• Freddie Freeman

    Back To The Ballpark: After 18 Months Away, It’s Time To Come Home

    Editor’s Note: The Atlanta Braves host the Philadelphia Phillies in the team’s 2021 home opener Friday night at Truist Park, the franchise’s first home game in front of fans in 18 months. For Braves Wire writer Bud L. Ellis, the Braves home opener each year is a special moment, the start of a season of attending games and making memories with family and friends. On the eve of his 39th home opener, he shares his thoughts and emotions leading into the return to the ballpark.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – There was a moment, late in the evening of Oct. 9, 2019, where it felt like the end of the world. The Braves had allowed 10 first-inning runs in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series against St. Louis – a series Atlanta absolutely gave away. I wanted to leave early, but my oldest son would not let me.

    He wanted to see Julio Teheran throw to Brian McCann one last time, the pitcher ending his Braves career and the catcher minutes away from announcing his retirement. Walking out of SunTrust Park (now Truist Park) as the Braves season gasped its final breath was one of the lowest feelings I’ve experienced as a baseball fan, and the baseball-loving father of a baseball-loving son.

    We had no idea what would unfold, and how the world truly would stop.

    ****

    At times in our lives, we find ourselves traveling down a long, dark road. No exits. No mile markers. No GPS. No idea where, or when, a light will emerge. Then you see it, at first appearing faint on the horizon – almost as if it’s a mirage – until the illumination grows steadily brighter, draws steadily closer, and you find yourself emerging out of the darkness.

    You find your way home.

    The Atlanta Braves come home Friday night, home to Truist Park to host the Philadelphia Phillies in the home opener after going 2-4 on their season-opening, six-game road swing through Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. A little more than 13,000 fans – 33 percent of the ballpark’s capacity – will file through the gates while wearing masks and sit in socially distant pods. But they will do something fans haven’t been able to do in 1 ½ years: attend a Braves home game.

    My oldest son and I will be among them. Believe me, I realize how fortunate I am to be among that number.

    It’s going to be different, for sure. No cooking tomorrow morning, no arriving hours before first pitch, no hugs and high-fives in Lot 29, no standing shoulder-to shoulder as part of a sold-out crowd. Park in a different lot, walk into the ballpark, watch the game, walk back to the car.

    Of all the home openers I’ve attended since my first one way back in 1980, it will be the strangest one I’ve experienced.

    And I’ll absolutely take it.

    ****

    My birthday is in March. There never was any intrigue around my birthday present every year growing up: tickets to the home opener. My parents would give me money for the home opener even after I’d grown up, graduated college, and got married. I covered four of them during my journalism career. My mom, who has lived with us for a decade, asks me periodically through the winter:

    “How many days?”

    There’s no doubt about what she’s asking.

    I remember hearing her yell for joy upstairs when Adam Duvall’s base hit scored Dansby Swanson to put the Braves ahead in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Cardinals series. I remember her telling me, “we’re getting closer, son,” the morning after last year’s Game 7 NLCS loss to the Dodgers. I remember her and my dad filling a cooler full of beer and champagne for me and a bunch of other 18-year-olds on Oct. 5, 1991, the day the Braves clinched the NL West title in their worst-to-first season.

    Mom’s health has deteriorated the past few months. We’ve had some rough moments the past few weeks. But this week has been a good week, and she’s been adamant that I go to the game. Afterward, she’ll ask me how the Braves played, ask if we had a good time, remind me if the Braves lose that it’s a long season.

    And when I complain about a slow start or an early deficit, she offers her favorite: “It’s never over until it’s over.”

    She told me that the other day. I nodded and put on a brave smile, fighting the realization she’s likely in her ninth inning.

    ****

    I have not watched a baseball game in person since that numbing butt-kicking by the dirty, devil-magic Cardinals. The offseason is long, but there usually are a bread crumb or two to help you along the way. A snowboard event at the ballpark in December 2019; the fan festival a few weeks later. Moments to get you through until the season starts when, for baseball fans, life truly beginning again.

    Until it didn’t.

