• Dansby Swanson

    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.

    ONE LAST SHOT: Braves Take Final Swing at NL Pennant, World Series Berth as Dodgers Force Game 7

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two teams. One game. One pennant. One World Series berth. One season extender. One season ender.

    Zero margin for error.

    The Atlanta Braves have whiffed on two chances to end this National League Championship Series. They’re down to their last shot Sunday night. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who just two nights ago were down 3-1 in the series, used a 3-1 victory Saturday in Game 6 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas to square the NLCS at three games apiece and push this NL title bout to a decisive seventh game.

    The Braves have come a long way since the start of 2018, but after being unable to close out the proud and more experienced Dodgers, we’ve arrived at the ultimate intersection of sports heaven and hell:

    Game 7.

    They’re the two greatest words in sports … unless you find yourself in one. Then it is a torture chamber of emotions exhilarating and exhausting, dauting and devastating, sheer ecstasy and unconstrained pressure, all rolled into one frothing passion play that ends not just the series for the unfortunate loser and its fanbase, but its season.

    Win a Game 7, and you’ll smile at the memory for decades. Lose a Game 7, and you’ll spend a lifetime wondering what if.

    “Shoot, we’ll go out there and let ’er fly,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame – suffice to say he’d not checked social media, where plenty of Braves fans already were cliff-diving into the pool of doom and gloom. “It’s baseball.”

    Win or Winter: Braves manager Brian Snitker discusses Atlanta’s loss to the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS.

    Perhaps that dread coming from Braves Country stems from their most recent experience in the winner-take-all aisle, the forsaken Game 5 of last season’s NL Division Series. Perhaps that experience, whatever one can take from that rotten late afternoon, will serve the Braves of 2020 well Sunday in what will be the franchise’s biggest game in at least two decades.

    The Dodgers know what this Game 7 business is all about, considering 11 members of their current 28-man roster were part of Los Angeles pennant-clinching victory over Milwaukee in Game 7 two seasons ago. It’s part of the reason so many national pundits picked Los Angeles to beat the Braves and reach its third World Series in the past four autumns.

    The final win of any series is the hardest to get, particularly against a squad ladened with playoff experience. Give plenty of credit to the Dodgers for forcing this engagement to its limit. Direct plenty of blame to the Braves for not closing out this series when they had the chance.

    While the missteps were not as egregious as in Friday’s 7-3 defeat in Game 5, the Braves couldn’t come through in a couple of key moments in Game 6.

    Things teetered on the brink early after Max Fried allowed back-to-back homers to Corey Seager and Justin Turner – followed by a walk and two singles – in a three-run first. Fried, the 27-year-old lefty who grabbed the reins as staff ace after Atlanta’s rotation imploded in the season’s first month, found his footing and kept the Braves in the game with a gutty effort.

    Fried didn’t another run and got the Braves into the seventh inning before succumbing after a career-high 109 pitches. Snitker lauded him for giving Atlanta a chance, but while Fried was posting zeros, his teammates were unable to get much going against four Dodgers pitchers.

    Going the Distance: The Braves fell 3-1 to Los Angeles in Game 6 of the NLCS on Saturday, forcing the series to a decisive seventh game Sunday night.

    The biggest moment to flip this game’s script came immediately after Fried doused the initial inferno. The Braves loaded the bases with no outs in the second, but Walker Buehler carved up the bottom of the Atlanta batting order. Austin Riley struck out on three pitches, Nick Markakis watched a called third strike, and rookie Cristian Pache grounded out.

    Singles from Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson gave the Braves two baserunners in the fourth, but Riley lined a 109-mph bullet to Cody Bellinger in center and Markakis ended the inning on a comebacker to the mound. Freddie Freeman singled in the fifth with two outs, but Mookie Betts robbed Marcell Ozuna of an RBI double with a leaping catch at the wall in right.

    Ozuna’s ball left the bat at 100.6 mph; the Braves hit 11 balls on this day 95 mph or harder. They finally broke through in the seventh on two balls that weren’t exactly scalded: Markakis greeting Blake Treinin with a triple to right (86.4 mph) and Ronald Acuna Jr. scoring him on a double to right (89.6 mph).

    That’s just one example of the fickleness that can decide any individual baseball game.

    In a Game 7, that type of thing can decide who plays on and who goes home.

    Plenty of pressure remains on the Dodgers. The only thing worse for Los Angeles than losing this series in five or six games would be losing Game 7. The Braves now have serious pressure on them for the first time in the series. With the pennant within its grasp the past two games, Atlanta went 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 13 runners on base.

    For Atlanta, Sunday will serve as invaluable experience regardless of the outcome. The Braves hand the ball to 22-year-old right-hander Ian Anderson, 52 months removed from Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., for his 10th major-league start. Four players age 23 or younger will join him in the starting lineup; another starter (Swanson) is 26.

    They’ll play the biggest game of their young lives, to decide a series joined at three games apiece.

    There are no more excuses for either side, and there is no tomorrow. Look how the week has unfolded. The Braves won two in a row. The two teams swapped one victory apiece. The Dodgers won two in a row. One could argue the Braves should be preparing for the World Series by now. One could say the same about the Dodgers.

    Somebody’s going to make it. One game to go, with the pennant and a shot at the ring hanging in the balance.

    —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.

    PARTY POOPERS: Dodgers Make Braves Pay for Missed Opportunities, Force NLCS to Game 6

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This has nothing to do with curses and jinxes and narratives long since exhausted, and everything to do with lack of execution and failure to seize opportunities.

    Leave third base a bit early on a ball caught in the outfield? Don’t drive home runners in the early innings? Fail to throw strikes during a tight spot? Sometimes in the regular season, those details get glossed over amid the blur of the daily march to October.

    But when you reach the 10th month of the year, you have to be on point at all times. The Atlanta Braves fell short in too many of those moments in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday, and that’s the biggest reason they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, instead of preparing for the World Series.

