• Colorado Rockies

    Ready or Not, It’s Time: Let the Kids Pitch

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Through the first 10 games of a season like no other, the Braves had overcame shaky pitching from 60 percent of the starting rotation and a slow start from a few key offensive cogs, riding a lights-out bullpen and a handful of hot bats to seven victories.

    But in a year where nothing feels solid, the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to this team occurred Monday at Truist Park. Ace Mike Soroka – and yes, I’m labeling the kid who turns 23 today with that lofty designation – tore his right Achilles tendon breaking toward first base in the third inning. The Kid from Calgary, lying in the infield grass after trying to walk, was helped off the field while Braves Country’s collective heart stopped in unison.

    Sure, any time you lose your top starter, it’s a big blow. But when you’ve watched the final three spots in your rotation struggle to the degree Atlanta experienced through the first two trips through, it’s nothing short of devastating.

    Oh, by the way, did we mention there are just 49 games to go, in a season when more teams in the National League will make the playoffs (eight) than go home (seven)? That is, if there isn’t yet another Marlins- or Cardinals-type outbreak of COVID-19 that convinces Major League Baseball to look at the number of games already postponed, the growing number of pitchers coming up with arm and shoulder fatigue, and say, “forget it, see you in 2021.”

    Don’t expect Alex Anthopoulos to find an immediate answer outside the organization via a trade market that is non-existent right now – the Atlanta general manager told media members Tuesday morning he’s been making calls since summer camp ended almost two weeks ago. Maybe that changes as the Aug. 31 trade deadline approaches, but I have my doubts.

    If you’re the Braves, you’ve hoarded pitching prospects like canned green beans for a half-decade. Some of them didn’t pan out or were moved; a quartet of them now occupy spots in the big-league rotation, even if for a couple of them it’s by necessity. Several others are working out at the Braves alternative site camp at Coolray Field in Gwinnett, a phone call away from reaching the show.

    What should the Braves do?

    Baseball likes to say, “let the kids play.”

    I say, “let the kids pitch.”

    But not the kids you may think.

    Look, at this point, is anybody going to really call for Anthopoulos’ job if the Braves miss the playoffs in this bizarro-world of a 2020 season? Even without Soroka, the Braves just need average starting pitching behind Fried to finish in the top eight in the NL – which doing so guarantees you only a best-of-three crapshoot in the opening round.

    So why not give some of the young arms a chance to prove themselves, and not in spot-start-then-back-to-long-relief-or-Triple-A fashion, but with a sustained stretch of taking the ball in the bigs every fifth day.

    Yes, I’m aware 18.3 percent of the season already had expired by the time Max Fried – the one remaining asset in Atlanta’s starting squadron that engenders no worry – took the ball for Tuesday’s series opener against Toronto. Fried is 26 and made just his 42nd career start. But he’s a proven commodity regardless of Soroka or this season; in this current landscape, he might as well be a 15-year veteran.

    Sean Newcomb is seven months older than Fried. But he needed 161 pitches to cover 7 2/3 innings in his first two outings, struggling with control in his first start and getting hit hard in his second outing. Touki Toussaint, 24, struck out six in an otherwise rough relief appearance in his season debut, but provided some stability with four shutout innings in Saturday’s start against the Mets. Kyle Wright, also 24, had a dreadful inning at Tampa Bay after two masterful ones, then spent Sunday tap-dancing around four walks and five hits en route to 3 1/3 scoreless appearance.

    That’s your 2-3-4 in the rotation right now, folks. And you know what?

    That’s how it should stay, at least for the next three weeks.

    Nobody is asking anybody not named Fried to offer more than four good innings at this point. Yes, it’s the third time through the rotation, but I see an opportunity to try and find out how these guys could do getting regular starts. Getting into the fifth inning (or the fourth) also provides piggyback opportunities for the Josh Tomlin’s and Tyler Matzek’s of the world, both of whom have impressed in their initial appearances.

    Matzek’s tale is quite intriguing, from being out of baseball with the yips to impressing from the left side for one of baseball’s best bullpens. That relief corps figures to get better sooner rather than later, as free-agent acquisition Will Smith is slated to throw again Thursday as he continues his return from quarantine.

    Could Matzek, who made 24 starts for Colorado in 2014-15, get stretched out enough to fill the currently vacated fifth spot? Perhaps. Or, a more intriguing thought: using the 29-year-old – who has nine strikeouts with no walks in 5 1/3 scoreless innings so far – as an opener.

    There are plenty of calls to unleash the real “kids,” guys like Ian Anderson, Kyle Mueller and Tucker Davidson, that trio among the organization’s top 10 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. All three have high upside, certainly. Davidson, in particular, intrigues with high-90s velocity from the left side and an impressive showing at Gwinnett last season (2.84 ERA in 19 innings), while drawing attention during both spring training and summer camp.

    There are other options, from the veteran Jhoulys Chacin to another one of the youngsters, 22-year-old Bryse Wilson, to whatever Mike Foltynewicz can salvage from a disastrous beginning to his 2020. But I want to see what’s in front of me here and now. Newcomb has shown at times he can be an effective starter before control problems last season landed him in the bullpen (where he pitched well). We’ve seen glimpses, albeit brief, from Toussaint and Wright.

    This confluence of difficult events has afforded the trio an opportunity.

    It’s time for the organization to give them a chance to seize 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.

    Ten Games In, and the Braves are Off to a Hot Start

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves played a Sunday home game today, and I wasn’t in the ballpark. As someone who’s held a 27-game A-List membership since the franchise moved into what is now called Truist Park for the start of the 2017 season, I can count on one hand the number of Sunday home games I have not attended in recent years.

    Most of those can be attributed to coaching my kids’ baseball team in 2017, their final year of baseball. One kid played for 11 years; the other played for eight years, opting to do other sports in those three years. The fees for all that baseball, and other pursuits, were paid in part by freelance work I did for Gracenote Sports, starting all the way back in November 2010.

