• Freddie Freeman

    The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

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

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

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

    The Braves Are Back: Sept. 22, 2018

    At Long and Blessed Last, the Painful Rebuild Ends

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

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

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

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

    Turns out, we all were wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Indeed, the Braves are back.

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

    Acuna’s Slam Hints of Great Things to Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He did much, much better than that.

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Top 10s of the 2010s, Part 4

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Welcome to part four of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, where we remember two of the most stunning losses in Braves franchise history, let alone just this decade: The ninth-inning implosion in Game 3 of the 2010 NL Division Series against the Giants and the impact it had on me after what happened that offseason, and two years later, the game not-so-fondly remembered as The Infield Fly Game (the 2012 NL Wild Card Game).

    You’re invited to catch up on the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

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

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

    From Elation to Excruciation: Oct. 10, 2010

    A Painful Playoff Defeat, Followed by a Much Bigger Loss

    I dreamed of this moment from the time I accepted a newspaper job in the Atlanta suburbs and moved back from the Georgia coast in August 2006 with my wife and two preschool-aged kids in tow. The chance to raise our kids in the city where my wife and I both grew up, to experience life with both sides of our family and, hopefully, to share moments like the second Sunday of October 2010:

    My two boys’ first experience attending Choptober Baseball.

    We grilled hot dogs in the parking lot and my kids tossed a football with my wife’s uncle Billy. His being there made this day all the more special. He wasn’t just family; he had become one of my best friends. He worked for Delta as a mechanic and before he got married, Billy often would fly down to the coast on weekends and hang out with his favorite niece and her sports-loving husband. We would talk life, investments, fishing, Braves baseball, Georgia football and, starting in 2002 when my oldest was born, parenting.

    When I covered UGA in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year’s Day 2003, I was able – as a credentialed member of the media covering the game – to buy two tickets at face value. I bought one for my best friend since middle school. I bought the other one for Billy. He married his wife in 2004; my oldest was the ring bearer, while I held my youngest in my arms during the ceremony. And now, we were at the NL Division Series, the wild-card Braves and NL West champs Giants tied at a game apiece. My sons’ first playoff game. My first postseason game since covering Game 2 of the 1999 World Series.

    It was, to me, absolute perfection. Billy and his wife, sitting a few rows down from us, delivering a whole pizza for the boys to consume in the fourth inning with the Braves trailing 1-0. Tim Hudson grinding through seven strong innings, surrendering only an unearned run on Brooks Conrad’s second error of the game. Jonathan Sanchez no-hitting the Braves until Huddy singled in the sixth. Tight. Tense. Can’t-breathe baseball, just like I watched in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Octobers past, before I ever dreamed I’d be a husband, let alone a father times two.

    Then, the magical eighth. Alex Gonzalez’s leadoff single and, two hitters later, pinch-hitter Eric Hinske’s laser that just got over wall in the right-field corner. Turner Field absolutely turned upside down. It was the loudest I ever heard that ballpark. In the upper deck, you could feel the stadium swaying, and my 7-year-old screamed into my ear as I held him in my arms, “Daddy, the stadium’s shaking!”

    I screamed back, “this is how it used to be across the street!”

    Then, the ninth inning. You know the story. The rookie Craig Kimbrel, one strike away from nailing down the save, gave up a 1-2 single. Mike Dunn surrendered the game-tying hit. The Giants took the lead on Conrad’s third error of the game, won 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead, and would finish the Braves and end Bobby Cox’s managerial career one night later.

    Leaving that night was devastating. My wife kept telling me, “it’s alright. We’re going to win tomorrow.” But my boys were crestfallen. Even the always upbeat, ever-grounded Billy admitted, “that’s tough to take.” I couldn’t imagine a worse ending. Yes, attending the three 1996 World Series games in Atlanta was awful. But this was my boys’ first playoff game. This was a moment Billy and I talked about back when I lived on the beach and the kids were in diapers, that one day we’d all cheer on the Braves to October glory together.

    I felt crushed. Nobody said anything on the way home. But as always, I started thinking of next season. We’ll get it right. We’re going to storm through the playoffs, and all of us will be there together to see it.