    The Braves had their chances but couldn’t take advantage, and the postseason-tested Dodgers made them pay in a 7-3 victory to keep their season alive. And while the Braves still lead the NLCS 3-2 and need just one win this weekend to capture the NL title and head to the World Series for the first time in 21 years, Friday served as a stinging reminder:

    Winning a pennant is not easy. They just don’t hand out trips to the Fall Classic like free samples at the mall food court. And the final win of a series is the hardest one to secure.

    If you get an opportunity, you best not waste it. If the disaster scenario unfolds this weekend and the Braves manage to lose games started by Max Fried (Saturday) and Ian Anderson (if Sunday’s Game 7 becomes necessary), they will rue the chances that slid through their fingers in Game 5.

    It started about as well as Brian Snitker could have dreamed. The Braves turned to A.J. Minter to kick off a bullpen game – welcome to life in 2020, with no off days in playoff series until next week. For Minter, it was his first start since his junior season at Texas A&M, and all the lefty did was strike out seven over three innings.

    Minter left with a 2-0 lead; it could’ve been more. The Braves collected five hits and two walks in the opening three innings, but scored only the pair of runs while stranding four runners on base.

    Atlanta actually put a third run on the scoreboard in the third, albeit briefly. Dansby Swanson’s sinking liner was snagged by Mookie Betts in right field, the former MVP stumbling as he picked the ball off his shoe tops. Marcell Ozuna, who began the inning with a single, left third base early and upon review was called out, the double play ending the inning.

    Regardless of how you feel about the whole momentum debate – which has raged across the airwaves and social media during this series – there’s no denying this game changed on the Ozuna blunder. The stumbles on this night don’t all fall on the loveable designated hitter, though.

    The Braves couldn’t cash in their chances in the early innings. It almost was jarring to see, considering Atlanta’s offense has scored four runs or more in one inning six times this postseason. In a bullpen game, a house of cards that can topple if just one reliever has an off night, three runs are not going to be enough most of the time.

    Not on this night, and certainly not against the Dodgers, who Friday played their 23rd NLCS game since 2016. And almost immediately after Ozuna’s run came off the board, Los Angeles did what the Braves could not.

    Take advantage.

    Corey Seager’s homer off Tyler Matzek in the fourth made it 2-1. And while the Braves still held the lead, you almost could feel what was coming next. Shane Greene wiggled out of trouble in the fifth, but left with two outs and one on in the sixth.

    Will Smith (the pitcher) came on and for the second straight night could not throw his slider for a strike, walking Max Muncy to extend the inning. That brought up Will Smith (the catcher), who golfed a 3-2 fastball into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and a 4-2 Dodgers lead.

    The Battle of Wills: The Dodgers catcher put Los Angeles ahead in Game 5 of the NLCS with a three-run homer in the sixth inning Friday.

    In the seventh, Jacob Webb was one strike away from getting out of the inning. Twice. Betts singled home a run on a two-strike pitch, and Seager followed with a two-strike, two-run homer.

    7-2 Dodgers. See you Saturday.

    Atlanta certainly wanted to spend the day shifting from pennant celebration to World Series preparation. There remains work to do, however. It’s playoff baseball, and the deeper you play, the more amplified the missed chances become. That’s part of it, a part the Braves and many members of their fanbase are learning on the fly.

    That’s not to suggest the Braves suddenly are gripped with overwhelming pressure. You can afford a stumble if you build a 3-1 series advantage, which the Braves did. Friday was Game 5, not Game 7. Fried pitched well in Game 1 and will be on full rest. Critical bullpen arms like Mark Melancon and Chris Martin also are fresh. Saturday is Snitker’s 65th birthday, and what would be a better present than a pennant and World Series berth?

    One also must think the Braves will have a heightened sense of urgency after a few stumbles Friday delayed the party for at least a day. The pressure remains squarely on the Dodgers, whose sole mission from the commencement of spring training is to win the World Series.

    But if this series isn’t over 24 hours from now, we’re having a completely different discussion.

    —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.

    ON THE BRINK: Braves Bash Dodgers in Game 4, Sit One Victory from the World Series

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves were pounded into submission in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday, and while they held a 2-1 advantage in the series even after allowing 11 runs in the first inning, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the national prognosticators who spent Thursday shoveling dirt on the Braves grave.

    This just in: those reports of the Braves demise were greatly exaggerated.

    And now, they’re one victory away from the World Series.

    Atlanta responded to that blowout loss with a breakout performance of its own, moving one step away from its first NL pennant and World Series trip in 21 years with a 10-2 rout of the mighty Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    Catch your breath, folks. The Atlanta Braves, who 30 months ago were coming off four straight seasons of 89-plus losses, are THIS CLOSE to the Fall Classic. The sport’s grandest stage. A stage the franchise has graced just nine times since the NL and AL champs begin squaring off in 1903.

    They have three shots to punch their ticket, starting Friday night in Game 5. A fully rested Max Fried and Ian Anderson are lined up to start Games 6 and 7, if needed.

    Atlanta – and its championship-starved franchise – hope that’s not necessary. If Marcell Ozuna hits Friday like he did Thursday, you might as well print the T-shirts, snap some fake selfies and clear your calendar for next week. Ozuna helped fuel the Braves run to a third-consecutive NL East championship while putting up MVP-type numbers through the 60-game season, but has been relatively quiet in these playoffs.

    He entered Thursday hitting .200 in the postseason with a .565 OPS and 14 strikeouts in 35 at-bats. But the NL leader in homers and RBIs in the regular season was in the middle of things throughout Game 4, helping Atlanta deliver a definitive statement in a game that began with every member of the Fox Sports pregame crew (and honestly, probably 95 percent of the country) picking the Dodgers to even the series. David Ortiz lobbed the ultimate insult, picking Los Angeles to win 14-3.

    Yeah, about that, Big Papi.