    That relationship ended with a contract termination email landing in my inbox Friday morning, thanks to the global pandemic. But no tears here. I choose to tip my cap and remain thankful for the opportunity to spend nearly a decade writing game previews for the Braves, the Winnipeg Jets, the Hawks, and SEC and ACC football and basketball. It’s yet another reminder of just how tenuous the year 2020 is in so many respects, and how we all should count our blessings.

    We are 11 days into the regular season, and the Braves not only have avoided an outbreak of COVID-19 positive test results, their opposition also has stayed healthy enough to avoid any schedule disruptions. Atlanta has completed 1/6th of its season, and arrives at this junction in a place far, far better than I anticipated. Today’s 4-0 home shutout victory over the Mets pushed the Braves to 7-3 on the season.

    Remember, I wrote and said if Atlanta completed its 20-games-in-20-days opening stretch at 8-12, there would be no need to panic.

    The Braves have opened this crazy 2020 season by scoring runs in bunches, rallying from behind as if there were 40,000 of us in the stands cheering them on, riding two arms at the top of the rotation who look as good as anybody in baseball, and with zero regard to the starting pitching they have faced from the Mets and Rays.

    Now that we’re through 16.6% of the season (wasn’t opening day just yesterday?), and with no guarantee we’ll actually get to play the final 50 games of this unprecedented campaign, a few observations about the hometown nine, one that’s tied for the most wins in the majors as the first full week of August begins:

    2.7 is the new 1: In this new baseball world of 2020, we remember a 60-game season means each game carries 2.7 times the weight of one contest in a 162-game stretch. To put the Braves start in perspective, in a normal season, a 7-3 beginning equates to roughly a 19-8 start. That’s not too shabby. It also goes to show, after going 2-3 through the opening five games of the season, how a good week can tilt the tables with so few games on the schedule.

    Mike and Max, and that’s the facts: There are some things you can toss aside given the shortened schedule, but the top of the Atlanta rotation is legit. Let’s go ahead and say it right here and now: both Mike Soroka and Max Fried are aces. Flat-out studs. Fried pitched maybe the best game of his career Thursday against the Mets after an impressive performance in his season debut at Citi Field last weekend, while Soroka has shined in his first two starts. Bottom line: both guys not only give you a chance to win when their turn arrives, but we’re now at the point where you except the Braves to win when they toe the slab. Those two are that good, and that’s a great feeling. Now, for the rest of the rotation …

    Looky looky looky, here comes Touki: The Cooks Pest Control jingle on the Braves Radio Network has a new connotation, and one the Braves desperately need after a rough showing from the back side of their rotation. Touki Toussaint, pressed into the rotation after Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment and, after clearing waivers (still a surprise to me that some team didn’t take a chance on him), headed to the team’s alternative training site at Gwinnett, gave Atlanta four scoreless innings in Saturday’s 7-1 victory. The young right-hander did his job on that night, despite three walks and throwing just 45 of his 74 pitches for strikes, and he absolutely has to get the ball again Thursday against Toronto. And if it’s four clean innings out of the gate for now, we certainly will take it.

    Dansby is doing it: Dansby Swanson singled in Sunday’s victory, giving him at least one base hit in each of Atlanta’s first 10 games. Slowed by injury in the second half of last season after a good start, the Marietta kid – he played high-school baseball nine miles from Truist Park – is hitting .368 with a 1.005 OPS and 14 hits through the first 10 games. Never mind his go-ahead single in extra innings against the Mets on July 25 and his stellar defense. Is this the season we see the Vanderbilt product break through offensively? So far, so good.

    Comeback player of the … decade?: Colorado selected left-hander Tyler Matzek 11th overall in the 2009 draft. He made his big-league debut five years later with seven innings against the Braves, but after 25 appearances in 2014-15, he was out of the majors. Across the next few years, he battled the yips and didn’t pitch professionally in 2017, landing in the Braves organization in 2019. But the 29-year-old impressed in spring training and summer camp, and in four appearances in the majors in 2020 has allowed four hits with nine strikeouts across 5 1/3 scoreless innings, getting the win Sunday (his first MLB win since April 27, 2015, against Arizona) after fanning four hitters in two innings.

    The kid will be fine, part I: Ronald Acuna Jr. entered Friday’s series opener 4-for-28 on the season with one extra-base hit and 14 strikeouts. Parts of social media already were losing its never-reasonable mind over the slow start by the Braves outfielder, but the 22-year-old had squared up several balls against the Rays after a rough showing in the opening weekend in New York. Acuna enters Monday on a three-game hitting streak, belting his first homer Saturday night and not striking out in a game for the first time this season by going 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored in Sunday’s victory.

    The kid will be fine, part II: Ozzie Albies is off to a slow start, hitting .194 with a .550 OPS through the first 10 games, and has not started two of the past three contests due to right wrist soreness. It’s a cause for concern but, remember, this is a season of the likes we’ve never experienced before (and hopefully, never will again). Albies will be fine and likely is back in the lineup for Monday’s series finale against the Mets.

    The other shoe … when does it drop?: Anybody else waking up daily and wondering if we’ll get the news that baseball is closing up shop, or at least is pausing for a few days? Because I am, as much as I hate to admit it. We can’t deny the facts: The Marlins and Phillies have played three games. Washington has played seven. The Cardinals have played five; the Brewers have played six. To see so many teams sitting idle on the opening weekend of August should underline how unprecedented these times are, and how every game is a gift.

    A gift the Braves have paid back to their adoring fan base more often than not through the opening 10 games of 2020. Let’s continue to hope that the season continues, because for Braves fans, it’s started in about the best way imaginable.

    —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.

    It’s Tomahawk Town vs. Tinseltown: Of Course, Resilient Young Braves Face Dodgers in NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When you get right down to it, of course this was going to happen. It happened the last time the Atlanta Braves reached the playoffs in 2013, a last gasp at glory before a wretched four seasons in the wilderness. It happened in 1991 and 1983 and 1982 and heck, even back in 1959, when the Milwaukee Braves lost a postseason tiebreaker that ended their quest to reach a third-consecutive World Series.