    Then came the phone call in January 2011, my wife crying uncontrollably on the other end. Billy had collapsed. By the time she got to the hospital, he was gone. Heart attack. 50 years old. A few days later, I delivered the eulogy at his funeral. I shared our Game 3 experience, him serving hot dogs to my kids, how he turned and pumped his fist at us after Hinske’s homer, how he patted my shoulder postgame as we walked down the stairs to the left-field gate.

    Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Billy. And while Game 3 in 2010 is heartbreaking to so many, excuse me if I say this one hurts me on a different level. My dear friend’s final time watching his ballclub play.

    The Infield-Fly Rule, Ruined Forever: Oct. 5, 2012

    One of MLB’s Worst Calls Ever Incenses Braves Country

    It was Oct. 2, 2012, and I sat in the third-base dugout at Coal Mountain Park in northern Forsyth County, Ga. Fall baseball, and my 10-year-old was behind the plate, getting extra reps after a full season of travel baseball. The few moments we had free that spring and summer, we snuck down to Turner Field to cheer the Braves to a playoff spot, one that young (how strange that is to type at this decade’s conclusion) first baseman Freddie Freeman clinched with a walk-off homer against Miami one week before.

    As the second inning began, I got my son’s attention and held up five fingers, and he nodded. He knew no 10-year-old throws five pitches. He turned to the home-plate ump and shared the news with him: The wild-card game would start at 5 p.m. Friday. I swear, we got three or four borderline calls that night (for the record, we knew the home-plate ump and we knew he had corporate tickets; he may or may not have delayed the bottom of the second inning texting people after the news broke … To be fair, the opposing head coach was on the phone a good bit after the ump shared the news with him).

    Fast-forward three days. A 5 p.m. first pitch on the first Friday in October, so that meant I checked the kid out of school at 11 a.m. and headed inside the perimeter. We gathered with friends on the grassy knoll across Hank Aaron Boulevard from the right-field gate, tossing a football while watching the most impressive tailgate setup I’ve ever seen roll in a few hours before first pitch, a long-bed pickup truck complete with multiple TVs streaming sports, open bars along each side of the truck, the whole nine yards.

    There is zero value in sharing the proceedings of what happened inside Turner Field that evening. All it would do is fire me up like it happened seven minutes ago, not seven years ago (although my son and I still cuss it at every mention). I am thankful we had seats high in the upper deck. As the bottles rained down on the playing surface after Sam Holbrook lost his freaking mind and made that unbelievable, inexcusable, garbage call, I couldn’t help but think how cursed my city was when it comes to big sports moments, while making sure my 10-year-old didn’t wear a Bud Light bottle across the back of his neck.

    Niekro getting rained out in the 82 NLCS opener, one out from an official game? Game 7 in 91 in the awful Metrodome? Games 3, 4 and 5 in 96, in a stadium in which I sat in the upper deck hoping to see the Braves win the World Series in person for the second straight October? The 18-inning loss in Houston in 05? All the other playoff missteps in the late 90s and the 2000s? The Falcons and Eugene Robinson the night before the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in January 1999? Cliff Levington’s ill-fated left hook in The Omni against Boston in Game 6 of the East semis in 1988, with a conference finals berth on the line? The Falcons with a lead at home against the Cowboys in the NFC semis in January 1981 before Danny White took over in the final minutes? The Thrashers going belly-up in the first round of 2007 against the Rangers? The “most excellent” insult from the IOC at the conclusion of the 96 Olympics?

    After the wild-card game, sitting on the trunk of my car with the windows down and the Braves Radio Network postgame show playing, my son and I were silent. We sat there for at least an hour. Neither of us said a single word. In retrospect, the Braves flubbed up plenty of chances in the decade. They didn’t need any help.

    But at the worst possible time, Holbrook made a call that will live in franchise infamy for as long as the Braves exist.

    —30—

    On Deck: The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    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.

