• Chris Martin

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    It’s Opening Day! The Window is Open and The Time is Now

    Play Ball!: The Atlanta Braves open the 2021 season Thursday at Philadelphia, kicking off a campaign the Braves hope will end with the franchise’s first World Series title since 1995.

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I close my eyes, and I can feel the chill of that circular ballpark on that last Saturday night in October. I can hear the swell of anticipation in 51,000 voices, nervous and frantic and frightened simultaneously. I can see Marquis Grissom gliding to his right, a baseball off Carlos Baerga’s bat tumbling toward his glove, a season in its final breathless moment and a dream becoming reality.

    Winning the World Series. It’s the ultimate moment. Nothing beats it. Nothing tops it. Nothing compares to it. And you can hope and dream and envision and imagine what it is like, but nothing compares to that moment when it happens.

    It’s been 9,286 days since I sat in the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, a 1-0 victory on Oct. 28, 1995. Not a day has passed since when I haven’t thought about the next title, the next celebration, the next parade, the next moment this franchise will stand again in the hall of champions.

    The Glory Never Fades: The newspapers may be yellowed from time, but the feeling of winning the World Series never goes away.

    The Braves of 2021 arrive at Thursday’s first pitch in Philadelphia carrying the pain of falling five victories shy last season of becoming the fourth team in franchise history to win the World Series. That 3-1 lead in the NLCS to Los Angeles stings, a lesson learned in painful fashion, but oftentimes an apprenticeship of sorts must be served before the grandest reward is realized.

    Entering the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos had two absolute, must-dos on his list: improve the starting rotation, and re-sign Marcell Ozuna. Teams this close to a championship can’t play the “hope some of the kids figure it out” card, and teams certainly can’t let a guy like Ozuna – the perfect fit behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman in the lineup and in the clubhouse – get away.

    Back in the Mix: Marcell Ozuna flirted with the Triple Crown in 2020, and returns to the Braves on a four-year deal.

    To Anthopoulos’ credit, he accomplished both. Drew Smyly is a curious gamble that could pay big dividends at the back end of the rotation. Charlie Morton made sense on every level – his postseason pedigree the biggest lure of all. They join ace-in-the-making Max Fried, ace-on-the-mend Mike Soroka, and the wunderkid Ian Anderson – one of the young arms who at 22 years old appears to have figured it out – to form one of baseball’s best starting quintets.

    Ozuna contended for the Triple Crown in his first season with Atlanta, making more than enough of a case for the Braves to swallow hard while he plays left field in 2021 (he’s not looked bad in camp; with that said, hurry back, designated hitter). With Ozuna mixing it up and back in the fold, the top six in Brian Snitker’s batting order is as good as any in the sport. Certainly, there figures to be some regression from the output across a 60-game season, and while Atlanta won’t have to average 5.8 runs per game to win 90-plus games, this offense will generate plenty of support. Given the bolstered rotation – further boosted by Soroka’s possible return from a torn Achilles by the end of April – the Braves look every bit like a World Series championship contender.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. showed up at camp looking leaner than a season ago, when a wrist injury hampered his otherwise otherworldly skill set. Acuna looks like he’s on the verge of a breakout season, a laughable statement considering he hit 41 homers with 37 steals in 2019. He’s one of the sport’s brightest stars at 23 years old, a generational talent who figures to push heavily for his first MVP award in 2021.

    He’ll try to wrestle that trophy away from Freddie Freeman, the lifelong Brave who finally is getting his flowers nationally following a spectacular 2020. One of the great joys of last season was seeing the laurels cast upon the face of the Braves (sorry, Johan Camargo), the one pillar who endured through the rebuild. Freeman shined in the NLCS and looks poised to have another fantastic year, and the Braves will need it.

    Chasing the Ring: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman comes into 2021 after winning the NL MVP award, and takes aim at the one thing missing from his resume: a World Series title.