    The histories of the Braves and Dodgers franchises are intertwined at multiple points, from Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer in 1974 to the last great pennant race in 1993 ending with the Dodgers boat-racing the Giants while the Braves won their 104th game to capture the division title by one scant game. And here we go again, starting Thursday night at Chavez Ravine as the Braves make their glorious and long-awaited return to the postseason stage against, of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

    You know it was going to happen, right?

    Perhaps the Colorado Rockies would have been a better matchup. Perhaps having home-field advantage would have proven advantageous. Those are bygones at this point, not worth the time to consider. Not with the first pitch of the postseason coming at some time Thursday (we’re waiting on you, MLB). Time to focus on the fact the Braves, losers of 90 games three seasons running, stunned the baseball world by winning the NL East and finishing with 90 victories. The have swash-buckled and grinded and rallied all season to slam shut the door on the rebuild far sooner than most of us dared to dream.

    Their reward: The six-time defending NL West champion, just 11 months removed from Game 7 of the World Series.

    Go get em, boys.

    Seriously, the task appears somewhat tall on first glance, and that’s understandable. The Dodgers have one goal and one goal only: to snap a 30-year world championship drought, which is massively mind-blowing when you consider the Braves, Reds, Angels, White Sox, Astros, Marlins (twice!) and Giants (three times!!) all have captured the brass ring since Kirk Gibson’s famous homer sparked L.A. to a stunning four-game sweep of Oakland.

    Clayton Kershaw, balky back and all, still anchors the rotation. Walker Buehler is one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Kenley Jansen, recovering from a heart scare two months ago, is one of the game’s top closers. The lineup is young, deep and powerful, with plenty of firepower from Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and the dude who came out of nowhere, Max Muncy. And did we mention Manny Machado, the July acquisition looking to show out under the national spotlight before embarking on free agency and a contract that will be worth more than some third-world nation’s GNP, roams shortstop and solidifies the batting order?

    This series will be fascinating to watch for a variety of reasons:

    Too Young To Know Better: Every time we felt these Braves might begin sliding as this special season unfolded, they kept the train on the tracks. Yes, the playoffs are different. No, I don’t think the Braves and their squadron of youngsters will be fazed by the bright lights and heightened stakes. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Foltynewicz and Johan Camargo have combined to play zero postseason games, but they and the rest of the young key components of this Braves New World have a tremendous chance far earlier than expected to gain some critical playoff experience. They haven’t blinked to this point. The feeling here is they won’t now.

    Give Dansby a Hand (No, Seriously, Somebody Give Him a Hand): One huge key for the Braves is their passionate hometown heart-and-soul shortstop, who provides outstanding defense at a critical position while proving to be one of the best clutch hitters in the NL. A partially torn ligament in his left hand ended his regular season five days early, and there is concern he won’t be available for the NLDS. If that’s the case, the former Dodger and current Braves Country cult hero Charlie Culberson will fill in admirably, but the Calhoun High graduate being in the starting eight significantly weakens the Atlanta bench.

    Buehler? Buehler?: Anybody who watched Monday’s tie-breaking win over Colorado saw what the fuss is all about with the Vanderbilt product. Buehler may be the best pitcher in the Dodgers’ rotation right now, but because L.A. had to deploy him in Game No. 163, he only can pitch once in this series. Kershaw has the ability to lock down any lineup on any given night, but we saw the Giants get to him Saturday (he owns an un-Kershaw like 3.89 ERA in his past six starts) and has far less tread on the tires than when he faced the Braves twice in the NLDS five years ago.

    Pressure! Under Pressure: Just as almost nobody expected Atlanta to be here, most everybody used indelible ink to put the Dodgers deep into October. The pressure of expectations sits heavy on L.A., which trailed the West by nine games on May 8, sat 10 games under .500 on May 16, and ended the season 9 ½ games in arrears of its Pythagorean win-loss record (92-71 vs. 101-61). Add in the sometimes-shaky manner in which the Dodgers bullpen has gotten the ball to Jansen, and the fact that manager Dave Roberts does not have a contract for next season, and we will see how the Dodgers handle the pressure-cooker of October.

    House Money: The Braves and their fans will hate seeing that phrase, but it’s true. This feels like an awakening of a franchise where everything was stripped down and built back up carefully, in pain-staking, patience-testing fashion. The view from 30,000 feet is the Braves already are winners, getting to the playoffs so soon, the breakout seasons of Acuna, Albies, Foltynewicz, et al, and accomplishing anything beyond this point is gravy. Yes, that’s true. But honestly, the Braves should play with absolutely no pressure. The vast majority is going to pick the Dodgers in this series, and that’s not surprising, given the Dodgers beat Atlanta five times in seven games during the regular season while outscoring the Braves 35-18.

    If they played the games on paper, then this would be irrelevant because not only would Atlanta not win this series, the Braves already would be on the golf course after a season many thought would finish with 75 wins and even the most optimistic prognosticators said .500 would be a fantastic next step. Instead, they leaped forward and never looked back.

    The Braves are in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. As they prepare for their first postseason content in 1,823 days on Thursday, it’s no surprise who stands in their way.

    —30—

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

    BRAVES AT THE DEADLINE: Anthopoulos must make the right move

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – And to think, just four months ago we all assumed this week would be about getting some type of return for Brandon McCarthy and Nick Markakis.

    Unless you’ve been hiding on another planet since March – and if you have, pull up a chair because you’re truly not gonna believe this – you realize the preconceived notion of the 2018 Atlanta Braves has transformed greatly thanks to the team winning 54 times in the season’s first 98 games. At least a year ahead of the expected opening of its contention window, Atlanta sits in a very enviable and yet difficult spot as the hours tick toward Tuesday’s trade deadline.

    We could spend the next 40 paragraphs discussing the craziness that has transpired with this franchise since last summer, when Atlanta’s midsummer moves included releasing Bartolo Colon and Eric O’Flaherty, and dealing Jaime Garcia and Anthony Recker to Minnesota for a little-known prospect named Huascar Ynoa (who incidentally today was promoted to High-A Florida and is considered by many as an intriguing pitching prospect).

    Imagine that, another young impact arm in the Braves system, a system that despite the sanctions imposed by Major League Baseball in the wake of Coppygate still bursts as the seams with talent that could make waves in the majors for years to come.