    What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 2

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s time for part two of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, looking at baseball’s epic final day of the 2011 regular season that found Atlanta land outside the postseason party after a painful late-season swoon, then taking a stroll through two games in which Braves starters nearly pitched no-hitters (and a nod to the lone no-hitter, at any level of baseball, I’ve witnessed in person across 40 years that also contains an interesting perspective on a tragic night in my hometown’s history).

    As a reminder, you can check out the introductory piece of the series below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

    The Long, Painful Death of a Season: Sept. 28, 2011

    Epic Late-Season Stumble Costs Braves Playoff Berth

    As late August 2011 arrived, it felt like only an act of God could keep the Braves from a second-straight NL playoff appearance. The Phillies were running away with the NL East but the Braves had found their footing, winning 16 times in 21 games to enter the final weekend of the month with the second-best record in the Senior Circuit and a 9 ½ game lead over the Giants for the NL’s lone wild-card spot.

    The Cardinals? Pfft, 10 ½ games behind the 79-53 Braves at 68-63.

    Atlanta flew to New York after taking three of four in Chicago, but Hurricane Irene was heading toward the nation’s largest city, too. The opening game of the Mets series was played in front of less than 23,000 at Citi Field and journeyman Chris Capuano destroyed the Braves, striking out 13 during a two-hit complete-game shutout. The final two games of the series would be cancelled and, with a Monday off day, the Braves suddenly had a three-day break as they were playing their best baseball of the season.

    They never recovered.

    The weirdness of that weekend in the Big Apple began the unraveling. It concluded at Turner Field on Sept. 28, the final day of the regular season. It would go down as one of the wildest, craziest days in baseball history (the Red Sox simultaneously were giving away the AL wild card), and the Braves entered that Wednesday night matchup with the division-champion Phillies having lost four in a row to fall to 10-19 since flying into New York.

    The Braves and Cardinals were tied at 89-72 as I walked into Turner Field alone for what I hoped would not be the final time that season. My sons were home with the next day being a school day, but downstairs in my filing cabinet were tickets to the first two home NL Division Series games. The sheer thought of those tickets being refunded was ridiculous just four weeks earlier, but as the losses piled up in September my sense of dread grew, and I don’t know if I’ve ever walked into a ballpark with so much doom-and-gloom as I headed to my seat in the lower level, midway between first base and the right-field corner.

    For six innings, everything was fine, and I started growing more confident. The Braves took a 3-1 lead on a Dan Uggla homer in the third and Tim Hudson cruised into the seventh inning. But with one out came two hits and an error by Jack Wilson at shortstop to score a run, and I started thinking again about how my heart was going to be shattered. After all, I sat in this stadium nearly a year before and watched the Braves fall apart in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the NL Division Series. I remember looking around and seeing people who must’ve been thinking the same thing, the wheels spinning in our heads with that, “here we go again” refrain.

    Was the seventh the start of the train careening off the tracks?

    Perhaps not. Craig Kimbrel made his first All-Star team, led the National League with 46 saves and won NL rookie of the year in 2011. Save No. 47 would at worst send the Braves into a one-game playoff with St. Louis. But Kimbrel proceeded to give up a single, get a strikeout, then walk two hitters before Chase Utley’s game-tying sacrifice fly. And as extra innings began to march on, I couldn’t help but think of all the opportunities the Braves had squandered over the past month to avoid being in this situation.

    I saw the Braves win the World Series in person in 1995. Three years earlier, I saw the Braves score three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the 1992 NL pennant in person. I’m generally an optimistic person. But that night I found myself fighting that feeling of “not again” over and over. It only grew after Chipper Jones flew out to deep left-center with a runner on to end the 10th, and it grew even more when Jason Heyward reached third on a wild pitch before Martin Prado struck out to close the 12th.

    Of course, the Phillies scored in the top of the 13th on Hunter Pence’s single that barely cleared the infield dirt. Of course, the Braves would get a runner on with one out in the bottom half, only to see Freddie Freeman – the runner-up to Kimbrel for rookie of the year – ground into a 3-6-3 double play. We knew the Cardinals already had won some 30 minutes earlier, that 8-0 result glaring on the out-of-town scoreboard in the ballpark, and when Freeman slammed his batting helmet into the ground behind first base as the season died, the deflation nearly was overwhelming.