    Ozuna became the first Braves player to homer twice in a postseason contest since Chipper Jones in the 2003 NLDS, and set a franchise record for most total bases in a playoff game with 11. He finished 4-for-5 with three runs scored and four RBIs, mixing it up and taking selfies the whole way.

    The first of his two homers on this night banged off the second deck in left field in the fourth inning, tying the game at 1. More importantly, it broke the seal against future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. The big Los Angeles lefty was supposed to start Game 2, only to be scratched with back spasms, and Atlanta made him work Thursday.

    Lined up to face the three-time NL Cy Young award winner in Game 4 was Bryse Wilson, owner of seven career big-league starts who had not pitched in a competitive game since Sept. 27. Nobody gave the 22-year-old righty any chance of holding his own in such a pivotal game, one the Braves needed to keep the Dodgers from evening the series at two games apiece.

    All Wilson did in his playoff debut was baffle Los Angeles through six sparkling innings, surrendering only an Edwin Rios homer on a fastball over the middle of the plate in the third. Wilson used a fantastic breaking ball and a plus changeup with great control of his fastball to limit the powerful Dodgers lineup to just that one hit in six stellar innings, throwing 50 of his 74 pitches for strikes and pitching the game of his life.

    Owning the Moment: Bryse Wilson shined in his postseason debut, holding the Dodgers to one run on one hit in six innings in Game 4 of the NLCS.

    He didn’t allow the Rios blast to rattle him, retiring nine of the final 10 hitters he faced. He punctuated his outing with back-to-back 12-pitch innings in the fifth and sixth innings. On a day spent wondering how long he could go and could he keep the game close, Wilson didn’t just deliver.

    He dominated.

    “Wow,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame, summing up the mood everybody had in watching Wilson dazzle. “How he’d handle that situation, he answered that question.”

    And the Braves offense issued its own answer during a relentless six-run sixth, a 35-minute half-inning that turned a stomach-churning 1-all matchup into a margin with plenty of wiggle room. After Ronald Acuna singled and got second on a throwing error, it was likely NL MVP and team captain Freddie Freeman delivering the go-ahead double to right.

    The Braves were just getting started. Ozuna doubled home Freeman to send Kershaw to the showers, the veteran allowing four runs on seven hits in five-plus innings. After a Travis d’Arnaud lineout, the Braves seized control: an Ozzie Albies blooper, a Dansby Swanson double, an Austin Riley single, a Johan Camargo walk and a Cristian Pache single blowing things open.

    A Sweet Sixth: The Braves took control of Game 4 of the NLCS on Thursday with a six-run sixth.

    The Braves did what the Dodgers do so well: work counts and ambush mistakes and roll up runs with a deep lineup. Atlanta went 6-for-9 with runners in scoring position in the inning, delivering the biggest blows in the pivotal moments in the biggest game the franchise has played in forever.

    Friday night’s game is even bigger. And if the Braves can win just one more time, they’ll go play in the biggest games of them all.

    —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.

    NLCS Preview: Braves Look the Part, but Do They Have Enough to Topple Favored Dodgers?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    user282416407 · BravesWire NLCS Preview 2020

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They came home from the west coast having been outscored 9-0 in two games, walking into that new ballpark at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Oct. 7, 2018, hoping to just win one game against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers.

    The Atlanta Braves did so that night, riding Ronald Acuna Jr.’s famous grand slam and a tiebreaking homer from Freddie Freeman to beat the Dodgers 6-5 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Less than 24 hours later the series and season were over, but the Braves status as a contender only was beginning.

    Here they are now, winners of not one but two postseason series to bury the 19-year series drought narrative, in the NL Championship Series for the first time since 2001. So it’s only fitting the final obstacle between the franchise and its first World Series appearance in 21 years is the Dodgers, the measuring stick for every other major league team.

    Those Braves of 2018 were fresh faced, bright eyed, young and maybe a bit awestruck in those first two losses at Dodger Stadium. As manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday, “I thought when we faced them the last time, and I said afterward, we weren’t as strong as they were. We’ve made a lot of progress in that regard.

    “We’re a stronger team than we were two years ago.”

    We’re about to see just how strong starting Monday, as the Braves and Dodgers lift the lid on the NLCS with Game 1. It’s 2020, so naturally the road to the World Series technically runs not through Chavez Ravine, but Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    The Dodgers are the favorites in this series, as they should be. They’ve been here, done that. At some point, we all reasoned the Braves would have to go through the Dodgers to get to the World Series.

    Now, Atlanta gets that chance.

    Two Teams, One Pennant: MLB Network discusses the Braves/Dodgers matchup in the NLCS.

    Five Keys to the Series

    Can They Do It Again?: Snitker joked Saturday he didn’t have any choice but to feel comfortable with Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright taking the ball for Games 2 and 3, respectively. He then talked about how the young hurlers, who had combined for 18 major-league starts before the postseason began, have handled the playoff pressure.

    Yeah, you could say it’s going pretty well. Anderson and Wright have teamed up to allow five hits with 24 strikeouts and five walks across 17 2/3 shutout innings in three starts (two by Anderson, one by Wright). The Braves first-round draft picks in 2016 and 2017, Anderson and Wright have helped the Braves author four shutouts in five games in these playoffs.

    It would be foolish to expect Atlanta to continue posting zeros at that historic rate – opponents have scored in just three of 49 innings. But the confidence of Anderson and Wright, plus Game 1 starter Max Fried, is soaring at just the right time. Through two rounds, the Braves rotation has morphed from the shakiest part of the team to a difference-making strength.

    Snit Speaks: Atlanta manager Brian Snitker addresses the media before the NLCS.

    Who Can Be More Offensive: Take a look at the top of the team offensive stats from the regular season, and you’ll see a common theme: these two teams. Homers: Dodgers first in the majors, Braves second. Runs scored: Dodgers first, Braves second. OPS: Braves first, Dodgers second. OBP: Braves first, Dodgers second. Slugging percentage: Braves and Dodgers, tied for first.