    “Could” is the key word, and therein lies the rub as general manager Alex Anthopoulos surveys the madness of a market that one person described to me today as quiet for now, but “would not surprise me if it becomes frantic in the next three-to-four days.”

    The Braves, among several other teams, deserve credit for that madness. The National League was to be a victory lap for the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers in 2018, with Arizona and Colorado and Milwaukee fighting for the two wild-card spots. Alas, the standings are chaos, with 10 teams sitting within five games of a playoff spot.

    Alas, the Nationals are not among them.

    How to sort through this unexpected landscape, especially with a team contending a year ahead of schedule and a fanbase starving for a postseason game and a system overflowing with players who could impact your future in a good way (or bad, if you deal the wrong ones)? This is when general managers make their money.

    I’m on record in this space in saying I don’t expect an earth-shaking move to come in the next seven days. It would not be prudent to deviate from a plan that has caused so much pain in order to chase a short-term gain – as sweet as October baseball would be – at the risk of negating what many expect to be a long-standing swing at championships extending into the next decade.

    Again, back to my conversation today. I was reminded of two names.

    “Stephen Strasburg.”

    “Matt Harvey.”

    Strasburg blitzed through the league in 2012 as a 23-year-old, winning 15 games with a 3.16 ERA, but was shut down after 159 1/3 innings to protect his arm. The Nationals did as the Nationals do, flopping in the NL Division Series. Six seasons later, Washington has won as many playoff series as you and I combined, and woke up today six games out of a playoff spot.

    Harvey led a young, talented Mets rotation to the 2015 NL pennant, then famously refused to yield to manager Terry Collins after eight innings of a must-win Game 5 of the World Series. He gave up a walk and a double leading off the ninth before being yanked, the Royals won in extra innings to capture the championship, and today the Mets are a dumpster fire while Harvey pitches every fifth day for Cincinnati.

    One, an organization decision based on belief opportunities would present themselves without fail for years to come. The other, a manager who was convinced to change his mind with good intentions and perhaps lost the only shot that franchise will have at the brass ring for years to come.

    Both are cautionary tales of counting on a future that may not arrive. And so, as the clock ticks toward the deadline, Anthopoulos and his charges won’t sleep much. That’s life in a major-league front office in the days before the deadline, but the challenges facing this Braves regime as July crawls to a close are equally unique, daunting and exciting.

    For his part, Anthopoulos is not shying away from the task at hand. On SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio Monday morning, he stated the Braves are able to make the moves they need to make, provided it’s right for the organization for 2018 and beyond. It’s comforting to know this front office won’t empty the farm system for one run at a ring, but at the same time one wonders just how far they should push.

    After all, the right move – not the biggest move, and not just for the biggest name, but the right move – could vault Atlanta alongside the Dodgers as NL favorites. There is a three-headed beast in the American League, four if the Brad Hand deal stabilizes Cleveland’s bullpen, so many think the Senior Circuit is playing for runner-up honors. But the fact is you can’t win the World Series until you get there, and the Braves are in the mix of NL teams who could find themselves getting the chance to win seven games (or eight, depending on if they are in the wild-card game) in October to reach the big stage.

    But at what cost? What will it take? And remember, for all the folks on Twitter begging the Braves to get “this guy” or “that guy” or “those guys,” it takes two to tango. Some of the proposed moves by basement GMs border on absurd. At the same time, Atlanta could offer the moon and sun in any one deal and still have a top-10 system. That’s the result of four years of misery and all the work that’s transpired to rebuild this once-proud franchise.

    Sorting out the varying possibilities and the potential impacts, good and bad, always are part of the recipe of July for front offices. For the one residing at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Atlanta’s northwest flank, figuring out the straightest path through the winding madness could yield an amplifying boost for the next three months while not negating the opportunity to contend for the foreseeable future.

    After today, I have backed off my earlier stance of the Braves not doing anything, for what it’s worth. Call it intuition, call it a feeling, call it a guess. But the closer we get to 4 p.m. ET on July 31, the more I think Anthopoulos and the Braves will strike.

    —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 Are Fun Again: From Every Angle, Lots of Positives

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Pardon us for doing a little celebrating on this night, but the Atlanta Braves have won 11 games.

    Eleven wins through April’s third week doth not make a postseason team. For some franchises, it hardly would cause a blink of the eye. But consider this tidbit: we are talking about a franchise that did not win its 11th game last season until May 2.

    Two years ago? Win No. 11 came on May 20.

    Welcome to the early minutes of April 20. The Braves are 11-7 through 18 games, a mere 11.1 percent through the season, but for those of us who predicted this team to finish around .500 – I’m on the record saying 80-82 – Atlanta already is nearly 14 percent there and we still have 10 games left in the opening month of this 2018 campaign.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday's 12-4 win over the Mets.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday’s 12-4 win over the Mets.

    These Braves may not be a playoff team, but this team has been an absolute joy to watch. Aggressive baserunning, good starting pitching, clutch hitting and, yes, some overachieving performance at the plate. And thewunderkid Ronald Acuna Jr. remains in Gwinnett, trying to settle his swing and string together enough hits to warrant a promotion.

    Where to begin with this intriguing bunch? Let’s hit a few topics as we go around the horn following Thursday’s series-opening 12-4 rout of the Mets to kick off a four-game set at SunTrust Park:

    Just Win Series

    We heard the sage Bobby Cox say this mantra over and over again during his second run as Atlanta manager (remember, he managed this team from 1978-81, when individual victories were cause for celebration). The Cox approach was if you win series, that’s a recipe for success.

    The Braves entered Thursday’s four-game series with the Mets having played six series. Four of those series, 11 games, came against playoff teams from last season. Three of those series were played against playoff teams, on the road, in miserable conditions.

    (As an aside, the scheduling by Major League Baseball is awful.)

    Atlanta emerged from that 11-game stretch – one game lost due to weather; another game that should’ve been lost due to weather, a contest the Braves lost – at 6-5. You could argue two of those losses were giveaways, the middle game in Colorado and the final game in Chicago, but on the whole, for a team that’s lost 90-plus games the past three years, it definitely was a strong showing.