    Other than Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a ballpark after a loss as long as I did that night. But the worst part didn’t come on Sept. 28. It came the morning after, when I had to wake up two little boys for school and tell them their favorite baseball team’s season was over.

    Oh, So Close, But No No-No: June 5, 2013 and July 29, 2018

    Julio, Newk Flirt with Every Pitcher’s Dream

    In all the baseball games these nearly 47-year-old eyes have watched through the years – from playing to coaching my kids to my sports writing days and countless games as a fan – I’ve witnessed exactly one no-hitter. It came the night after the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics, in an American Legion playoff game on July 27, 1996, in Gainesville, Ga. Andy Hussion, who would help pitch Gainesville High to a state title the following spring, twirled the gem with his dad, former Furman play-by-play man Chuck Hussion, working the PA at Ivey-Watson Field along the shores of Lake Lanier.

    The bombing was the topic of conversation everywhere, including at the ballpark. I was interning as The Times in Gainesville that Olympic summer. We were owned by The Gannett Corp. (which owned USA Today) at the time, and there were veteran newspaper people with decades of experience onsite. When the bomb went off, the presses actually stopped (just like in the movies, but never in real life). Page 1A was redone and our morning edition had the news, while other newspapers that served our area did not. I lost track of how many people in our circulation area awoke on that fourth Saturday of July 1996 with no idea what had happened downtown until they grabbed our paper from their driveways.

    Why do I share this, something that occurred so long ago? I watched two Braves take no-hit bids beyond the seventh inning in the past 40 years. Both occurred this decade. Both hold significant meaning to me, so I cheated a bit to combine both as one entry.

    June 5, 2013: The Braves had won four in a row entering a Wednesday get-away date with the Pirates at Turner Field. Both my kids were with me, ages 10 and 9 and soaking in the initial days of summer vacation. We sat in the upper deck and watched Julio Teheran dazzle the Pittsburgh lineup. Teheran at the time still sat mid-90s with his fastball, and he had everything working. We got to the top of the eighth, everybody was standing, and I was telling my kids repeatedly not to say what all of us were thinking – fortunately, they both were old enough to understand what was happening.

    Two outs in the inning, four outs away. Brandon Inge came on as a pinch-hitter, worked a 1-1 count, then lined a single to left. Teheran retired Starling Marte to end the eighth, David Carpenter worked a perfect ninth to finish the one-hitter, and my sons and I were stunned as how close we had come to seeing a MLB no-hitter in person.

    Not too long after, something happened that made my life just about completely collapse. In some of those darkest days that followed over the next two to three years, in a season of my life where hope was almost nonexistent, that Wednesday afternoon in the sunshine at Turner Field with my boys was a bright memory and a sign of better days to come.

    It just didn’t result in a no-hitter. And that wasn’t the only close call, either.

    July 29, 2018: By the grace of God, I was in such a better place as that final Sunday of July unfolded. It was the day of Chipper Jones’ induction into the Hall of Fame. My oldest son and I gathered with friends in a hotel suite near SunTrust Park to break bread and catch up, then it was on to the ballpark for the series finale with the defending NL champion Dodgers. The Braves were working to avoid a sweep after being outscored 9-2 in the first two games, as many of our thoughts were some 965 miles northeast in interior New York.

    Sean Newcomb took the mound for his 40th major-league start. He got two runs of support in the first inning and two more in the third, and the Massachusetts lefty took it from there, walking Yasiel Puig in the sixth but allowing nothing else entering the ninth. The ballpark, already an emotional mess as many of us had strained to stream Chipper’s acceptance speech during the third inning, was teeming as Newcomb took the mound to start the ninth.

    I had no doubt Newk was going to do this. Zero. Everybody was standing. I couldn’t breathe. My oldest son was pacing like I’d never seen, and he would admit later he thought it was done, too. After two flyouts. Newcomb was one hitter away. Chris Taylor worked the count to 2-2, including a somewhat questionable pitch he took for a ball, then lined a single to left field as third baseman Johan Camargo dove to his left in vain. The Braves would win 4-1, Newcomb would throw 129 pitches on the day, and the two teams would meet 2 ½ months later in the NL Division Series.