    Baseball in 2020 was so different, the methodical daily drumbeat delayed 3 1/2 months condensed into the 60-game sprint. It was better than no season at all, and certainly a success for the Braves: a third-straight division title, an MVP season from Freddie Freeman, the emergence of Ian Anderson, the smashing of the playoff series drought. Even the inability to finish off the Dodgers in the NLCS, as painful as that was in the moment, teased even greater heights to scale in the near future.

    And yet, it just wasn’t the same. There is nothing like being in the ballpark. The energy, even with a small crowd, is so much better than piped-in noise. My cardboard cutout is now in its rightful place, hanging in the Braves Room. There simply is no replacement for having fans in the seats, cheering and booing and losing themselves for three hours, forgetting the day and the week and work and all the other real-world stuff that tugs at us.

    Walking through those gates is a release. It’s baseball. It’s comfort. It’s home.

    I know what it’s like to walk into a ballpark for a World Series game, for the decisive game of a playoff series, for a highly anticipated debut, for that first game of a new season. Good and bad, I’ve experienced it all.

    Friday night will be an experience all its own. It will be emotional, all the more so as we remember Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro (and of course, longtime broadcaster Don Sutton). It will be special. And it will be wonderful.

    Friday night, 18 months from the day since I left, I get to come home.

    —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.

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dang good.

    Good enough to win the World Series?

    In my opinion, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Win the World Series.

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

    —30—

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

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    Parts 5 and 6

    There are plenty of ingredients needed to create a championship team. Some are well known. Others lurk under the surface. All have to come together if a team wants to win its final game of the season, and stand forever in the hall of champions.

    The Atlanta Braves fell five victories shy of the summit in 2020, a season unlike any other amid the challenges of playing during a global pandemic. With a greater sense of normalcy looming as the 2021 campaign kicks off, Braves Country turns its focus to a team looking to do something only three teams in franchise history have accomplished – and not since the 1995 Braves brought Atlanta its first major pro sports title.

    This is my look at some of the critical pieces of Atlanta’s championship hopes. Yes, it takes good baseball and good health and certainly a dash or two of good luck. But for the Braves to win the World Series, these guys have to play a prominent role.

    – Bud L. Ellis, Braves Wire

    Part 5: The Alpha

    The Name: Ronald Acuna Jr., RF

    The Objective: Continue his ascent toward “top player in baseball” status by displaying his five-tool arsenal while staying healthy.

    The Story: Maybe it’s the fact Juan Soto has a World Series ring, or the fact Fernando Tatis Jr. has a 14-year contract. But in some weird way, it almost – almost – feels like Ronald Acuna Jr. occasionally gets lost in the shuffle when it comes to national buzz around baseball’s youngest and brightest stars.

    Acuna battled through a problematic wrist injury in 2020, missing 23.3 percent of the shortened 60-game season, and posting a career-low .250 average when he did play. But the 23-year-old enters 2021 healthy, noticeably slimmer and, despite the challenges of last summer, stands as one of the best players on the planet. 

    One season after hitting 41 homers and stealing 37 bases en route to a 5.6 bWAR campaign, Acuna raised his walk rate from 10.6 percent to 18.8 percent in 2020, while posting career bests in OBP (.406) and OPS (.987). None of this is good news for opposing pitchers, who face an evolving Acuna as the tip of a lineup featuring four NL Silver Slugger winners in the top five spots.

    In this era of “let the kids play,” nobody possesses the swagger of Acuna, the alpha of a Braves squad loaded with personality. He has the talent to back it up, the list of “did you see that?!” moments already lengthy for someone with a mere 313 games on his big-league resume. Acuna went a combined 6-for-35 in the NLDS and NLCS after a four-hit showing in the two-game sweep of Cincinnati, but even while struggling against the Marlins and Dodgers, he walked seven times and scored 10 runs in 10 games.

    It’s ridiculous to expect anybody to post a 40-40 season. But if Acuna plays 155 games and gets the green light to run, as he did in 2019, it’s not only possible, it’s probable.

    Watch Him Soar: Ronald Acuna Jr. looks for another huge season as he mans right field for the Braves in 2021.