    Unsung Heroes

    Every team that overachieves has to have guys who step up and provide that “did he really do that?” moment. The Braves have provided plenty of those through the first 18 games. Consider:

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington's Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington’s Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    ♦  Preston Tucker: He was just a placeholder for Acuna, and yet the former Houston farmhand has 18 RBIs through 18 games after driving in five runs in Thursday’s victory over the Mets. He’s belted a trio of three-run homers, his defense has been better than expected, and he provides left-handed power in the lineup that sorely is needed.

    ♦  Ryan Flaherty: How does this guy keep hitting? He arrived with a great glove to fill in at third base while Johan Camargo rehabbed from an obliqueinjury, but the journeyman Flaherty has established himself for now as a viable piece in the lineup. He’s hitting .352, belted a three-run homer Wednesday against Philly, drew two walks against the Mets (bumping his OPS to .954) while providing the steady defense we expected. The early-season production for Flaherty is not sustainable. Tucker likely is not sustainable, either. But Atlanta is deciding to ride the hot hands for now, starting Flaherty over Camargo and keeping Acuna in Gwinnett while Tucker does his thing.

    ♦  Matt Wisler: When Anibal Sanchez – who himself has bolstered the pitching staff – injured his hamstring the night before he was scheduled to start the series opener against the Mets, the Braves tapped Wisler, one of the “early rebuild” arms who failed to meet expectations. But he brought a renewed confidence and aggressiveness against a Mets team that entered the series opener at 13-4, carving up New York across seven tremendous innings. If nothing else, he earned the right to take the fifth starter’s turn in the rotation Tuesday at Cincinnati. He was that good.

    What About Acuna?

    The 20-year-old, who crushed at every level of the minors last season, then won Arizona Fall League MVP honors last fall, and then dominated the Grapefruit

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    League this spring, remains in Triple-A. The main reason? He’s pressing, going 8-for-44 with 17 strikeouts at Gwinnett through his first 11 games. For an organization that sent him down to work on “development” stuff – in other words, to guarantee an extra year of contract control – it would seem odd to promote a .182 hitter and pronounce that development compete.

    Folks, Ronald Acuna is going to be in the majors, and soon. Nobody expected Tucker to perform like he has, and likely didn’t expect Acuna to struggle so far through his first 51 plate appearances at Gwinnett. But the bottom line is once Acuna gets on a roll – and it’s coming – he will be in the majors. There is no worry there. I’d hit that kid cleanup from the get-go once he gets here, but that’s just me.

    Bautista and Bat Flips?

    Young Ronnie has some pretty good bat flips in his arsenal, but Atlanta signed the bat-flip master Jose Bautista to a one-year, minor-league deal on Wednesday. The longtime Toronto slugger, who maintained his relationship with new Braves GM Alex Anthopolous, is at extended spring training, working at third base and looking to prove he can play in the majors.

    I have my doubts. This Bautista is not the guy who finished in the top eight in American League MVP voting four times in six seasons from 2010-15. His on-base percentage has dropped each of the past four seasons, and his slugging percentage has fallen each of the past three seasons. Bautista struck out 170 times a season ago.

    I know some folks want to envision the 2014 Bautista hitting behind Freeman. I don’t see that at all. If he provides a right-handed power bat off the bench, that is a bonus. But I’m not counting on him.

    A Star in the Making

    Is there anybody in the majors today who is more fun to watch than Ozzie Albies? The kid is flat-out awesome to watch, be it diving to snag ground balls, turning double plays, blasting balls into the seats and hitting line drives into the gap.

    Seeing Ozzie round first on his way to an extra-base hit is one of the pure joys of watching baseball today. He plays with so much passion and joy, and he is so fast. His speed and baserunning is game-changing stuff.

    When the All-Star ballot comes out, punch Ozzie’s name at second base, repeatedly. If his production stays anywhere near the level we’ve seen through 18 games – .316 average, .995 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs, 15 extra-base hits, outstanding defense – he has to be the front-runner for top second baseman in the Senior Circuit.

    What About Julio?

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

    Teheran has made a big change in his past two starts – relying more on his slider and changeup and mixing in a curveball, as well. In his first two starts of the season, Teheran relied solely on his fastball and opposing lineups pounded the heat, which sat around or just under 90 mph with little movement.

    Maybe Julio has found something with more mixing in of the breaking stuff. I think we all know he’s not an ace, but with four pitches in the mix, JT becomes more effective and more attractive – given his contract status – if Atlanta looks to deal him.

    ***

    It’s just 18 games, but compared to recent history, these Braves in 2018 have pushed the envelope. It’s a fun bunch to watch. There is so far to go but, so far, so good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sweep of Cards, trade for Downs, Beachy back & Rocks up next

    Atlanta traded Cory Rasmus (RHP) for Scott Downs (LHP). Downs is 2-3 with a 1.84 ERA in 43 appearances.

    Atlanta traded Cory Rasmus (RHP) for Scott Downs (LHP). Downs is 2-3 with a 1.84 ERA in 43 appearances.

    Fresh off a stunning sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, Braves’ fans learned Monday morning that the Braves had traded Cory Rasmus (RHP) to the Angels for Scott Downs (LHP). Downs joins a bullpen of untouchable relievers.

    In 27 innings, the Braves held the St. Louis Cardinals to 3 runs, 2 of them coming in Kris Medlen’s 6 innings of the series finale. This despite the Cards coming into Atlanta with the most runs, RBIs and the highest batting average, on-base percentage and OPS in the National League. The series showed just how much promise a future rotation with the young Teheran, Minor and Medlen poses. Adding in rehabbed Beachy and the Braves’ rotation easily becomes one of the best in baseball. With Wood currently in the rotation and Beachy joining it tomorrow, the average age of the Braves rotation is 24.4 years old.