    Oh man, talk about the ultimate “what if.” I chatted with my kid while writing this and he said to this day, he was 100 percent certain Newcomb had it. His stuff was that good. I know there’s been ups and downs with Newcomb at times, but that day in July 2018 shows his potential to dominate a great lineup.

    It also shows that no-hitters are so hard to complete, and seeing one is such a rare treat. And, every day you walk into the ballpark, there’s a chance it happens. Perhaps one sweet day, Andy Hussion will have some company on my list.

    —30—

    On Deck: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

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

    Braves’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Nightmare First Inning Ends Season, But Braves Blew NLDS Before Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The witnesses looked at each other in absolute shock at what had unfolded during the 26-minute train wreck of a half inning they just watched. The energy, the enthusiasm, the hope of ending an 18-year playoff series drought, absolutely obliterated beyond recognition by the time fans could finish their first beer.

    But make no mistake: the Atlanta Braves 2019 season isn’t over just because they gave up 10 runs (yes, 10; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) in the top of the first inning of a 13-1 faceplant Wednesday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Truth be told, the Braves never should have been on the field on this splendid autumn afternoon along the northwestern rim of the capital city, even though it appeared they weren’t anywhere to be found as St. Louis sent 14 hitters (yes, 14; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) to the plate in the opening frame.

    No, the Braves should’ve been at home, relaxing and getting ready for either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals, relishing in the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001, focusing on the NL Championship Series and securing four wins that would send them to the World Series for the first time in 20 years.

    They should’ve won this series long before Game 5 flew off the rails and straight off a cliff into a bottomless lake.

    They had this NLDS won, and they blew it.

    Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

    The Braves kept flubbing opportunities to put away the series, and baseball has a funny way of biting teams that don’t take care of the business at hand. Afford an opponent with enough opportunities to flip the script, and sooner or later it’s going to happen.

    It happened in Game 1, when Atlanta melted down at various times throughout the contest before allowing six runs in the final two innings of a 7-6 defeat, a sequence beginning with one of its key bullpen pieces acquired at the trade deadline (Chris Martin) leaving with a left oblique injury before throwing a single pitch.

    It happened in Game 4, when the Braves started their free-agent veteran rotation piece possessing postseason experience (Dallas Keuchel) and saw him serve up three homers in 3 1/3 innings. The offense responded by stranding nine runners and left the bases loaded in the sixth and seventh innings, before two St. Louis hits that traveled with the velocity of a horse and wagon tied the game in the eighth to set up an extra-inning defeat.

    In the two losses leading into Wednesday, Atlanta’s offense was a combined 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 17 runners on base. It started all the way back in the first inning of the series, when the first four Braves hitters reached, yet Atlanta emerged from the frame with just a 1-0 lead. Young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. tripled leading off the seventh in Game 4 and doubled to start the ninth, and neither time dented home plate.

    That sent the NLDS to one final act, a winner-take-all affair with a shot at the pennant hanging in the balance. The old baseball axiom says in one game, anything can happen.

    The Braves inability to close out this series before Wednesday led to a first inning that still feels like a nightmare:

    Mike Foltynewicz – so brilliant down the stretch and in a Game 2 victory (by far Atlanta’s best game of the series) – gave up seven times the number of runs (seven) as outs recorded (one, on a sacrifice bunt) before hitting the showers after 23 pitches.

    The combination of Foltynewicz and Max Fried – the young lefty so good in relief in the opening three games of the series – teamed up to surrender five hits with four walks.

    Freddie Freeman – whose miserable performance in this series cannot be stated enough – flubbed a potential inning-ending double play that would’ve allowed the Braves to escape with only one run allowed.

    Brian McCann – who returned home to chase another World Series ring in what turned out to be his final season; he announced his retirement after Wednesday’s loss – could not secure a foul tip from leadoff hitter Dexter Flower that would have been strike three, instead leading to a walk that began a half-hour even the most cynical Atlanta sports fan never could have envisioned.