    You get the idea. Both teams can hit. Good pitching stops good hitting in the postseason, as we heard plenty leading into the Reds series. And while one can argue Atlanta has faced better pitching overall on its path here, the Dodgers lead playoff teams in hard-hit rate (95 mph and higher) at 48 percent. Who’s second? Of course it’s the Braves (47.4 percent).

    Both offenses will face better pitching in this round than in the previous five games. And while the Dodgers have hit just two homers in five playoff games (Atlanta has seven), they still are averaging six runs a game. Former MVP Cody Bellinger is 6-for-19 with five RBIs this October after going 14-for-99 with nine RBIs in his previous five postseason series. He typically hits sixth in a L.A. lineup that is the deepest in the sport.

    Walk This Way: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announces Walker Buehler will start Monday’s Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Buehler … Buehler: Walker Buehler takes the ball for L.A. in Game 1, and while the right-hander has pitched only four innings in each of his first two postseason starts due to blister issues, he’s struck out eight in each outing while surrendering a total of three runs and five hits. It will be the ninth career playoff start for the 26-year-old out of Vanderbilt; perhaps you remember his first?

    After giving up 10 runs across his first three career postseason efforts, Buehler has allowed four runs in his past five appearances with 38 strikeouts and 12 walks in 20 2/3 innings. Four of those walks came in the NLDS opener against San Diego.

    The Dodgers have watched lefty Clayton Kershaw turn back the clock this month – 19 strikeouts and one walk with a .180 opponents batting average in 14 innings. If Buehler pitches well in Game 1 and (presumably) Game 6, the uphill climb for the Braves get steeper.

    Braves Top Trio Must Be Heroes: No team had a better top three in its lineup this season than the Braves, as Acuna, Freeman and Marcell Ozuna all put together campaigns that will likely see each finish in the top 10 of MVP voting. And while all three have enjoyed moments so far this postseason, the overall production has not been what the Braves must have to beat the Dodgers.

    Acuna began the NLDS with an emphatic leadoff homer against Miami, but has struck out in 50 percent of his 22 playoff at-bats with just one homer and two walks. Freeman’s lone RBI came on his walkoff 13th-inning single in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card series against Cincinnati. Ozuna delivered two key hits in Game 1 against the Marlins, but has just three other hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks in 22 ABs.

    Freeman and Ozuna each collected two hits in Atlanta’s series-closing Game 3 victory Thursday. Acuna has shined in October during his young career, slashing .304/.400/.607 with a 1.007 OPS, six doubles, one triple and three homers in 65 postseason plate appearances. While Travis d’Arnaud has been the Braves best hitter in the playoffs, the three hitters ahead of him in the lineup must have big series for the Braves to advance.

    Moving On: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman talks about beating Miami in the NL Division Series and advancing to the NLCS for the first time in his career.

    Win Early to Keep Playing: With potentially seven games in seven days, each pitching staff will bear more weight the longer the NLCS goes. That weight only gets heavier for the team that falls behind in the series, which is why the Braves need to win at least two of the first three games to have a realistic shot to capture the pennant.

    The good news is the Atlanta bullpen is as deep as any in baseball, putting up zeros in the postseason at a historic level. Tyler Matzek has become a revelation whose comeback story will get well-deserved national play this week. A.J. Minter has reinvigorated his career with a change-up. Now that Will Smith has found his stride after COVID-19 delayed his debut, he looks like the weapon the Braves handsomely paid for last winter.

    The Dodgers bullpen is very good – their relievers posted a 2.74 ERA and 1.044 WHIP in the regular season – but questions abound around Kenley Jansen’s hold on the closer’s role. L.A. does have options to close, namely veteran Blake Treinen. One name to watch: Brusdar Graterol, a hard-throwing right-hander who features 100 mph velocity and wicked movement.

    The X-Factors: Who Are You?

    This series is chock full of star power on both sides, but sometimes it’s an under-the-radar name who seizes the moment. Mike Devereaux and Eddie Perez come to mind from Braves NLCS appearances of yesteryear. For Atlanta, it’s hard not to lean toward Dansby Swanson and his knack for hitting in the clutch (two homers in the NLDS after a rough Wild Card series). If somebody in the bottom half of the Braves order can have a big series (such as Adam Duvall), it amplifies Atlanta’s chances to play beyond Sunday.

    For the Dodgers, infielder/outfielder Chris Taylor (co-NLCS MVP in 2017) is a lifetime .338 hitter against the Braves with a .944 OPS and eight extra-base hits in 65 career at-bats. Most Braves fans will remember him not for a gapper or homer, but a single through the left side with two outs in the ninth inning to break up Sean Newcomb’s 2018 no-hit bid. Taylor, who homered against Atlanta in the NLDS that fall, went 1-for-11 against San Diego in this year’s division series.

    The Difference

    The Braves lineup is as deep as it’s been in years. The Dodgers lineup is a bit deeper. The Braves options for Game 4 are Bryse Wilson, Huascar Yona or Josh Tomlin. The Dodgers options for Game 4 are Dustin May, Julio Urias or Tony Gonsolin. In a matchup of the NL’s top two teams, with a slender margin of error for both sides, these details are not insignificant.

    This is baseball’s stratosphere, and there are those in the game who will tell you winning the pennant is harder than winning the World Series. Even with limited fans at a neutral site, the pressure will be amplified on both teams – the Braves being at this point for the first time in forever; the Dodgers being at this point again with the expectations of World Series title or bust.

    I watched the Braves play that role for years, carrying the burden of trying to fulfill the prophecy of the fanbase and the rest of the sport. It’s not a light lift. Just ask the Dodgers, who followed up World Series losses in 2017-18 with a stunning home loss in Game 5 of the NLDS to the Nationals last fall. Can another NL East squad deny L.A. a World Series date for the second straight October?

    If the Braves win two of the first three games, they will win the series. If they get to a seventh game, they will win the series. It won’t be easy, but the Braves have come so far the past three years, from rebuilding franchise to playoff newcomer to legitimate contender.