    The Upside: The term “the sky’s the limit” was created for Acuna. Moving full time to right field will put his powerful arm on display more while saving his legs a bit (compared to playing center). He’s a Gold Glove candidate with his range and speed, and the developing hit tool could result in his first .300 season. An OPS above 1.000 certainly is within range, and he’s on everybody’s short list of NL MVP candidates.

    The Downside: There truly is one thing that could slow down Acuna, and that’s health. The wrist hindered him more than he let on last season. Even if his strikeout rate ticks up and his walk rate nudges down, it’s hard to see anything outside of injury keeping him from being one of the sport’s most impactful players.

    The Feeling: The wrist injury and the 60-game season kept Acuna from displaying the full brilliance we saw in 2019. With a full season on tap in 2021, it feels like almost a foregone conclusion he will remind people how dynamic he is with an MVP-worthy season, while driving the Braves deep into October.

    Part 6: The Captain

    The Name: Freddie Freeman, 1B

    The Objective: Back up his MVP season by leading his team to the place it hasn’t been in more than two decades, and securing the final piece missing from his career resume.

    The Story: How can Freddie Freeman be 31 years old, beginning his 10th season as the Braves first baseman, his eighth season since franchise icon Chipper Jones hung up his spikes? It seems like yesterday he made his major-league debut, the chubby-faced kid searching for his place while squarely in the shadow of his more ballyhooed minor-league roomie, Jason Heyward.

    Yet, here he is, a face of the franchise and MVP winner, just like his buddy Jones. It all came together for the first baseman in 2020 – albeit across a 60-game season, but what it season it was. Freeman hit .341, finished with a 1.102 OPS, slugged .640, and led the Braves to Game 7 of the NLCS. A first World Series appearance and winning the championship would have been the cherry on top of a year when Freeman exceled so greatly on the field, after nearly opting out following a scary battle with COVID-19 in July.

    Freeman’s growth during the past 10 years has been remarkable to watch. He always could hit, that sweet left-handed stroke firing balls over the shortstop’s head. The power has expanded. So, too, has his voice, the once shy rookie now the unquestioned leader of the best band of Braves in a generation. Off the field, the Freeman crew is the first family of Braves Country, one that grew from three to five in the offseason with the heartwarming story of twins – two boys born with a twist.

    He’s been a part of everything for the Braves. It was Freeman’s groundout that ended the 2011 season, his homer that clinched the 2012 wild-card berth, his single that won Game 1 last season against Cincinnati, and a million other moments for the only current Brave who endured every painful day of the rebuild. But there remains one final step to take, one final destination to reach, for a player who over the course of the past decade has grown up and grown into a star right before our eyes.

    Feeling Free: The captain of the Braves and the face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman aims to lead the Braves to the World Series title.

    The Upside: Steady Freddie. It sounds simplistic, but that’s Freeman in a nutshell. He a Silver Slugger winner who hits third in one of baseball’s best lineups, he plays a Gold Glove caliber first base, he’s a perennial All-Star, and now his status as a top 10 player in the game is unquestioned. If he’s able to play, he’s going to play, and play well.

    The Downside: Freeman did not miss a game in 2020 – and that’s not a surprise. Starting in 2014, he’s not played in more than four games in a season just twice: in 2015 (34 games) and 2017 (35 games). Both seasons were marred by wrist injuries, and a wrist ailment led to an awful showing in the 2019 playoffs. It seems only health can keep Freeman from posting another season worthy of MVP consideration: he’s finished in the top eight in voting four times in the past five seasons. 

    The Feeling: Freeman hit .360 in the NLCS with two homers – a third homer was taken away by Mookie Betts in the fifth inning of Game 7, or else the Braves very well may have won the pennant. In a season when anything short of reaching the World Series will be a disappointment, on a team full of impact players and personalities, Freeman will respond with another MVP-worthy season that helps push Atlanta onto the sport’s biggest stage.

    —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.

    That Time of Year Again: Big Goals, Bullpen Battles, and Hope in Abundance as Braves Start Spring

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The feeling sitting by the lake Sunday was quite comfortable, and it had little to do with my fishing line in the water, the sun breaking through the clouds and the temperature nudging past 70 degrees.

    It had everything to do with the sounds coming through my headphones. The crack of the bat, the thud of a ball hitting the mitt, the scattered rumbling of fans – real people, not cardboard facsimiles – clapping as a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays unfolded before their very eyes along Florida’s west coast.