    There are a few chinks in all this shiny armor, and they provide enough reason to at least pause. Can Austin Riley find his footing offensively? It’s the biggest X-factor for me entering the season, and it’s the one place where I could see the Braves pivoting by the trade deadline. Can the bullpen overcome the losses of three veteran right-handers? I’m pretty bullish here. Will Smith looks like the Will Smith we saw slamming the door for the Giants in 2018-19, and all Chris Martin does is throw strikes. Can A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek come close to their stellar – and surprising – 60-game campaigns of last season? Jacob Webb will play a big role, after starting the season at the alternate site because he has options.

    Webb has been brilliant the past two seasons, but health has been an issue. Health indeed is critical for this team; it is for every team, but it’s amplified for the Braves because of a bench that looks underwhelming at the moment, to put it nicely. It may seem a small quibble for a team so good, but the difference between winning a World Series and losing the first week of October is razor thin. The bench will evolve; it always does. But the thought of Pablo Sandoval or Ehire Adrianza (both who earned their roster spots with amazing springs) playing every day due to a significant injury is not pleasant.

    They say strength up the middle of the diamond is foundational to building a good team. For the brilliance of Acuna and the steadiness of Freeman and the potential of Riley, I keep coming back to that saying. Travis d’Arnaud was amazing in the shortened season, the catcher arguably becoming one of the steals of the previous free-agent market. Cristian Pache and his jaw-dropping defense take over in center field. He doesn’t have to hit for this team to win, albeit his at-bats in the NLCS were impressive. He will win games with an elite glove and a cannon of an arm, helping offset some of Ozuna’s limited defensive capabilities in left.

    Ready, Aim, Fire: Cristian Pache and his outstanding defensive skills take over in center field.

    Up the middle, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson begin their fourth full season together. Albies was banged up for the first two months of 2020, missing 31 games, but hit .338 with a .953 OPS upon returning in September and shined in the NLCS, batting .333 with two homers and five runs scored. Swanson enjoyed his best full season, posting a .274/.345/.464 slash line (all career highs, along with a career-best .809 OPS). The kid from Marietta finally was healthy, playing in all 60 games and leading the NL with 237 at-bats.

    Roll it all together, and you’ve got something. I’ve watched this franchise for more than 40 years. It means I’m old. It also means these aging blue eyes have seen a lot of Braves squads, good and bad, roll out of spring training. This is one of the best ones on my watch, and while there’s nits to pick, this team is good.

    Dang good.

    Good enough to win the World Series?

    In my opinion, absolutely.

    Getting out of the National League won’t be easy, even for a team as talented as the Braves. The Dodgers have seemingly unlimited resources and are baseball’s best squad. The Padres were the most active team this winter. The NL East has been billed as baseball’s best division, and it will be as tough as advertised.

    The Marlins aren’t that far away and would be a .500 team if they were in three of the other five divisions. Is this the year the Phillies put it together, with a bullpen that has to be better and a lineup featuring Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto? Philadelphia will find a way to stumble at some point, landing around .500 or a shade above.

    The other three teams will jockey for first place all summer. Washington’s hopes hinge on if Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg stay healthy. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber join a lineup that includes the tremendous Juan Soto and the pesky (meant as a compliment) Trea Turner.

    The Mets made noise throughout the offseason, landing the brilliant Francisco Lindor and bolstering a bullpen that, if healthy, is going to be really good. Jacob deGrom is baseball’s best pitcher, but can that rotation survive a first half without Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco? And then there’s the “Mets” factor. They always seem to find a way to turn wine into water.

    Make no mistake: the Mets should be really, really good. But it won’t be enough to overtake the Braves. Not this year. In what will be a thrilling race not decided until the final week of the season, Atlanta captures its fourth consecutive division crown with 93 wins, four ahead of New York and six clear of the Nationals.

    As difficult as it will be, the East is just the appetizer. The main event comes in October. Yes, getting there is a big part of the battle, and the Braves will get that done. From there, it will be quite the gauntlet, especially considering the two behemoths out West. And the playoffs are the ultimate roll of the dice, a short sprint based on matchups and health and luck and weird bounces as much as sheer talent. That’s what makes winning the World Series – that glorious moment now more than 25 years ago – so difficult.

    But for the Braves of 2021, that’s the solitary objective:

    Win the World Series.

    For this team, this season, winning the ring is the only thing.

    —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.