    Now comes the next step: National League champions and a trip to the World Series.

    The Pick

    Braves in 7

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NLCS game, starting Monday night.

    —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.

    CAPTURE THE FLAG! BRAVES SWEEP, HEAD TO NLCS FOR FIRST TIME SINCE 2001

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They didn’t know if there even would be a season. Their best player missed most of summer camp with COVID-19. Their starting pitching rotation fell apart.

    None of it stopped the Atlanta Braves.

    The Braves put the Miami Marlins out of their misery and ended a sweep of the NL Division Series emphatically and mercilessly, winning 7-0 in Game 3 on Thursday at Minute Maid Park in Houston. For the first time since 2001, the Braves are heading to the NL Championship Series, beginning Monday against either the Dodgers or Padres in Arlington, Texas.

    Say it out loud. Go ahead, Braves Country, you’ve certainly earned the right to shout it from the mountaintop after all the heartache, the close calls, the near misses across the past two decades.

    The Braves are four wins from the pennant!

    The Braves are four wins from the World Series!

    “Coming from where we were five years ago to where we are at now, it’s a complete 180,” first baseman Freddie Freeman – the only holdover from all four years of Atlanta’s rebuild from 2014-17, and who was stricken with the coronavirus in early July – told Fox Sports 1 postgame. “For us to be in this situation is absolutely incredible.

    “We finally got past the NLDS.”

    The Ride Continues: The Braves head to the NLCS for the first time in 19 years after Thursday’s 7-0 victory over Miami to cap a NLDS sweep.

    There would be no other shoe to drop this time, no agonizing end to this magical 2020 season that will roll on for at least four more games. Two seasons after crashing the playoff party and 12 months after giving away the NLDS, Atlanta has won two playoff series in an eight-day span – after not winning one for 19 years.

    And who’s to say it stops there? Sure, Los Angeles or San Diego will present a tougher challenge than the Reds or Marlins. But the Braves look every bit ready for this moment, and the backdrop of the environment in which his team reached this point wasn’t lost on manager Brian Snitker postgame.

    “This has been a tough time for all of us, in our sport, our world, our city, our fanbase,” Snitker said during media availability. “I love the fact we can give those people something to look forward to and watch.”

    Not many expected to still be watching the Braves a week into October. The chorus near and far rang loud throughout the 60-game sprint to this postseason: the Braves just didn’t have the starting pitching to go far. And that was fair, given how the projected rotation outside of Max Fried disappeared due to injuries and underperformance.

    But the cursed manner of Braves starters turned into a huge blessing in disguise, because Ian Anderson (twice) and Kyle Wright (once) have owned the biggest moments of their young careers.

    Thursday was Wright’s turn. It didn’t start out well for the 25-year-old right-hander, but he bore down and found a way to wiggle out of trouble before the Braves slammed down the accelerator. In the first, Wright allowed back-to-back one-out singles before stranding both runners. The second started with Wright walking rookie Jazz Chisholm in his first postseason plate appearance, but two groundouts and a strikeout ended the inning.

    That was huge considering what happened in the top half of the frame. The Braves loaded the bases off Sixto Sanchez on a Travis d’Arnaud single and walks to Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson. Following an Adam Duvall strikeout, Nick Markakis’ sinking liner to left was snagged by Corey Dickerson and d’Arnaud didn’t try to score.

    The inning ended with Sanchez inducing an Austin Riley grounder to short. A missed opportunity, one that could have changed the game had Wright not stifled Miami after the Chisholm walk. A missed opportunity, one the Braves would regret if they didn’t get another chance.

    They did in the third and, as they’ve done all season, seized the moment.

    Marcell Ozuna singled home the game’s first run, followed by d’Arnaud – who finished 6-for-10 with two homers and tied a franchise record with seven RBIs in a postseason series – just missing his third homer in three days, a double off the wall in right-center chasing home Freeman and Ozuna for a 3-0 advantage. Albies then moved d’Arnaud to third and Swanson chased him home to make it 4-0.

    The Knockout Blow: The Braves scored four runs in the third inning to power a 7-0 victory and sweep of the NLDS.

    Wright made sure it stuck after the first two Marlins reached in the third, retiring 12 of the final 13 hitters he faced. Combined, the trio of Fried, Anderson and Wright held Miami to four runs on 12 hits (all the runs and half the hits surrendered by Fried, the staff ace) with three walks and 19 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings.

    After so many October disappointments, the Braves have smashed that narrative with a command performance through five games. Atlanta not only has yet to lose this postseason, it’s allowed runs in just three of 49 innings. Anderson and Wright are the first teammates in MLB history to pitch at least six shutout innings in their playoff debuts in the same postseason.

    Oh, and about the Marlins trying to get under the Braves skin by plunking Ronald Acuna in Game 1? It backfired, bigtime. From that moment – remember, Miami led the opener at that point 4-1 – Atlanta outscored the Marlins 17-1.

    Acuna took to Twitter postgame to send the Marlins a message, and the franchise he plays for added another couple of notches to this 2020 postseason vengeance tour. The Marlins upended the Braves in the 1997 NLCS, and Atlanta was eliminated from the 2005 NLDS at Minute Maid Park in an excruciating 18-inning defeat.

    All of that is history. This current band of Braves continues to make its own. Starting Monday, they will do something the franchise hasn’t done in nearly two decades:

    Play for the pennant and a trip to the Fall Classic.

    —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.

    YOUTH IS SERVED: Rookie Anderson Shines, Pushes Braves to Brink of NLDS Sweep

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Standing on the pitcher’s mound at Minute Maid Park, Ian Anderson surveyed the situation Wednesday. First and second, two outs in the top of the first, Garrett Cooper at the plate and already 23 pitches hurled in Game 2 of the NL Division Series.

    Not many 22-year-olds would thrive in such a situation. But then again, not many 22-year-olds would find themselves in such a situation in the first place. With a confidence that belies his years and three great pitches in his precious right arm, Anderson never blinked. He induced a first-pitch flyout to end the threat.