    The Braves pitching dominance is not solely the product of the starting rotation. Atlanta’s bullpen is the best in the business with 1-2-3 punch of Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel from the 7th inning on. Craig Kimbrel recorded consecutive saves against the Cards, passing the 30 save mark. Kimbrel is just the second closer in franchise history to have 3 – 30 save seasons. Kimbrel’s 3 seasons with 30 saves happen to be consecutive and include his only 3 full seasons in the big leagues. Kimbrel joins Braves’ hall of famer and future inductee to Cooperstown John Smoltz in the category. Kimbrel isn’t the only reliever having an exceptional season. Luis Avilan has not allowed an earned run in 27 straight innings. In those 27 appearances, hitters have an .079 average against him and have struck out 16 times.

    Offensively, the Braves continue their all-or-nothing approach at the plate. There have been positive signs from the likes of Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons. Heyward hit .273 during the Cardinals’ series with 3 hits, 2 homers and 3 RBIs. The positive sign being that he didn’t strike out during the series. And he did this while hitting in the lead off spot. His defense, particularly in the unusual position of center field, has been nothing short of spectacular. Though Andrelton Simmons’ power detracts from his batting average and sets him up for a higher strikeout rate, he is currently the third hardest player to strike out in the NL. He averages 1 K every 12.8 plate appearances. As of this morning, Chris Johnson leads the National League in hitting. He is behind only reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera in all of baseball. With a .338 batting average (now having a qualifying number of at-bats), Johnson is ahead of Yadier Molina (.334) and Michael Cuddyer (.330). Johnson has 104 hits, 22 doubles, 6 homers and 34 RBIs.

    With a sweep of the Cardinals, the Braves’ record stands at 60-45. They have an 8 1/2 game lead over the Washington Nationals in the NL East.


    BEACHY MAKES 2013 DEBUT AGAINST ROCKIES…

    Baseball can be all about timing. Some call it luck. For the Braves, Tim Hudson’s devastating, season-ending ankle injury could have been season-altering. However, the timing of Brandon Beachy’s rehab worked out perfectly for him to take the place of the veteran ace. Beachy had a slight setback at Triple-A Gwinnett some time ago, but has recovered completely from that setback as well as the Tommy John surgery that shelved him last year just before the all-star break. Beachy will make his 2013 season debut tonight against the visiting Colorado Rockies.

    The Braves face the Rockies at a time when the Rockies are trying to stay competitive in the NL West. With the surging Dodgers and the more consistent Diamondbacks, the Rockies find themselves 8 games back in the division. The Rockies hope to insert Carlos Gonzalez in their lineup while in Atlanta. CarGo has been dealing with a sprained right finger since before the all-star break, something that kept him out of the Home Run Derby. His bat and defense will certainly go a long way to keeping the Rockies in the hunt.

    Tonight Braves’ fans will be treated to De La Rosa (10-5, 2.97) vs. Beachy (–, -.–). The second game of the season will feature Nicasio (6-4, 4.40) vs. Wood (0-2, 3.42). Likely the pitching match-up to watch will be in game 3 with Chatwood (7-3, 2.48) vs. Minor (10-5, 2.89). The 4th and final game of the series will feature a pitcher TBD vs. Teheran (7-5, 3.07).

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

    Braves take series in tundra, prepare for Tigers

    The Braves knew that going into Colorado they were going to be facing tough weather. However, they had no idea that Colorado would bring a postponed game, a doubleheader, and the loss of right fielder Jason Heyward to a burst appendix. With game 1 postponed due to snow flurries and poor visibility, the Braves and Rockies squared off in a doubleheader Tuesday with a game time temperature of 23 degrees. The grounds crew at Coors Field did a phenomenal job preparing a field that had been covered in snow mere hours before and were able to maintain the field throughout the series. By the time game 3 rolled around, the Braves were thrilled to be playing in 48 degree weather.

    Game 1 of doubleheader:

    Returning to place where he once worked as a ski lift operator, Evan Gattis thrived. Gattis had both a game-winning RBI and a game-ending put out when he threw out a runner at second base. The rookie smashed his 6th homer of the season. He has now homered in each of the stadiums in which he has played.

    Reed Johnson started in right field in place of Jason Heyward who will be on the 15-day DL as he recovers from laparascopic surgery to remove his appendix. Reed took advantage of the playing time, going 4-for-4, 3 of those doubles. He hasn’t had many chances this season given that the 3 outfield starters are more or less every day guys, but getting some playing time in Heyward’s absence may improve his bat when he comes off the bench in the future.

    The Mike Minor that emerged in the second half of the 2012 season is becoming one of the better pitchers in the Braves’ rotation. Minor pitched 6 innings, giving up 5 hits and 3 runs. He struck out 5 and walked 2. Coincidentally, Minor has allowed only 5 hits in each of his 4 starts this season. His next start against Doug Fister is the best pitching matchup of the Detroit series.

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

    W: Minor (3-1) L: Francis (1-2) SV: Kimbrel (8)

    Game 2 of doubleheader:

    Braves’ bats didn’t go cold between games in the doubleheader. Justin Upton smashed his 11th homer. He now holds the Atlanta Braves franchise record with 11 homers in April. Prior to Upton’s 11th homer, the record stood at 10, a feat accomplished by Ryan Klesko and twice by Andres Galarraga. His 11 homers in April add to the 6 he hit in Spring Training. He has certainly made a case for National League Player of the Month, though his biggest competition comes from the rival Washington Nationals in Bryce Harper.

    Game 2 saw something the Braves hope to see more of this year: Justin and B.J. Upton knocked back-to-back home runs. The Uptons became the 2nd pair of brothers in Major League Baseball history to hit back-to-back homers in a game. Prior to the Uptons, the only brothers to do so were Lloyd and Paul Waner who did it in 1938 with the Pirates. This was the third time the Uptons have homered in the same game since joining the Braves this season. B.J. Upton has yet to homer in a game in which his brother didn’t.