    DONE, BY ONE RUN: Braves Can’t Hold Early Game 7 Lead, Fall 4-3 as Dodgers Advance to World Series

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They only lost three games in a row once in the regular season. They held an early lead in the decisive game of the National League Championship Series. They extinguished a 19-year playoff drought, and came agonizingly close to going to the World Series for the first time since the previous century.

    In the end, the Atlanta Braves simultaneously announced their arrival as a legitimate world championship contender and learned that even the smallest mistakes at the highest level of baseball can prove fatal to one’s title hopes.

    The Braves couldn’t close the door on this NLCS, losing three games in a row after building a 3-1 series advantage. The final nail was hammered shut by Cody Bellinger’s tiebreaking seventh-inning homer off Chris Martin, lifting the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 4-3 victory Sunday in Game 7 and a 4-3 victory in the series, and ending the most successful season by the Braves since the 1999 edition captured the pennant.

    There will be no World Series appearance for the Braves this season, a season nobody knew would even happen due to the pandemic. It was a 60-game sprint to an expanded playoffs where, once there, the Braves swept the Reds and Marlins to reach the NLCS against a Los Angeles franchise making its fifth consecutive LCS appearance.

    And while plenty went right for the Braves in the seven-game series, the missed opportunities in the final three games undoubtedly will stay with them for the months to come. A bit too many quiet offensive innings, a couple of costly baserunning mistakes.

    Consider it a lesson learned, as much as it hurts.

    Let there be no doubt: It hurts. Badly.

    “It’s an unbelievable experience for a really young team,” Braves manager Brian Snitker – whose lineup in Game 7 included five players age 26 or younger – told reporters postgame. “We made some mistakes. We shot ourselves in the foot.

    “In games like this, runs are so hard to come by.”

    The Braves got on the board in the top of the first in Game 7, a Marcell Ozuna chasing home Ronald Acuna Jr. for the game’s first run. Dansby Swanson belted a long homer in the second and Atlanta led 2-0. After the Dodgers tied it with two runs in the third on a Will Smith single, the Braves answered with an Austin Riley single to recapture the lead.

    Then came one of those moments everybody will remember, and not pleasantly.

    With runners on second and third and no outs, Nick Markakis hit a chopper to third. Swanson broke from third and found himself in a rundown, being tagged out running toward the plate. Riley, who was on second, tried to take third and was cut down, a double play on a ball hit 75 feet short-circuiting what could have been a huge inning.

    Seventeen Atlanta hitters would step into the batter’s box after; one reached, an Ozzie Albies walk in the sixth.

    Meanwhile, the Braves were dodging Dodgers threats left and right on the mound. They ran out of magic in the sixth. Shane Greene needed just 14 pitches to get through the fifth, but Snitker elected to go with A.J. Minter – who threw 42 pitches in starting Game 5 on Friday – to begin the sixth. The Dodgers countered with pinch-hitter Kiki Hernandez, who destroyed a 2-2 pitch to left-center to even the score at 3.

    In the seventh, Chris Martin got the first two outs quickly. He made a mistake over the plate to Bellinger, and the former MVP smashed it deep into the right-field seats for the Dodgers first lead of the game. It was the only lead they needed to win the pennant, Austin Riley flying out to Bellinger in center at 11:52 p.m. ET to extinguish Atlanta’s World Series dream one win short.

    Hernandez fouled off three pitches with two strikes before his homer; Bellinger did the same. Even down 3-1 in the series, the Los Angeles offense grinded out quality at-bat after quality at-bat against the Braves, whose vaunted bullpen finally ran out of gas after helping carry the team to the verge of the Fall Classic.

    It’s a tough ending for a team that not many thought had a shot to get here. There will be plenty of second guessing and what ifs asked in the days and weeks to come. Rightly so. But at the same time, allowing that to diminish what Atlanta accomplished in 2020 is a bit short-sighted.

    These Braves were so much fun to watch, at a time in our history when we all needed something to rally around and look forward to other than hospitalization numbers and unemployment figures. It’s incredibly disappointing to fall one run short of the World Series, no matter the environment surrounding the moment, but there is a bit of solace even as the Dodgers begin their celebration.

