there…

    Arizona’s Jason Kubel is a nice power bat, but he hits left handed, and if the Braves opt for adding more power (rather than a leadoff man), they would like to add it from the right side of the plate.

    Colorado’s Dexter Fowler is available for the right price, but the “right price”, as defined by the Rockies’ brass, borders on the absurd.

    Nick Swisher is still on the market, but has likely priced himself out of Atlanta’s plans.

    And there are likely other names about which the Braves have inquired, who we haven’t even thought about.

    If a deal can’t be struck before Spring Training, there’s always the trade deadline next summer. The Braves can get by with the playing they have now for the first two-thirds of the season; the playoffs, on the other hand, might be a different story.

     

    There will never be another Chipper Jones

    When Chipper Jones came on the scene in 1993, the Atlanta Braves were beginning one of the best runs in the history of Major League Baseball. The Braves had won the past 2 division titles, the first 2 of a storied run of 14-straight division titles. Chipper Jones was part of 12 of them. With the likes of Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux, McGriff, and Justice, Chipper joined a roster of some of the greatest Atlanta Braves as a baby-faced Septmeber call-up in 1993. As the first pick of the 1990 amateur draft, the expectations for Chipper were high. And in his 19-year career with the Atlanta Braves, he exceeded expectations and became not only the face of the franchise, but one of the most beloved players to ever wear an Atlanta uniform.

    It’s hard to imagine a time when Chipper Jones wasn’t the player to watch, mostly because all eyes always seemed to be on him. Whether it was as a rookie recovering from a devastating knee injury after his lost 1994 season, as a guy in his prime contending for and winning the 1999 MVP, or in his final year as he was greeted in cities all across this country by fans who have appreciated his baseball career, Chipper was never under the radar. Like Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones was not only the face of his team, he became an ambassador for the game of baseball.

    As Braves fans, we have had the pleasure of watching Chipper take the field each season. There were some who said he should have retired several years ago. There were some who tired of his many injuries. There were some who said his value as trade bait was far greater than his value on the actual roster. But then there were the rest of us. We waited out his injuries. We cheered for his batting title in 2008 and didn’t give up on him the following year when he hit .264. We cringed in 2010 when Chipper came down on his leg after a spectacular defensive play and tore his ACL. As he was helped off the field, we worried that we would be left with that final image of Chipper Jones and would not see him on a big league field again. In the last several years as his power numbers and home runs dropped off, we delighted in his clutch hits and his many walks. And finally, as “Crazy Train” played on PA speakers in stadiums around the country during the 2012 season and Chipper stepped to the plate, we all took that moment to marvel at the third baseman’s career and accept that those plate appearances were quickly running out.

    Though Chipper’s career came to an end on a strange night at Turner Field, a night that saw controversy and unprecedented fan reaction to a bad call, the beauty of a storied career is that even a bad night is just a blip on the timeline of greatness. Sure, Atlanta fans will be sore for some time over the infield fly call that ended a rally in a bizarre Wild Card playoff (or play-in) game, but their anger will soon fade and all they will remember is that was the night they saw the face of the franchise take the field one final time. Hopefully the fans that were at Turner Field participating in the melee will one day regret that they didn’t give Chipper Jones the send off following the game that they gave long-time manager Bobby Cox after his final game.

    With Chipper Jones’ retirement comes something else that he and Braves fans can be proud of: He never cheated the game or himself. Chipper Jones will enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot as an Atlanta Brave (perhaps one of the last single-team stars) and as a man who played in an era tainted by substances that he chose not to put in his body despite the possibility of them advancing his career. With time and as new generations of fans discover the game, the taint of the steroid era will no longer hang like a cloud over players of  Chipper’s generation and new generations of fans will appreciate the integrity of men like Chipper Jones.

    When Hall of Fame voters look at Chipper’s numbers, they will note that Jones is in elite company. Only Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray have more switch-hit home runs in baseball history than Chipper. He trails only Murray in RBIs by a switch-hitter. And when career batting average, home runs, doubles, walks and on-base percentage and slugging percentage are compared to other players throughout baseball history, Chipper finds himself in the company of Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Elite company is an understatement.

    Where do the Braves go in a post-Chipper era? There will be much discussion about who fills the hole at third base and who can hit in the third spot in the lineup, a spot Chipper has more or less occupied his entire big league career. There will be much discussion about veteran leadership in the clubhouse and who the new face of the franchise is. Can Martin Prado play everyday at third base? Of course. There are few things Prado can’t do and maybe all the position shuffling has simply been a tryout for him to take the position in Chipper’s absence. Can Brian McCann step up in the clubhouse and lead the young club, including the pitching staff, to the kind of greatness Chipper saw with the teams of the 90s? He can once he returns from shoulder surgery and as long as he stays in Atlanta after becoming a free agent.

    In all the post-Chipper discussion, what will become immediately apparent is there will never be another Chipper Jones for the Atlanta Braves. The shoes he has left to fill are simply never going to be filled by one man.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#%21/framethepitch">@framethepitch.