    Sometimes, young teams must go through difficult times to learn valuable lessons that will serve them well moving forward. And there is no denying the future is ultra-bright for this team. The Braves are set up to contend for the foreseeable future. They are a fun, enjoyable bunch to watch play the game, one of my favorite teams in 40 years of following this franchise. And they’re good, very good.

    But in October, the best team doesn’t always win. These Braves were better than the Cardinals. They should’ve won this series. Presented with opportunities to take control of games in October, you cannot emphasize enough the urgency to execute. Not delivering with runners in scoring position, not calling for a bunt with a runner on second, not getting a fly ball with a runner on third and less than two outs, not getting outs in the final innings, not fielding ground balls to start double plays, those things will lose you games in the regular season.

    Not doing those things in the 10th month of the year will end your season.

    Atlanta learned that in the worst possible way the past seven days. The hope is this pain leads to better things in the Octobers to come.

    But that’s little solace on this night. A Braves team good enough to play deep into the postseason choked, and now finds itself in a place so many of its predecessors landed:

    Home far too early, wondering what could’ve been.

    —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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.

    5 Burning Questions with Braves & Cards Ready to Rumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We have the opposition. We have some of the game times. We even have the umpiring crew (and lord have mercy, if you could’ve seen my face when I opened that press release Monday afternoon and saw Sam Holbrook’s name).

    Welcome to Choptober, Braves Country. The National League Division Series kicks off Thursday at SunTrust Park and, depending on who wins Tuesday’s NL wild card matchup, the first pitch will cross home plate around either 5:02 p.m. ET or 6:02 p.m. ET. Holbrook, infamous in Atlanta sports history for making the wretched, still-jaw-dropping-seven-years-later infield fly rule call in the wild card game (against the Cardinals, of course) in 2012, will take the field as crew chief.

    Certainly, the 42,000 or so who jam into SunTrust on what may be the hottest October day ever in Atlanta temperature-wise (forecast high is 94 degrees) certainly will greet Holbrook warmly. Memories of that disastrous call and the ensuing storm of beer bottles and other debris that littered the field still make Braves fans cringe, as the ruling squelched a late rally and subsequently not only ended the Braves season, but the Hall of Fame career of third baseman Chipper Jones.

    There will be ad nauseum references to Holbrook and his moment of infamy in the days ahead. Still shaking my head at the level of tone deafness exhibited by Major League Baseball, we move on from that talking point and focus instead on the matchup between the champions of the NL East and NL Central. The Cardinals had to battle until Sunday’s regular-season finale, holding off the hard-charging Brewers to win the division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

    Here’s my five questions to consider as the hours tick toward first pitch:

    The Braves “malaise” … not a big deal or matter of concern?

    Much has been made of the way Atlanta finished the season, losing five of its final six games and dropping eight of its last 12 games while falling three wins short of 100. But at some point, this team had to cool off a little bit, considering before those final dozen contests they went 75-37 since May 10. That’s a .669 winning percentage, which is a 108-win pace. The 4-8 mark to close the season? That’s a 54-win pace.

    The Braves are far closer to playing .600 ball than .400 ball, the difference between winning and losing a best-of-five series. Once the Braves took care of Washington in early September, the air came out of the balloon, especially after clinching. It almost looked to me like a classroom with a week to go before summer vacation and all the course work completed. Yes, you can’t just “flip a switch” and turn it on again, but also remember the Cardinals have three days off entering Game 1, too. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    How healthy are Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.?

    I won’t lie: seeing Acuna limp toward the fence in the right-center field gap at Kansas City on Tuesday froze me in my tracks. Yes, it derailed his quest to reach 40-40, and that stings. But more important to me was the correct decision to shut down the 21-year-old for the final four games of the regular season. Acuna took batting practice with no issues in New York and will ramp up his running in the days leading to Game 1. But until I see him race full speed Thursday, I’ll have a bit of hesitation.