    For one, the Braves overcame so much just to get here. We don’t need to go chapter-and-verse into the injuries and underperformance. It’s a testament to their toughness. While we can and should point to the lack of execution in several key moments the past 48 hours, nobody can say this bunch didn’t try everything they could to push this ride into the final week of October.

    The biggest takeaway is the progress made from last season to now. While the end comes with the subtleness of running straight into a concrete wall – it always feels like that, doesn’t it? – this also feels like a continuation of this group’s growth. The experience of getting to this stage can’t be overstated. The expectations should continue to rise, and rightly so.

    With a young core in place, this figures not to be the only deep October push. And perhaps one October in the near future, it will be the Braves playing in the World Series, winning the championship the franchise has chased for a quarter-century. At this moment, the future is as bright as ever.

    Even if in the present it’s hard to see the light, through the tears and pain of a journey stopped just short.

    —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.

    FINE IN NINE: Late Power Show Vaults Braves in NLCS Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It started as Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to home plate for the first at-bat of the first game of the National League Championship Series on Monday. It echoed through Globe Life Field after a ninth-inning explosion washed away eight innings full of stranded runners, unexpected substitutions and for many fans, an impending feeling of doom.

    The chop and the chant, loud and proud and rolling through the stands in Arlington, Texas. If you listened closely enough, you probably heard it from every single part of Braves Country.

    Dead in the water offensively for eight innings against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers – who the entire Fox Sports pregame crew anointed with the NL pennant before Acuna stepped into the batter’s box – it was the Braves serving notice they are here to play with a four-run ninth in a 5-1 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

    It’s a statement victory for a team playing on this stage for the first time in nearly two decades. It’s a shot across the bow that the Braves indeed feel this matchup between the two best teams in the Senior Circuit is much closer than many pundits spent Monday opining.

    It’s the type of moment that can vault a team to greater heights than even it dares to dream.

    The Braves stumbled and scuffled their way into and out of scoring opportunities all night, stranding 10 runners on base and finishing 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Brian Snitker, who managed brilliantly through Atlanta’s sweeps of Cincinnati and Miami to get to this point, pushed every button imaginable in the eighth inning to try and break the offensive stalemate.

    It didn’t work. Pablo Sandoval and Charlie Culberson came to the plate as pinch hitters – they combined for 11 plate appearances in the regular season. Sandoval hit for Cristian Pache, after the organization’s top prospect (who had four regular-season at-bats) was pressed into duty when Adam Duvall left with an oblique injury.

    It didn’t work. Sandoval was hit with a pitch. Culberson struck out. Bases left loaded. On to the bottom of the eighth, where the Braves deployed Sandoval at third base, moved Austin Riley to left, and stuck Culberson in right.

    In a 1-1 game.

    In Game 1 of the NLCS.

    And the Braves won, conventional thinking and wisdom and sense be damned.

    They did so because, as they often do, they found a way to mix up some late-inning magic. And this was the most delicious rally we’ve seen from this bunch since they exited the rebuild, because this was the biggest game they’ve played in years.

    Riley, swinging over the top of slider after slider in the ninth spot on Snitker’s lineup card, smashed a Blake Treinen pitch 448 feet into the left-field seats to snap that 1-all tie leading off the ninth. It opened a waterfall that saw Acuna double, Freddie Freeman launch a sacrifice fly 405 feet to dead center, Marcell Ozuna work a tremendous at-bat to serve a single to right for another run, and Ozzie Albies homer into the Braves bullpen.

    By the time the dust settled, the Dodgers were the ones looking up at a series deficit. And probably in a bit of shock, to be honest, even if the perennial NL powerhouse says the right things publicly. Treinen, Dave Roberts’ likely closer if Kenley Jansen can’t rediscover his velocity, gave up three runs on three hits while retiring one hitter.

    The Dodgers were lucky this didn’t end up as Atlanta’s fifth shutout in six postseason contents. Max Fried made one mistake, a hanging curveball to Enrique Hernandez in the fifth that was deposited into the seats to tie the game, but gave up just three other hits across six sparkling innings with two walks (both in the first inning) and nine strikeouts.