    Spring training is off and running, and hopefully we continue rolling unabated toward April 1 and the Braves season opener in Philadelphia. Four games in the books – and if you care about the record, can I ask why, because it means absolutely nothing. Four afternoons of familiar sounds and warm thoughts of spring and welcoming voices on the mic and the hope that baseball season brings – a hope that feels a little more meaningful this time around.

    A few thoughts as the Braves continue their first week of Grapefruit League play:

    All Grown Up: I was struck listening to Freddie Freeman’s press conference Tuesday. It’s noteworthy when the reigning National League MVP speaks, certainly. But there was something in his voice, in his expressions, that depicted a man not only completely at peace with his present, but poised for the next step in his future.

    The MVP Is Here: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman spoke at length with the media Tuesday.

    The story of the Freeman family expanding from three to five is heartwarming and inspiring, and adds yet another compelling chapter to what was a notable 2020 for the Braves first baseman. He’s the face of the franchise, the captain – I still would love to see a C on his jersey, a la hockey – and now at 31 years old, undoubtedly one of the top 10 players in the majors.

    The only thing missing from Freeman’s resume is something he alluded to with confidence and openness in his remarks: a World Series ring. He’s got a heck of a shot to get it, considering the combination of talent in the organization and the lessons learned from the past three Octobers. I suspect Freeman will hold court with the media again before the team breaks camp, after Atlanta and its leader agree on a richly deserved contract extension.

    Right from the Right Side: The Braves watched a trio of valuable right-handed relievers depart this offseason. And while Mark Melancon headed to San Diego and Darren O’Day signed with the Yankees (Shane Greene curiously remains unsigned), there is no shortage of candidates to fill that void. Two names stand out to me, both who are on the 40-man roster and both with intriguing potential, if – and there’s the caveat – they can stay healthy.

    Victor Arano posted a 9.1 strikeouts-per-nine ratio across 60 games in 2018 for the Phillies, finishing with a 1.197 WHIP. His 2019 season ended after just three games due to elbow surgery that May, and the 26-year-old was limited to 10 innings in the Mexican League last year. While his fastball sat in the mid-90s before the injury, what set Arano apart was the movement on his heater, slider and changeup.

    Braves fans are quite familiar with Jacob Webb, who has made 44 appearances across two injury-derailed seasons. An elbow ailment ended his 2019 campaign after Webb posted a 1.39 ERA and a 1.113 WHIP in 36 games, and a shoulder strain last summer shelved the 27-year-old after eight appearances. Control has been an issue – Webb has issued 17 walks in 42 1/3 big-league innings – but his stuff is plenty good enough.

    Good health this spring for both Arano and Webb – the same can be said for non-roster invitee Carl Edwards Jr. – could ease the concerns about the offseason veteran exodus and make for some interesting decisions come the end of the month.

    Let The Kid Play: More than once during the NL Championship Series, I wondered what it would be like to have four major-league at-bats then, suddenly, find yourself in the lineup playing every day against the best team in baseball for a trip to the World Series.

    Freeman wondered that, too, joking that he had no idea how super prospect Cristian Pache acquitted himself so well during the NLCS. Yes, Pache went just 4-for-22 against the Dodgers last fall, but the organization’s top prospect registered a hit with a RBI in four games, belted his first big-league homer, and impressed with the poise he displayed in running down balls in center field and grinding out at-bats.

    His Time Is Now: Cristian Pache is expected to begin the season as Atlanta’s starting center fielder.

    Sure, the Braves weren’t going to come out in February and name Pache the starter, especially with the proud veteran Ender Inciarte (he with the $8.7 million price tag) still around and looking to salvage his career. But make no mistake: center field is Pache’s to lose. He took a pitch on the outer half of the plate Monday against Boston and drove it with authority to right-center field, yet another impressive sign that the 22-year-old is ready for everyday duty in the bigs.

    Don’t Forget About Me: On a roster oozing with young talent – Pache, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, William Contreras, et al – it’s easy to get overlooked. But another 22-year-old in camp definitely deserves attention and, potentially, a shot to line up on the foul line for opening day ceremonies four weeks from Thursday.