    And never looked back.

    All Anderson did in his second career postseason start was pitch the Braves to within one game of the NL Championship Series, a 2-0 victory that gave Atlanta a 2-0 series lead. There were plenty of similarities to Anderson’s performance and his playoff debut, a winning outing in the clinching Game 2 of the NL Wild Card series last week against Cincinnati.

    He struggled mightily in one inning (the first Wednesday; the second last week) but escaped unscathed. He baffled opposing hitters with a plus-plus changeup that he didn’t start throwing until after he was taken by the Braves in the 2016 draft out of high school. He allowed three hits with one walk and eight strikeouts across 5 2/3 scoreless innings to stifle the Marlins, six days after holding the Reds to no runs on two hits with nine strikeouts in six innings.

    “His poise, his competitive nature,” shortstop Dansby Swanson told MLB Network postgame in describing Anderson, who sports a nice 0.69 WHIP and .125 opponents batting average through 11 2/3 postseason innings, with three walks and 17 strikeouts. “Each day, each start, he’s the same guy.”

    Two Down, One to Go: Behind Ian Anderson’s strong start and solo homers from Dansby Swanson and Travis d’Arnand, the Braves are one win from the NLCS after Wednesday’s 2-0 victory in Game 2 of the NL Division Series.

    If these Braves find a way to win one more game against the Marlins, they will advance to the NLCS for the first time since 2001 and move within four wins of the World Series. The fact they find themselves in this situation is jaw-dropping in and of itself, given how Atlanta held its starting rotation together with duct tape and prayer through most of the 60-game regular season.

    The conversation around the Braves all season has been centered on the rotation, or to be frank, the lack of one. Ace Mike Soroka blew out his Achilles, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb struggled, Felix Hernandez opted out, and stop-gaps such as Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone couldn’t provide much help.

    In late August the Braves turned to Anderson, now the third pitcher in franchise postseason history to post back-to-back consecutive scoreless starts (Steve Avery in the 1991 NLCS and Lew Burdette in the 1957 World Series). He’s helped Atlanta become just the third team in baseball history to post shutouts in three of its first four game in a postseason (1905 New York Giants, 1966 Baltimore Orioles).

    Awesome Anderson: Braves rookie Ian Anderson has pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings across his first two postseason starts.

    He got just enough offense on this day. No, the Braves didn’t bash opposing pitchers like they did in a 9-5 Game 1 victory. Instead, Atlanta got two timely solo homers from Swanson and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, the duo going deep for the second time in two days in the series to become the first Braves to homer in consecutive postseason games since Javy Lopez in the 2002 NLDS.

    d’Arnaud finished 1-for-3 one day after reaching base five times in Game 1. With each passing day, his signing last November looks like one of the offseason’s biggest steals. From Anderson’s perspective 60 feet, 6 inches away, it’s the veteran’s work behind the plate that stood out the most in Game 2.

    “Travis did a great job putting the fingers down,” Anderson told MLB Network postgame, “keeping me in the right mindset, keeping me in line.”

    Atlanta’s vaunted top of the batting order – Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna – combined to go 0-for-11 with five strikeouts in Game 2, four whiffs coming from Acuna after he jabbed at the Marlins on social media Tuesday evening. It was a rare off day offensively against Miami for Acuna. Freeman, the likely NL MVP, is hitless in eight at-bats in the series.

    It didn’t matter Wednesday. Anderson made sure Swanson and d’Arnaud’s swings held up, as did the Braves bullpen. Four relivers teamed up to cover 3 1/3 scoreless innings, issuing one walk with three strikeouts to put Miami on the brink of elimination.

    Atlanta pitchers have worked 40 innings this postseason, giving up runs in just three. It’s a high bar to match, but Kyle Wright takes his shot Thursday in Game 3. Drafted one year after Anderson following a stellar career at Vanderbilt (where Anderson had committed), Wright hasn’t pitched since Sept. 25. He was slated to start the winner-take-all Game 3 of the Wild Card series Friday on his 25th birthday, an outing rendered unnecessary after the Braves sweep. Wright worked through a simulated game at Truist Park instead.

    He provided plenty of promise in his final three starts of the regular season, going at least six innings in each while allowing a total of five earned runs with six walks and 14 strikeouts. Now he gets the ball with a chance to pitch Atlanta to a place it hasn’t been in 19 years.

    He has that shot because of two big swings of the bat, and a 22-year-old who again shined brighter than the glaring postseason spotlight.

    —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.

    RISE AND SHINE: Acuna Plunking Awakens Braves in Game 1 Victory

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It took him about 10 seconds to race 270 feet, from a first base he occupied after wearing another fastball from another Marlins pitcher to a head-first slide at home plate.

    Safe at home, Ronald Acuna Jr. jumped up with a spin and gazed toward the third-base dugout at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Like somebody who leaps from bed as their snooze alarm goes off for the third time, the Braves outfielder might as well have told the opposition his team was awake.

    The Braves smashed their NL East rivals 9-5 in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, scoring eight unanswered runs after falling in an early 4-1 hole. Staff ace Max Fried stumbled for the first time this season, but Miami resorted to a tired tactic after Acuna’s leadoff homer in the first gave Atlanta a short-lived 1-0 advantage.

    Miami starter Sandy Alcantara buried a fastball in Acuna’s left hip, the fifth time Atlanta’s 22-year-old outfielder has worn one against Miami in three seasons.

    “He hit a long homer, and got hit by 97 (mph),” Braves manager Brian Snitker – choosing his words carefully – told reporters in his postgame press conference aired on MLB Network. “In that situation, if you’re going to go in there, you’ve got to make sure you don’t hit him.

    “It’s happening too much.”

    Slow Start, Fast Finish: The Braves trailed Game 1 of the NL Division Series 4-1 before scoring eight unanswered runs in Tuesday’s 9-5 victory.