    Then the Braves bullpen took over. For all the chatter nationally about the depth of L.A.’s firemen, there is no doubt: Atlanta owns the best bullpen in baseball, and it shined in the NLCS opener. Chris Martin, Will Smith (the left-handed reliever, not the Dodgers catcher) and Mark Melancon teamed up for three scoreless innings of relief, Melancon pausing between warm-up pitches in the bullpen to catch Albies homer.

    It was that type of night for the Braves, who sit three victories from a World Series trip.

    There’s work to do before thinking about that, although you can be excused to dream a bit bigger. A seven-game series is not secured in Game 1, but it can send quite the message.

    Message delivered, along with a chop and a chant for good measure.

    —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.

    Postseason Preview: Braves Must Maximize Roster in Red-Letter Matchup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The finish line at times seemed like a mirage, but after all the trepidation and worry about trying to pull off a shortened season in a pandemic, we made it.

    The 60-game sprint to the finish is complete. And, as it tends to do, baseball provided us plenty of memorable moments. Most of all, it brought back a familiar backbeat of normalcy during a time when for so many of us, normal felt like a foreign concept.

    I think I speak for Braves fans everywhere when I said here is where normalcy should cease and desist. While Atlanta is accustomed to reaching the playoffs after three consecutive National League East titles, it’s the typical status quo in October that has long since worn out its welcome. You know the math by now, by heart, much as it hurts: 19 years sans a postseason series victory.

    Opportunity knocks again starting Wednesday at Truist Park, where the Braves will open the NL Wild Card series against the Cincinnati Reds and their three-headed monster of a starting rotation. While there will be plenty of attention paid to Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray in the days ahead, it won’t be an easy out for either team – especially in a best-of-three opening round that immediately pushes the Game 1 loser into a do-or-die situation.

    Which is why Atlanta can ill afford to have any wasted spots on its 28-man postseason roster. No, it won’t happen but, yes, I absolutely would have Cristian Pache on the bench and William Contreras as the third catcher. In lieu of any personal feelings, here’s my projection of what the Braves playoff roster will look like:

    Starting pitchers (3): Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright. Open spots: none.

    Fried’s six innings pitched since Sept. 6 may be a blessing in disguise, and the left-hander has worked through back spasms and an ankle injury to reach the postseason at 100 percent. His development into a Cy Young contender and staff co-ace has been a saving grace for a rotation ripped apart by injuries and underperformance. Anderson has impressed in his first six big-league starts and the postseason stage doesn’t look to be too much for him to handle. Will we see the Wright from earlier this season (16 walks in 15 innings with a 7.20 ERA in four starts), or the one who shined his final three starts (six walks, 19 strikeouts, 2.37 ERA, .164 opponents batting average)?

    Relief pitchers (11): Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Will Smith, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek, Josh Tomlin, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Jacob Webb. Open spots: 2.

    The biggest injury concern is right-hander Chris Martin, who felt groin discomfort in the regular-season finale Sunday. Martin, of course, hurt an oblique warming up for Game 1 of last season’s NLDS, leading to a late Atlanta meltdown. His injury Sunday certainly sent shivers through the spine of Atlanta’s fanbase, but even without him, this bullpen (3.50 ERA, 1,280 WHIP, 282 strikeouts in 272 2/3 innings) is good and deep enough to swing a close series in the Braves direction. Tomlin, far more effective as a reliever than starter, provides insurance as a long man if a starter falters, and I expect either Huascar Ynoa or Bryse Wilson to also grab a long-man spot. One player I don’t expect to see: Luke Jackson, who has struggled mightily for much of the season.

    Starting lineup (9): Ronald Acuna Jr. CF, Freddie Freeman 1B, Marcell Ozuna DH, Travis d’Arnaud C, Ozzie Albies 2B, Adam Duvall LF, Nick Markakis RF, Dansby Swanson SS, Austin Riley 3B.

    There is room for adjustment in the bottom half of the batting order, but without question Atlanta’s offense is better than a season ago. Acuna, Freeman and Ozuna are as good a trio as any in baseball (a combined .316 average, 45 homers, 138 RBIs and 135 runs scored in 602 at-bats). d’Arnaud’s signing has worked out splendidly (.919 OPS), and Albies has raked since returning from injury (.338 average, .953 OPS with five homers and 17 runs scored in 18 games). One concern: Duvall has cooled of late (.162/.262/.270 in his past nine games) while Markakis was brutal offensively in September (.164 average, .451 OPS in 19 games).