    It certainly helped the Braves that the Rockies went an incredible 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Clearly, they had plenty of opportunities, but squandered them. Julio Teheran gave up 8 hits in his 7 innings pitched, but managed to hold the Rockies to only 1 run. The run support Teheran received in the 4th and 5th innings allowed him to continue a few more innings. This was Teheran’s first win of the season and hopefully gives him a confidence boost going into his next start.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Braves 0 0 0 3 2 1 0 0 4 10 14 1
    Rockies 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 12 0

    W: Teheran (1-0) L: Garland (2-1)

    Game 3:

    Veteran Tim Hudson took to the mound in frigid Colorado attempting to get his 200th career win under his belt. Unfortunately, the baseball gods were not smiling on Huddy again Wednesday. He had a great outing, going 6 innings and leaving with a 2-run lead, but the game got away from the Braves in the late innings as the game finally ended after 12 innings. Tim Hudson’s next shot at his 200th career win will come Tuesday against the Washington Nationals at Turner Field.

    Dan Uggla is hitting .185, but the final game of the series showed signs of life with Uggla. Recovering from a calf strain, Uggla stepped up in game 3 going 3-for-3 with a pair of singles and a double. He improved his batting average from .167 to .185. He challenged himself on the base paths, though he clearly still doesn’t have full strength in that left calf. Of course, it didn’t help anything that it was so cold in Colorado. An off day before the Detroit series begins is exactly what Uggla needs. The Braves would surely love to have his bat in action and they would love to see him get on base, whether by hit or walk, keeping down the strikeouts.

    Braves’ fans saw something they rarely see in game 3–a blown save by Craig Kimbrel. Though the Braves didn’t lose the game on that blown save alone, it set up the 3 extra frames pitched by Cory Gearrin, Jordan Walden and Luis Ayala. Ayala hoped to avoid letting a lead-off double Wilin Rosario hurt him by pitching around hot-hitting Michael Cuddyer, but that strategy backfired when Yorvit Torrealba ended the game on an RBI single.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 R H E
    Braves 0 0 0 3 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 5 10 0
    Rockies 0 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 1 6 15 2

    W: Belisle (1-1) L: Ayala (1-1)

    BRAVES MEET TIGERS FOR NEGRO LEAGUES WEEKEND…

    This weekend is a special one in baseball as the Detroit Tigers host Negro Leagues Weekend. It is the 11th annual weekend celebrating the African-American leagues that features the talents of men like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston. On Saturday, the Detroit Tigers will wear throwback uniforms honoring the Detroit Stars and the Atlanta Braves will be sporting Atlanta Black Crackers throwbacks. The Detroit Stars played in the Negro National League from 1920-1931. The Atlanta Black Crackers played in the Negro Southern League during that period. The Detroit Stars saw many talented players come through including Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and Norman “Turkey” Stearnes. One of the most recognizable names from the Atlanta Black Crackers was Red Moore, the first baseman who is in the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame. Saturday’s game will be one of the three featured games on FOX and the series finale will be on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.

    One of the biggest things the Braves need to improve on is getting runners on before Justin Upton gets to the plate. His home runs are more often than not solo shots. Atlanta’s leadoff hitters are .207/.275/.341. and hitters in the 2 hole are even worse at .147/.270/.293. Getting Andrelton Simmons and B.J. Upton into a consistent rhythm would be very beneficial to the Braves as they clearly have pop in the middle of the lineup with Gattis and Upton (even to a lesser extent with Freeman and Uggla).

    Something worth noting is that the Braves are not taking advantage of their speed while on the base paths. Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and B.J. Upton, all with significant speed and base running intelligence, have only 5 stolen bases between them. In fact, Gerald Laird has as many stolen bases as Jason Heyward with 1. Justin Upton actually looks to be improving on the base paths, with 3 stolen bases so far. He showed speed from time to time with Arizona, stealing around 20 bags a season. His older brother averaged a least a dozen more per season. Fredi Gonzalez is no Bobby Cox by any means, meaning he doesn’t put the runners in motion often, but an improvement of a few bags per player could really add a dimension to Atlanta’s game.

    The Braves will luck out and miss both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in their trip to Detroit. Instead, the series will begin with Maholm (3-1, 1.03) vs. Sanchez (2-1, 1.75). Saturday’s game will feature Medlen (1-2, 2.16) vs. Porcello (0-2, 11.08). Perhaps the best matchup of the series comes in the finale: Minor (3-1, 1.80) vs. Fister (3-0, 2.00).

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

    Braves fall to Bucs, head to snow-covered Colorado

    The Braves finally fell to Earth in Pittsburgh, dropping 3 of 4 games in the series to the Bucs. With their 10-game win streak over, the Braves looked to get things rolling again against the Pirates, but the Pirates had other plans. Phenomenal Pittsburgh pitching, both from their starters and a solid bullpen, stifled the powerful Atlanta bats. The Braves were more than ready to get out of Pittsburgh after losing the 4-game series.

    Game 1:

    The Braves began the series in Pittsburgh with a somewhat uncertain bullpen. Avila remained day-to-day with a hamstring strain. Walden hadn’t made an appearance in what seemed like weeks. And there was some question of who might be called up if Avila did need to make a trip to the disabled list. In game 1, none of that appeared important as Varvaro and Kimbrel truly carried the team to the win.

    Game 1 saw something that has never happened in Braves history: Justin Upton became the first player with 9 home runs in his team’s first 15 games of the season. Older brother B.J. Upton lined an 0-2 pitch into left field to give Atlanta a 1-run lead in the 1st inning. It was B.J.’s 2nd homer of the season.

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

    W: Varvaro (1-0) L: Hughes (1-1) SV: Kimbrel (7)

    Game 2:

    Tim Hudson would really like that elusive 200th career win. The win wasn’t in the cards in game 2. Huddy only pitched 4 innings and gave up 9 hits, 6 ERs, and 2 BBs with 2 Ks. He will try again for that 200th win in the series finale in chilly Denver. However, Huddy hasn’t had the best luck or any luck in Denver. Coors Field and U.S. Cellular Field are the only two parks in MLB that Hudson is winless in (with minimum of 4 starts). Hudson doesn’t boast great numbers at Coors, either. He has an 0-2 record with a terrible 8.04 ERA in five starts there. It’s safe to say that Huddy’s sinker simply doesn’t sink at Coors.