    Huascar Ynoa landed in the Braves organization after a trade deadline deal for Jaime Garcia in 2017. He made his big-league debut in a blowout victory over the Phillies in 2019 and has made 11 appearances – five starts – across the past two seasons. The casual observer will recall his 92-pitch, one-hit, four-inning relief outing in the Game 3 NLCS blowout loss, but those who have watched Ynoa work know there is tons of potential in that right arm.

    Ynoa impressed in his spring debut Monday. I don’t focus on results too much this early in camp, but every time I watch this kid pitch, I want to see more. Control has been an issue so far, but with upper-90s gas and an impressive slider, it’s not difficult to envision Ynoa having a role with the big-league team – especially if Atlanta wants another power right-hander in the bullpen and the Triple-A season not starting until May.

    —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.

    OZUNA-PALOOZA: Braves make statement, sign Ozuna to four-year deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Braves winter of great discontent ended on the first Friday evening in February, giving the fanbase reason to Marcellebrate and dream of October.

    After a quiet two-month period in which option after option to fill the gaping hole in the Braves lineup landed elsewhere, Alex Anthopoulos finally checked off the most important box of his tenure as Atlanta’s general manager, re-signing Marcell Ozuna to a reported four-year deal Friday with a fifth-year option. It was worth the wait, as the $64 million deal comes out to an average annual value of $16 million, and features a $16 million club option (with a $1 million buyout) for 2025. Early reports hinted Ozuna’s salary for 2021 would be $12 million.

    For Ozuna, it returns him to the team where he flirted with the Triple Crown during the truncated 2020 season. He led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while hitting .338 (third) with a 1.067 OPS. Ozuna, who turned 30 in November, struggled defensively in left field –  while that’s a concern considering at this moment there is no DH in the NL in 2021, the Braves are banking his offense will more than make up for any shortcomings in the field.

    It’s absolutely worth that defensive risk, as I wrote two months ago today in this space. Ozuna helped the Braves get within one win of the World Series last fall. He returns to slot into the third spot in the batting order behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman, lengthening a lineup that desperately needed another impact bat on Brian Snitker’s lineup card. The top three of Ronald Acuna Jr., Freeman and Ozuna is as good as any in baseball. There simply was no way the Braves could go into 2021 without adding a bat, be it Ozuna or someone else.

    And make no mistake: from the final out of Game 7 of the NL Championship Series loss to the Dodgers, there wasn’t a better realistic option available to the Braves than Ozuna. His right-handed bat behind Freeman in the lineup helped unlock a phenomenal season for the longtime Atlanta first baseman. Ozuna looked more like the hitter who broke out for a big year with Miami in 2017 before two decent, if not spectacular, seasons in St. Louis in 2018-19. He certainly fit in well, his signature faux selfies during the playoffs energizing the team and fanbase.

    The Braves struck early in free agency this offseason, inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to one-year deals in November. Then came two months of silence, driven in part by the indecision by MLB on whether to bring back the DH to the NL, in part by questions around whether the 2021 season would start on time due to the pandemic, and in part by whether the Braves had the flexibility to commit the dollars and length of years needed to secure Ozuna coming off a career season.

    Credit to Anthopoulos here, who absolutely was ripped across social media daily for the past eight weeks. Let’s face it – it didn’t matter whether Atlanta signed Ozuna on Dec. 5, Jan. 5, or Feb. 5. The early reports of the deal structure show that, despite the outcry from a whole bunch of Twitter GMs, patience paid off in a massive way for the Braves and their GM.

    This is the type of commitment a World Series champion has to make at some point in time. It was fair to wonder if the Braves actually would do it. Honestly, they had to push in at some point.

    It might not have come as quickly this winter as some wanted but, in the end, Anthopoulos and the Braves got their man. Ozuna got his contract. And while the NL will be as rugged as ever, starting with a ridiculously stacked NL East, the Braves are right there among the favorites to get to where they haven’t been since 1999, and do what they haven’t done since 1995.

    Reason enough on a winter Friday night to Marcellebrate.