    Bench (5): Tyler Flowers C, Alex Jackson C, Ender Inciarte OF, Pablo Sandoval 3B. Open spots: 1.

    Sandoval made his Braves debut with two walks Sunday, and provides not only insurance if Riley’s right quadriceps remains problematic, but a wealth of postseason experience. But this bench is not good by any stretch of the imagination, and even adding either Adeiny Hechavarria (who was awful defensively last week) or Johan Camargo (27.6% strikeout rate, .611 OPS) doesn’t move the needle. I expect the Braves to carry one of the two plus Jackson and Inciarte, although I’d lean to Contreras (better hitter) and Pache (speed and defense).

    Coming Tuesday: Five keys to the Braves/Reds series, who wins and why.

    —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.

    Restarting Baseball Won’t Be Easy, But There’s a Way to Get There

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The weekly Zoom call with some of my tailgate buddies is finished. I am watching a replay of a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) game on ESPN2. The Kia Tigers are playing, and Preston Tucker is in the lineup – remember when he hit a homer off Max Scherzer to cap the season-opening homestand in 2018, a homer my oldest son actually called from our seats in Section 431 on a Wednesday get-away day in early April?

    OK, quit lying. You do not remember it. Tucker would be replaced in a few weeks in left field by some hot-shot prospect. Think his name was Acuna? I don’t know. But my kid will not let me forget the moment he told me, “Tuck’s going yard here.”

    We so wish random memories from a game a couple of years ago could dominate our thoughts right now. That’s not the case, obviously. I admit, we are reaching here as we dive into the ninth week of the Coronavirus shutdown that has shuttered North American sports. And yet there are signs – as we hopefully are reopening to get folks back to work while keeping the curve flattened – that some leagues are ramping up. NASCAR, which embraced online technology brilliantly with its iRacing series, plans to run a real race next weekend. NBA training facilities are staring to open, gradually. Same with MLS.

    And Major League Baseball apparently has a plan. It’s a plan that makes sense, given this different time in which we’re living, and given that the decision makers for not just sports leagues, but corporations and local municipalities and state governments and up to the federal level, have no baseline by which to measure the decisions they’re making. I have my opinions, but let me say this: this ain’t easy for any of them. In this time, kindness and grace carries the day, the way I see it, regardless of anything else. And they’re trying, folks.

    As far as firing up MLB again, I know it also is not easy. But there is a plan that was reported by The Athletic (subscription required) on Saturday that feels like it just might work. In summation, MLB is going to present the bones of the plan to the owners on Monday and, provided it gets owners approval, could be presented to the players association as early as Tuesday.

    Of course, there are far more questions than answers. I get that. And those questions are fair. The owners and players could halt this movement if they do not agree to some sort of revenue-sharing agreement, with the likelihood no fans will be in the stands. I do think neither side wants to come across as greedy in this moment. Actually, collaboration between the owners and players association could lay groundwork toward a collective bargaining agreement, considering the current CBA expires after the 2021 season.

    In summation, the plan would produce a shortened season – and without fans to start, obviously. Let’s hope we can get fans back in the stands at some point. The number of games thrown around, dictated by basic math, is 78 games (81 games is ½ of a normal MLB season). Teams would be limited to play only their division opponents, plus the teams who make up their corresponding division in the other league. The Braves play in the National League East, so that means your schedule is comprised of the other four teams in the NL East, plus the five teams in the American League East.

    You play four three-game series against your division opponents, and two three-game series against each team in the other corresponding division. So, 48 games within division, and 30 games against the other division. I would like to see if we could expand that schedule to include a few series with Central division opponents. You’d love to see the Braves play three games against the Cubs at Wrigley, or host three games against the Cardinals. But if 78 games is the limit, we will take it.