    Freeman – whose right elbow bone spur should have its own Twitter feed, as much as it’s been discussed – played in all three games in New York, leaving after two at-bats in the finale. It’s been an ongoing issue nobody knew about publicly until it started barking two weeks ago. It’s not going to get any worse by playing. A couple of his swings this weekend looked painful, but most of his hacks looked fine to me (including the base hit in his final AB of the season Sunday). If I’m marginally concerned about Acuna, I’m only slightly worried about Freeman.

    Should Mike Soroka start one of the first two games in Atlanta?

    Conventional wisdom says you start your best two pitchers in the first two games of a series, especially at home. Conventional wisdom says you do not start a 22-year-old rookie pitcher on the road in his first postseason contest, especially in a place like St. Louis where the fans will be loud from first pitch to final out.

    But The Kid from Calgary has long since bucked conventional wisdom. Soroka has been the best pitcher in baseball on the road this season. Even with allowing three earned runs yesterday in New York, he wrapped the regular season 7-1 in 16 away starts with a 1.55 ERA, five homers (one Sunday) allowed in 98 2/3 innings and a 0.96 WHIP. He allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits with one walk and five strikeouts at St. Louis on May 25. Most of the time, he would get the ball for me on Thursday or Friday. This time? I like the call of him going Sunday.

    How beneficial is it that the Cardinals do not have a left-hander in their rotation?

    Since the Braves are deploying both Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce in the outfield, it is helpful that neither will have to deal with left-handers for most of the series (the Cardinals have Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb as lefties in the bullpen; Miller has struggled at times this season). Markakis is hitting .298 with a .816 OPS against right-handers (compared to .245 and .653 against southpaws). Joyce also is batting .298 against righties with a .871 OPS (compared to .273 and .748 against lefties).

    There are places where not having more left-handed bats due to injuries to Ender Inciarte and the switch-hitting Johan Camargo will sting against a right-handed-heavy St. Louis staff. Dansby Swanson has a .734 OPS against right-handers while posting a .803 OPS against left-handers, for example. But consider Tyler Flowers, who crushed left-handers at a .348 clip last season. In 2019, Flowers is hitting just .155 with an anemic .574 OPS against southpaws, but a respectful .262 with a pretty good .817 OPS against right-handers – one season after hitting just .184 vs. righties.

    How critical is Dallas Keuchel’s start in Game 1?

    Game 1 in a five-game series is massive, especially at home. Lose that game, and you must win three out of four to advance. For the final-two-months brilliance of Mike Foltynewicz, for the outstanding rookie campaign by Soroka, Dallas Keuchel is exactly what Atlanta needs in the opener. He pitched the 2015 AL wild card game, Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS and Game 1 of the 2017 World Series.

    In those three games, Keuchel went 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA, giving up three runs on 13 hits in 19 2/3 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. Keuchel has allowed two earned runs or fewer six times in his nine career playoff starts while surrendering five hits of fewer in each of those six outings. He gave up two homers in two of his final three starts, but that came during the team’s mini-slump down the stretch. In his six previous starts, Keuchel posted a 0.97 ERA while going 5-0.

    Now if Holbrook can avoid screwing up fundamental interpretation of the rulebook, we should have a great series (sorry, couldn’t resist one more shot).

    —30—

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

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —30—

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

    WINNERS, AND STILL CHAMPIONS!! BRAVES SILENCE DOUBTERS WITH BACK-TO-BACK DIVISION TITLES

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It never gets old. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens. It doesn’t matter if it comes out of left field or becomes an annual occurrence. It never, ever, EVER gets old.

    But had you bought into the national pundits and the long-since-beaten-to-oblivion storyline in spring, you would think the Atlanta Braves would hold tight to the memories of winning the 2018 National League East championship as if it were a summertime fling with that girl who visited her grandparents in your neighborhood for six weeks, because there would be no chance at reliving that moment from Sept. 22, 2018.

    Welcome to Sept. 20, 2019.

    Welcome to Atlanta.

    Welcome to the home of the NL East champions.

    Again.