    Leading 4-1 after touching Fried for one run in the second and three in the third, all the early momentum sat with the upstart Marlins, who are in the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons. But there was a discernable shift in the tenor of the game after the HBP. And the Braves responded immediately, using back-to-back doubles by Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud to trim the deficit to a lone run.

    “Three-run lead, then give two runs right back,” Miami manager Don Mattingly told the media in his postgame comments, adding he did not think Alcantara intentionally hit the Braves young star. “We had the momentum.”

    But with one wayward inside pitch, it was gone. There is a time and place for everything. If Miami was trying to send some sort of message after Acuna became the youngest player in MLB history to lead off a first inning in a playoff game with a homer, it’s mind-boggling the Marlins would do it in this situation. Even with the recent history between the two division foes, there wasn’t anything leading into the series to foretell something would happen.

    (In case you’re wondering, the Braves host a four-game series against the Marlins on April 12-15, 2021. Mark your calendars accordingly.)

    Alcantara’s fastball may have been a sucker punch, but four innings later the Braves delivered the knockout blow for the game and, perhaps, the series. Honestly, it felt like just a matter of time once Acuna trotted to first base.

    The deficit stayed at one run thanks to two aspects of Atlanta’s game that’s been fantastic all season: its defense and its bullpen. Ozzie Albies made two sensational plays in a row in the fourth inning, and added a basket catch in short center field to open the fifth. Freddie Freeman ended the frame by diving to his right and snagging a Miguel Rojas chopper, flipping to Darren O’Day for the out.

    O’Day restored order after Fried scuffled through four innings (four runs allowed on six hits), needing only nine pitches in a scoreless inning. Tyler Matzek added another impressive frame to his postseason resume, striking out the side on 11 pitches in the sixth. Will Smith threw only eight pitches to sail through a clean seventh.

    Then the Braves offense, which scored just two runs in the first 20 innings of the Wild Card series against Cincinnati, exploded. It started with Austin Riley and Acuna recording singles to chase Alcantara, who otherwise kept the Braves in check with a high-90s fastball and nasty changeup. Ozuna and d’Arnaud came through after Yimi Garcia recorded an out, Ozuna’s single to left tying the game before d’Arnaud – who finished 3-for-3 with two walks and four RBIs – belted a 421-foot homer to dead center.

    Braves 7, Marlins 4.

    Braves wide awake. Marlins one step closer to bedtime.

    d’Arnaud Doubt About It: Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s three-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Braves the lead for keeps in Game 1 of the NL Division Series Tuesday.

    “We just got it going,” d’Arnaud told Fox Sports 1 after the game. “No matter how far we’re down, we’re never out of it.”

    As d’Arnaud’s homer sailed over the fence, Acuna jumped out of the far end of the dugout, waving a white towel in his right hand. Ozuna and Riley raised their arms in celebration. d’Arnaud turned toward the dugout after rounding first base, doing the Braves patented mix-it-up hand gesture. There would be another faux selfie in the dugout upon his return and, two hitters later, Dansby Swanson launched a two-run shot to push the Braves lead to 9-4.

    Perhaps by that point, Miami needed to wave something white. Through the first 2 ½ innings, the Marlins looked like they belonged on the postseason stage. Then they did something an underdog absolutely cannot do:

    Wake up the favorite.

    “Our focus remains on winning and moving forward,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    The Braves have won three playoff games in a seven-day span, matching their win total from the past six years. They look every bit the favorite now in this series, and odds are they won’t need another wakeup call.

    —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.

    NLDS Preview: Braves Should Catch NLCS Berth, but Reeling in Fish Won’t Be Easy

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – If I had told you this time last week the Atlanta Braves would finish the National League Wild Card series with a slash line of .195/.262/.299, an OPS of .561, 35 strikeouts and just six runs scored, you surely would ask how long until my offseason coverage on this site would begin.

    You would tell me there’s no way the Braves could survive with such putrid offensive output, given the offense carried such a heavy burden through the regular season it already has regular chiropractor appointments.

    But the Braves mixed together a Max Fried gem and stellar relief in a classic Game 1 victory, plus a dominant outing from Ian Anderson and late power in the Game 2 clincher, to advance to the NL Division Series. It starts Tuesday in the Houston part of the NL bubble against Atlanta’s buddies from Miami. Yes, Miami, the perennial NL East doormat.

    I now pause for this public service announcement: stop thinking about automatically punching a ticket to the NLCS. No, do not begin sizing up the Dodgers or Padres. Do not start dreaming about playing for the pennant and the World Series berth that comes with it. Yes, the Braves have defeated their NL East neighbors 35 times in 48 meetings since the start of 2018. Sure, the Braves outscored the Marlins 39-35 across nine of the 10 meetings this season (I’m throwing out the record-setting 29-9 pounding Atlanta issued Miami on Sept. 9).

    Indeed, the Braves have the advantage in playoff experience, offense, bullpen and health. Atlanta should win this series. But be forewarned: it won’t be easy, and the Braves know it.

    “I think they’ve made some good offseason moves to help that young pitching they have accumulated,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters this weekend in describing this week’s opposition. “They’ve done a good job of putting that team together.”

    The Marlins rebuild got a boost by the shortened season, and while you can cast a side eye toward the franchise for the COVID-19 outbreak in late July that sidelined part of the roster for weeks, they do deserve credit for not falling apart. Miami went 16-14 in September to finish one game above .500, one season after losing 105 games. It’s worth nothing the Marlins did win five times in a seven-game series with floundering Philadelphia in mid-September, and also took three-of-five from Washington in the season’s final month. After starting the season 7-1, Miami went 24-28.

    For Openers: MLB Network discusses Tuesday’s NLDS Game 1.

    Still, here they are, in the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons. In one of baseball’s delicious (and infuriating) ironies, the Marlins have never won a division title … or lost a playoff series, including a six-game upset of the Braves way back in the 1997 NLCS.