    Going into game 2, the Braves’ Justin Upton led all of Major League Baseball in homers and OPS. Chris Johnson led MLB in average (which he still does). Paul Maholm led MLB in wins (tied) and ERA. And closer Kimbrel led MLB in saves. The Braves were in great shape until the first of their 3 game slide. Evan Gattis came through for the Braves again, launching his 5th home run of the season.

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

    W: Rodriguez (2-0) L: Hudson (2-1)

    Game 3:

    Paul Maholm began the the third game of the series with 25 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings. According to Elias, Maholm’s 25 1/3 innings of scoreless ball were the most for a starting pitcher when opening the season since Luis Tiant pitched 27 scoreless in 1966. That’s some pretty impressive company. But like the Braves in the series, Maholm was bound to fall to Earth eventually. In game 3, Dan Uggla injured his left calf. He said the injury felt similar to one he experienced in 2011. He was surprised the day after that it didn’t hurt as bad as he expected. We’ll likely see Uggla back in the lineup in the first or second game in Colorado. The Braves saw a roster move in game 3. Right-hander David Carpenter was recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett to join the bullpen while utility man Blake DeWitt was placed on the 15-day DL with a lower back strain.

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

    W: McDonald (2-2) L: Maholm (3-1) SV: Grilli (6)

    Game 4:

    Kris Medlen will be the first to tell you that sometimes a quality outing just isn’t enough. That was the case in the season finale. Medlen’s curveball was superb, but the strike zone made using his control a tricky tightrope walk. Even a quality outing can be rendered meaningless with run support. That was the case again in game 4 when the Braves managed 8 hits, but only got 2 to cross the plate. While the bats weren’t productive in the series finale, the gloves were. Andrelton Simmons did something nobody in baseball seems to remember seeing before: In an attempt to throw out a runner at first base on a grounder hit hard up the middle, he transferred the ball behind his back from his glove to his barehand so he could throw across his body. Though he didn’t get the runner, the display of defensive prowess reminded the Braves why they so firmly believe he will win many gold gloves in his career. In addition to that spectacular flash of leather, Andrelton ran down the third base line and dove with his back to the ball for an out (with an incoming Justin Upton nearing Andrelton as he dove, I might add). Justin Upton’s defensive ability has been a pleasant surprise to the Braves who thought his former team, the Diamondbacks, had written off Upton’s potential on defense. Upton robbed a Pedro Alvarez of a home run in the 6th inning.

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

    W: Wilson (1-0) L:Medlen (1-2) SV: Grilli (7)

    BRAVES HEAD TO ROCKY WEATHER…

    The Braves will, like the Mets and Diamondbacks before them on the schedule, encounter winter weather as they begin a 3-game set in Colorado. According to the current forecast, there is a chance of snow both Monday and Tuesday in Denver. Both Tuesday and Thursday’s game last week in Denver were postponed due to snow.

    Freddie Freeman returns from the disabled list in the first game in Denver. Freeman was sidelined with an oblique injury, a DL trip he was less than thrilled with. He thrived at Gwinnett, going 5-for-5 with 2 doubles and 2 RBIs on Saturday, and appears to be more than ready to return to the big league lineup. The timing of his return is fantastic for Freeman who boasts a .406 average with 3 doubles, 4 homers, a triple and 11 RBIs in his 7 games played at Coors Field in his career. His return presents a predicament for manager Fredi Gonzalez. Chris Johnson, who has filled in for Freddie at first base, is the hottest hitter in baseball right now. Johnson has a .407 average with 24 hits, 4 doubles, 2 homers and 7 RBIs. He leads Major League Baseball in average (of players with 50+ plate appearances). Does Gonzalez give Chris Johnson all of the playing time at third base or does he continue with a platoon of Johnson and Juan Francisco? Whatever Gonzalez chooses to do, having Francisco or Johnson available off the bench with Freeman back in the lineup will be a boost to the Braves in the late innings.

    While the Braves’ bats were not up to par in Pittsburgh, it’s important to remember just how good the Braves have been despite some glaring weaknesses. In the National League, there are just over 20 players batting .185 or lower (qualifying with 25+ plate appearances) and four of them are Braves starters Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Andrelton Simmons and Dan Uggla. There are signs of life, however. In the final game against the Bucs, Simmons had his third multi-hit game of the year. Upton and Heyward are working hard in the batting cage. And perhaps the rest Uggla is getting for his injured calf will reset his timing. Reed Johnson, known his career for being a great bat off the bench, hasn’t given the Braves quite as much as they’d hoped thus far, either. The good news is that the Braves have received tons of offense from unlikely spots. When you think about how much Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson have given the team, it’s pretty incredible that they both started the season as backup players and eventually platoon players. Ramiro Pena has provided pop when needed off the bench. The Braves are getting it done with a different combination of key pieces in their wins. We have yet to see this team play with all the pieces in place.

    In the 4 games in Pittsburgh, the Braves were hitting a paltry .179 with 4 HRs. To be successful in Colorado, the bats are going to have to wake up. What better place to right the bats than the hitter friendly Coors Field?

    One last note as we head into the Colorado series: Braves’ fans have not all been patient with young Julio Teheran. It’s important that we think about the early struggles last season of Mike Minor. In Minor’s first 3 starts of the 2012 season, the rookie posted ERAs of 10.80, 4.38 and 3.10. In Teheran’s first 3 starts of the 2013 season, he has posted a 9.00, 7.36 and 7.31. Remember that in one of those starts, the wheels appeared to come off early on and then he settled in and ate up some innings and saved the bullpen. Teheran is still only 22-years-old and has a lot to learn about himself and the game. He has made only 7 big league starts. His story may turn out to be much like Minor’s. We can’t know yet if he’ll gain confidence and settle in the way Minor did in the second-half of the 2012 season. The only way for us to find out is to be patient with the young righty and hope that he is the recipient of some luck along the way.

    Monday’s pitching matchup will feature Minor (2-1, 0.95) vs. Francis (1-1, 8.25). Tuesday features Teheran (0-0, 7.31) vs. Garland (2-0, 3.32). Getaway day in Denver will be an afternoon game with Hudson (2-1, 4.50) vs. TBD.

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