    And sure, the “AL and NL East” division would be a tough sled for anybody. Look at last year’s standings. Yes, you have the Marlins and Orioles (two rebuilding franchises) in there, but you also have the Nationals, Yankees, Rays, Mets and Phillies. The Jays have tons of young talent. For the Braves, it would be a tough slog, but they also are among the really good teams.

    And honestly, do you care if the teams in your division are better than the other divisions right now?

    There have been rumors MLB told teams to tell their players to start ramping up, and I noticed evidence of that on social media. Late this week, I watched an Instagram story from Ronald Acuna Jr. in which he shared a pic he took outside Truist Park. Over the next two days, there were IG stories of Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo hitting together.

    Camargo had stayed in Tampa – where he worked this offseason to shed weight and get ready for spring training – and Acuna had traveled to the Miami area after the shutdown. Albies had returned to the Atlanta area after camp was halted. The three of them hitting together was the first sign to me that things might be about to fire up again.

    The conventional wisdom is spring training would start in early-to-mid June, with games beginning in early July. The thought is teams would play in their home stadiums, unless the COVID-19 virus spikes in a particular venue – sadly, New York City comes to mind – and the people involved (players, coaches, umpires, trainers, doctors, PR staff, bat boys, etc.) would get tested frequently.

    Here in Georgia, the governor has told us that anybody who wants a test now can be tested. There was open testing at the park today where I coached my kids in youth baseball for a decade, for example. The City of Orlando has told the NBA’s Orlando Magic to go ahead and test their people freely, as the city now has enough testing for frontline workers to allow for testing for something as frivolous as a basketball team’s personnel.

    We must shift our perspective from what we have experienced previously. It truly is an unprecedented time in our nation’s and our world’s history. Baseball in this moment will not be the same. Let’s embrace that first and foremost. Provided it can happen, this season will be like no other. That statement applies to life in general in these strange days and nights. And there are plenty of salient questions that require answers before an umpire shouts, “play ball!” What happens if a player tests positive? What if a city – be it New York City or Phoenix or Minneapolis or Atlanta – experiences a sudden surge in cases, as more and more locales ease lockdown restrictions? What happens if a baserunner slides hard into second base, gets tangled up with the second baseman, and one of them tests positive the next day?

    I’m not looking for answers right now because, honestly, none of us have those answers. What we do know is this; our sport is going to be different. That’s fine. Lean in here, and get creative. Nodding to the NHL daily roster model, I would love for MLB to have an active roster (thinking 30 guys) plus an inactive list (an extra four players) for each game, with the ability to interchange guys from one day to the next. I also wonder how we handle the minor leagues, which very well may not happen in 2020. If you’re the Braves, do you have Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, and the rest of the prospects playing intrasquad games at North Port, ready to be called up to the MLB inactive list or the 30-man roster if a need arises?

    Starting pitchers, even with a three-week spring training, only will be able to go three, maybe four innings at the onset of the season. One of my centric baseball concerns in this time is starters trying to go deeper than they should and blowing out, and getting lost for most of 2020 and 2021. I think you have to let starters piggy-back each other. The Braves depth helps here. So, Mike Soroka starts a game in early July? He goes three frames, then give the ball to Sean Newcomb or Felix Hernandez (or Josh Tomlin) to try and get you through six, then turn it over to arguably the deepest bullpen in the NL.

    In a truncated schedule, starting quickly is going to be critical. And I think the Braves are well positioned here. They have plenty of depth pitching wise – remember the arms that really stood out before camp shut down? Newcomb. Hernandez. Kyle Wright. Touki Toussaint. Then think about the bullpen. If you use Will Smith, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin on one day, you can come back the next day with Shane Greene, Darren O’Day and Luke Jackson. Each has experience closing games in the majors.

    Alex Anthopoulos never could have have envisioned this environment – heck, who could have? – but the Braves arms are positioned well as anybody for the remarkable, memorable, strange season that we all hope is about to unfold. And, if the season unfolds like we think it might, the Braves might be as positioned as well as any team.

    Hope everyone is safe. Hope everyone is well. Hopefully, we are covering ball here soon. Thank you for reading. Thank you for reaching out via social media. Take care, and hopefully we get to write about baseball soon.

    —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.

    Braves’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    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.

    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.

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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