    Five Keys to the Series

    Young Arms Take Center Stage: Miami’s best shot in this series is to follow the Reds blueprint of shutting down the Atlanta offense. That’s a tall order for the Marlins considering Cincinnati sent Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo at the Braves, but that’s not to say Miami’s rotation lacks firepower. Sandy Alcantara limited the Cubs to three hits and one run in 6 2/3 innings in Game 1, while Sixto Sanchez struck out six in five scoreless innings in the clincher.

    Alcantara and Sanchez have been prized prospects in Miami’s rebuild. Pablo Lopez, who did not pitch against Chicago after posting a 3.61 ERA and 1.186 WHIP in 11 starts during the regular season, will start Game 2 after Alcantara (3.00 ERA, 1.190 WHIP) gets the opener. The bad news for Miami is Atlanta has Fried and Anderson lined up for the first two games of the series. That duo combined to hold the Reds to eight hits with two walks and 14 strikeouts across 13 innings.

    Who’s better in Game 3, Sanchez or Atlanta’s Kyle Wright? If the series is even after two games, how much pressure does that put on Wright, who pitched well in his final three starts but did not have to pitch against Cincinnati and will make his first postseason appearance? There’s plenty of intrigue in each of the three pitching matchups, and all six hurlers figure to be fixtures in the NL East for years to come.

    Can’t Keep Us Down: You look at the Braves offense and wonder what happened against the Reds. Was it good pitching? Noon start times and bright sunshine? Playoff nerves? Whatever the case, the Atlanta offense looked awful for long stretches of the two-game sweep.

    The feeling here is that’s out the window now. The inviting left field at Minute Maid Park, the presence of a roof, and familiarity with the Miami staff leads me to believe the Braves break out offensively in the series. Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall, who had combined to go 0-for-15 with 11 strikeouts before each homered in the eighth inning of Game 2, need to rediscover the rhythm that led to a combined 34 homers and 89 RBIs in the regular season. My feeling is that right-handed slugging duo, and their teammates, will do just that.

    No Bull; It’s Atlanta Late: Much has been made of the Braves bullpen investments since last summer’s trade deadline, but it’s paid off. Atlanta relievers ranked fourth in the majors in ERA (3.50) and ninth in Fangraphs WAR (2.1) in the regular season, and gave up five hits with three walks and 14 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings in the NL Wild Card series. One huge positive is Will Smith, who struggled with giving up homers in the regular season, looked absolutely dynamite in the first round, striking out five in 2 1/3 innings.

    The Marlins used four relievers in the sweep of Chicago, that quartet combining to strike out six with no walks and two hits allowed in 6 1/3 innings. It was a different story in the regular season, as Miami ranked 29th in fWAR (-1.4) and 26th in ERA (5.50). The Braves tied for second in the NL with eight games won in their last at-bat, winning five times when trailing in the eighth inning or later. Given that, and given the Braves have multiple veterans who can close games – not to be overlooked with a potential five games in five days – the advantage swings Atlanta’s way in late and close situations.

    Lights Out: The Braves bullpen has been a strength all season.

    Marte Party on Hold: No pun intended here, but it was an awful break for the Marlins when Starling Marte suffered a fractured left pinkie after being hit with a pitch in Game 1 against Chicago. Acquired by Miami at the trade deadline from Arizona, Marte gave the Marlins a dynamic middle-of-the-order bat who had recorded an .827 OPS in 33 games with Arizona, after hitting .295 with 23 homers for Pittsburgh last season.

    Marte, who hit .245 with a .701 OPS and four homers in 28 games for the Marlins, may remain on Miami’s 28-man roster. He’s slashed .301/.359/.500 with nine homers in 49 career games against Atlanta. The outfielder also has the postseason experience the Marlins need, having taken 35 at-bats in eight playoff games with the Pirates before this season.

    A New World: Entering the postseason the Marlins had just five players on their active roster who had played in the playoffs; one, Matt Joyce, logged time for the Braves in last season’s NLDS. While they gained experience in the two victories over Chicago, Miami’s roster pales in comparison against Atlanta’s when it comes to living the ups and downs of October baseball.

    How will the Marlins react if they drop the first game? If they fall into an 0-2 hole? One could argue after everything they’ve endured this season, a postseason deficit may not faze them. But with no off days in the series, if Atlanta can get things rolling in the opening two games, this series could end quickly.

    The X-Factors: From Slumping to Streaking

    Dansby Swanson enjoyed a breakthrough offensive season for the Braves, but like most of his teammates struggled against the Reds by going 1-for-9. He feasted on Miami pitching in 10 games this season, hitting .429 with a 1.221 OPS, seven walks and 12 runs scored. And we remember last season, when Swanson hit .389 with a .977 OPS in the NLDS.

    The Marlins need somebody to step up offensively if Marte can’t go. Brian Anderson belted 11 homers with 38 RBIs and an .810 OPS in the regular season, but went hitless in nine at-bats with four strikeouts against the Cubs. While Miami will need more than one hitter to get hot, a repeat of Anderson’s performance last week will be hard to overcome.

    The Difference

    It comes down to depth. The Braves have a deeper lineup, a deeper bullpen, more postseason experience and, if the series goes beyond three games, more options to start Game 4. Bryse Wilson figures to get the nod if this series reaches Friday; he struck out seven Marlins with three hits allowed in five scoreless innings just two weeks ago. It’s possible Miami’s starters are lights-out and keep Atlanta in its offensive funk, but I think it’s far more likely the Braves offense busts out, backing Fried and Anderson to take a 2-0 lead.

    If that happens, I don’t see the Marlins beating the Braves three times in a row. Miami could push this to a decisive fifth game, where anything can happen. The feeling here is the Braves won’t let it get to that point, thanks to strength at the top of their rotation, a rejuvenated offense and a superior bullpen.

    After going 19 years without a postseason series victory, Atlanta will win its second series in an eight-day span.

    The Pick

    Braves in 4.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NLDS game, starting Tuesday evening.

    —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.

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    The rebuild was over.

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

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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