    —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 o

    Anthopoulos, Braves Enter Winter Meetings With Holes To Fill

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    WOODY GAP, Ga. — A brisk December afternoon finds winter’s chill riding the northwest breeze across the North Georgia mountains. A scattering of bundled-up hikers cross Ga. 60 at the Union County/Lumpkin County line, navigating the rocky trails at a site where snow fell for most of the afternoon just five days earlier.

    This place sits 88 miles from my upper-deck seats at Truist Park. As with so many things in 2020, that slice of normalcy feels a million miles away.

    Today’s view, a stop on this Saturday’s winding journey around and over the hilly terrain of my home state, is perfect for pause and perspective. The Winter Meetings — often a point of both decision and pivot for baseball’s offseason — kick off Sunday. Much like everything else in this year unlike any other, it will be different. Virtual. No meeting in suites. No hallway conversations. No ideas bandied about while sharing a drink or a meal.

    Looking Ahead: A brief pause before the Winter Meetings begin.

    Like the hikers determining which path to take after crossing the highway, the Atlanta Braves sit pondering choices of direction at a couple of key checkpoints in filling out the 2021 roster. You can cross the starting rotation off Alex Anthopoulos’ shopping list, the Braves general manager inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton last month to a pair of one-year pacts for $26 million.

    That last part stands out to me. The naysayers who lean on the worn-out narrative that the Braves don’t spend money conveniently forget the spending spree of last offseason, when Atlanta bolstered its roster to the point it would’ve hit opening day with a payroll of around $155 million.

    Atlanta has 11 players under guaranteed contracts for approximately $95.05 million in 2021 (including Smyly and Morton), with an estimated potential (per FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors) of $13 million more to four players in arbitration. Add in the up to $4.16 million if the contracts tendered to Luke Jackson, Johan Camargo and Grant Dayton become full, and that’s a 2021 number so far of approximately $112.21 million.

    Spending $26 million of that on the Smyly/Morton duo leads me to think even with pandemic-impacted finances, the Braves still have significant money to spend. They certainly have needs to add to a core that came within one win of the NL pennant.

    Pause and perspective; two words that at times are hard for fans to grasp. A few thoughts as I gaze at the mountains in the distance and think about a franchise aiming to reach the summit.

    We Should Marcellebrate: I know Anthopoulos doesn’t like long-term deals. I know the organization is loath to pay top dollar over a lengthy timeframe. I know the ongoing — and ridiculous — fact MLB and the Players Association have yet to determine if the DH remains in the NL for 2021 plays a factor not just for the Braves, but for every Senior Circuit club.

    I also know what I saw from Marcell Ozuna in a Braves uniform. No, I do not expect a Triple Crown-contending campaign to be the baseline. No, I admit his defensive shortcomings in left field give me pause.

    I also know the impact of having that type of right-handed bat behind reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman (if I may briefly digress: how awesome it was to type that). It’s why I advocated re-signing Josh Donaldson last winter, a player almost five years older and one with a longer injury history.

    I don’t anticipate something happening with Ozuna until the DH is decided. It’s immaterial to me. Sure, it’s not my money, but I’d pony up a four-year deal at $88 million ($22 million average annual value, or AAV). I think that’s what it will take to sign him. I’d live with the defense in left field for one season to know the biggest hole in the lineup is filled through 2024.

    It’s a Marcellebration: Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna’s selfies became a symbol of the 2020 postseason.

    Anthopoulos likes to jump the market. I’d love to see him do it with Ozuna. Do I think it will happen? Honestly, no. I expect the Braves to fill the lineup hole via trade, perhaps a one-year “rental” of former MVP Kris Bryant to play third base and/or left field, citing one oft-mentioned example that doesn’t excite me like it did last winter or the winter before.

    Either way he goes, Anthopoulos has no choice but to nail this move. It’s his biggest to date in his tenure. The bat acquired has to be impactful. And while it shouldn’t have to be said, just for the record, piecing together a solution in-house is unacceptable. All the more reason in my opinion to be aggressive and maybe a bit uncomfortable here, and stretch to give Braves Country a reason to Marcellebrate.