    The Braves officially answered the national media and the naysayers in the best way possible at 9:42 p.m. Friday, when Alex Dickerson’s fly ball to short center landed in the glove of Ronald Acuna Jr. Some 363 days after Acuna gloved the final out to clinch the Braves 2018 NL East crown, Atlanta again ascended the mountain, completing the first step of a journey that feels – unlike last season’s surprising surge to the playoffs – like it only has reached an initial benchmark, and not a final destination.

    The Braves of 2018 surprised so many, a newness for a franchise coming out of a painful four-year rebuild. This year’s edition, despite being overlooked by so many, shook off an 18-20 start and put the hammer down with a torrid four-month stretch that blew the doors off the revamped NL East. The Nationals, Phillies and Mets made plenty of headlines in the cold, windy days of winter.

    Amid the heat of summer, the Braves shined brightest. Now they get the chance to turn autumn upside down.

    From the moment the sun came up Friday, there was a sense of finality around the series opener with the Giants, the beginning of the final home series of the season. A chance to lock up the division title in front of a huge crowd, on a weekend, much like the Braves experienced last season on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon against the Phillies.

    But the path to bottles being popped in the home clubhouse was a bit different this time around. The Braves stumbled out of the gate, and in early May were two games under .500 after being swept by the Dodgers and losing on a walk-off homer the next night in Arizona. The bullpen was a mess, scuttled by injuries and underperformance. The offense wasn’t clicking. The rotation was inconsistent.

    You know what happened next.

    Let’s fast forward to tonight. There were redemption stories as far as the eye could see.

    Start with the front office. Yes, the front office. Financial flexibility be darned, Alex Anthopoulos knew what he was doing from the jump. He pulled the trigger for Dallas Keuchel and not Craig Kimbrel. He rolled the dice on Josh Donaldson. He took a bit of a chance in bringing Brian McCann back to his hometown. He hedged his bet on Nick Markakis, hoping the second-half regression we saw last summer wouldn’t repeat itself.

    Despite non-stop criticism from the national media and from large segments of the fanbase, Anthopoulos never caved. He remade the bullpen at the trade deadline. He supplemented the roster by coming up aces with every August move off the waiver wire.

    And his biggest splash of the winter? Suffice to say it’s worked out perfectly.

    Donaldson, who looked a shell of his former self due to injuries in 2017-18, stayed healthy all season. He’s been one of the top third baseman in the game since finding his rhythm in early June. Moving to the cleanup spot has provided the protection Freddie Freeman has lacked in his big-league career. Watching Donaldson celebrate with his teammates makes one feel he would be happy to return to Atlanta for 2020 and beyond, provided the length of contract and money involved is right.

    But the biggest story on this third Friday in September was focused on the mound. Throughout the winter, so much was made of question marks about Atlanta’s rotation. Mike Soroka and Max Fried went a long way toward answering those questions with breakthrough seasons. The addition of Keuchel provided a sorely needed veteran boost, a previous World Series champion who swam through Chattahoochee Falls during the postgame party with the joy of a child on the first day of summer vacation.

    Mike Foltynewicz pitched the clinching game for the division title a season ago, a crowning moment of a 13-win, All-Star season. But things went south after a bone spur in his elbow short-circuited his spring training, and a disastrous two-month stint send the right-hander to the minors to find himself.

    That demotion paid dividends in more ways that one. Beyond the numbers Foltynewicz has compiled since returning to Atlanta’s rotation in early August, it’s the manner with which he has owned the mound that should give Braves fans a ton of confidence. Eight shutout innings Friday on just 95 pitches (65 for strikes), complete dominance extending a streak of impressive starts to six for the 27-year-old. Once an afterthought for the postseason roster, Foltynewicz very well may be Atlanta’s most important arm in the playoffs.

    And when it was over Friday night and the team assembled on the field, Brian Snitker stood in the middle of the diamond with tears welling in his eyes. As the big screen showed the skipper, SunTrust Park roared its approval, and the emotional, stoic leader of this emerging powerhouse raised his left arm in the air.

    The lifelong Brave, in his 43rd year in the organization, walked toward the dugout with arms raised. He, and his team, destroyed the national storyline. Now, these Braves of 2019 have a chance to write their own script in October, a script for the ages.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

    It felt like it didn’t matter.

    Because it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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