    Gold Glove Bullpen Piece: One of the more memorable (and enjoyable) images from the NLCS was closer Mark Melancon gloving not one, but two Ozzie Albies homers belted into the Braves bullpen.

    No Bull, This Glove’s Legit: Braves closer Mark Melancon caught two Ozzie Albies homers in the bullpen during the NLCS.

    Melancon, a free agent expected to net somewhere between $4 million and $8 million, has spent the offseason cracking up the masses on social media. From my perspective, he should spend next season cracking down on opposing hitters in the ninth inning for the Braves.

    I’ve heard multiple people I trust say they expect the 35-year-old (he turns 36 in late March) to re-sign with Atlanta. Melancon’s return would provide the Braves one more impactful arm needed to go with Will Smith and Chris Martin — plus lefties Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter — to form another formidable bullpen.

    I’d think $6 million-$7 million gets it done, but be patient. The reliever market is flooded, even more so now after the non-tender deadline. It might be mid-January, but unless someone blows him away with an offer, I expect Melancon back in 2021.

    One More Bloom: Atlanta needs a backup catcher, but for multiple reasons there is zero reason to spend significant money here.

    Travis d’Arnaud figures to catch a majority of the time — Braves catchers typically split duties in part to the toll of the Atlanta summer heat, but d’Arnaud could be in line for 130 starts after his breakout 2020. Atlanta has two highly regarded catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, but the loss of minor-league ball in 2020 dictates both need to catch every day somewhere in 2021 and not ride the bench in Atlanta.

    Alex Jackson could handle the staff fine for 35 starts at the major-league minimum salary. But I know how highly the organization regards Tyler Flowers. With roots in Atlanta and likely limited opportunities elsewhere if he wanted to try and catch on with another organization, I could see the Braves bringing Flowers back for cheap (say, $1.5 million, or roughly $1 million more than Jackson’s salary).

    California Dreamin’: There was a little buzz when the Angels tabbed Braves exec Perry Minasian as their GM, in particular given a certain Braves star and newly minted MVP who has California roots and an expiring deal.

    Dream on. I don’t see any scenario in which Freeman leaves the Braves. My feeling all along has been a contract extension will be done before the season begins. Doing so avoids Freeman’s status being a talking point all season, and gives the Braves cost certainty at the position for the foreseeable future.

    M-V-Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final year of his contract after winning NL MVP honors.

    Until I see otherwise, I think Atlanta will do right for Freeman and the two sides will settle somewhere around $185 million for seven years ($26.4 million AAV). And no, the first baseman should not take a “hometown discount,” and fans have no right to expect that he should.

    Doting on Duvvy: Closing out today with a hat tip to Adam Duvall, whose pinch-hit homer off Jack Flaherty in Game 2 of the 2019 NLDS was such a cool moment to experience. Cool beyond how the crowd shifted from annoyance with Brian Snitker’s decision to hit Duvall for Mike Foltynewicz to euphoria when Duvall deposited a 3-2 offering over the wall in center, but because of the ease that comes with rooting for a guy like Duvall and the significance of him delivering in that moment.

    Duvall’s story — his living with Type 1 diabetes, his work at Triple-A after not breaking camp with the team in 2019, his prolific 10-game span this season in which he belted nine homers (including two three-homer games) — is well known. He made quite an impression on this fanbase. To this day, I have not met one person who does not like Duvall.

    I was surprised he got non-tendered, but I hope he lands a starting gig and a good payday somewhere. He’s certainly deserving.

    —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 EASY AS M-V-FREE! Braves First Baseman Caps Brilliant Season with Atlanta’s First MVP Honor Since 1999

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Many things come to mind when you mention the names Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton and Chipper Jones. My first thought is how each was emblematic of the Atlanta Braves while wearing the uniform.

    Murphy, the kid from Oregon with the All-American boyish looks who became a star as the Braves won fans from coast-to-coast on the Superstation en route to the 1982 NL West title. Pendleton, the fiery sparkplug from Los Angeles who helped whip the youthful Braves into winners during the magical 1991 worst-to-first season. Jones, the boy from Florida possessing equal parts Southern cockiness and charm who anchored the franchise among baseball’s elite for most of two decades.

    A trio of Atlanta Braves, each a NL MVP award winner. Their exclusive club grew by one Thursday evening, and how fitting that they were joined by one who also is a symbol of the franchise.

    Freddie Freeman becomes the fourth Brave to win the honor since the franchise moved to Atlanta, the first since Jones in 1999 and joining Pendleton (1991) and Murphy (1982-83). His 2020 goes far beyond just the sparkly numbers compiled across the truncated 60-game regular season – the 1.102 OPS, the .341/.462/.640 slash line, the first two grand slams of his career.

    It transcends his postseason performance – the 13th-inning walkoff single against the Reds in Game 1 of the wild card series, the two homers against the Dodgers in the NLCS (a third robbed by MVP finalist Mookie Betts in Game 7 may have kept the Braves from reaching the World Series), the .903 OPS.

    It’s a season that wasn’t guaranteed given Freeman’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the news breaking on the Fourth of July as summer camp began at Truist Park. We all know the story of Freeman running a 104.5 degree fever, a husband and a father of a 3-year-old with twins on the way pondering his fate far beyond the diamond. And yet, 20 days later, there Freeman was, taking his hacks against his buddy Jacob deGrom on opening day at Citi Field.

    That’s the Freeman way. He’s always there. He was there as a rookie in 2010, belting his first big-league homer off Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in Hall of Famer Bobby Cox’s final days as manager. He was there in 2011, squatting behind the first-base bag after grounding into a season-ending double-play in the 13th inning of Game 162. He was there in 2012, homering against the Marlins to send Atlanta to the playoffs, Jones standing famously on third base with his right arm raised in triumph.

    Ten days later, the Braves season and Jones career ended.

    It’s been Freeman’s team ever since. Partly because of his brilliance – four top-10 finishes in MVP voting from 2012-19, five seasons hitting above .300, four All-Star appearances. Partly because he was the only position player to survive the Braves rebuild – as the franchise stripped it down to the studs, Freeman remained, a pillar around which Atlanta now has built a World Series championship contender.

    Now he joins that aforementioned trio of Braves royalty, linked not just by the MVP trophy, but by time. Murphy, traded to Philadelphia mere months before Pendleton signed as a free agent. Pendleton, who consoled Jones the night the rookie blew out his knee in spring training in 1994. Jones, sliding into the sunset after 2012 as Freeman began his ascension toward baseball stardom.

    That rise now includes the MVP trophy, and membership in an exclusive club of Braves legends.

    —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.

    The Time Between: Cleaning Out the Notebook After a Remarkable Run and Before an Unpredictable Winter

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The dream slips out the door and the numbness rushes in, like that first cool northwest breeze in autumn informing you those 90-degree days are soon to be a distant memory.

    There are reminders in the transition between the end of the run and the start of preparing for the next one – the time between, as I opined on social media – when you have a realization, a proverbial stubbing of your toe, that sends a painful “what could’ve been” coursing through your veins.

    That moment came during an innocent walk up the stairs from the Braves Room earlier today. I looked down at my Atlanta All-Star game 2021 T-shirt and it hit me: With one more run, one more play, one more win, Brian Snitker would have managed the National League All-Star team in his home ballpark next July.

    Hello, frosty wind. Where’s my hoodie?

    Welcome to that weird time between the conclusion of the Braves memorable 2020 season and the commencement of serious thought toward 2021 and beyond. No, I’m not ready to go there. Not yet. Not because I’m bitter or anything over the way the NL Championship Series ended – yes, you have to win a series you lead 3-1, but this wasn’t 1996 or 2019 or 2005 or 1998 or 2011 or several other undigestible finishes to seasons past.

    I’m not there because I’m taking a moment to pause, to reflect.

    To clean out the notebook, so to speak:

    Winning a championship isn’t easy. The sooner some realize that truth, the better – and I know it’s hard in this, “I want it yesterday and then I want another one right now, patience be darned” society in which we live. Or, as a mentor used to tell me while showing me after deadline what changes he made to my copy and why, “if this was easy, everybody would do it.”

    Nobody ever will associate patience or perspective with this fanbase (at least some of the louder segments online). Hey, I get it. It’s been 25 years (minus one week) since I sat in the upper reaches of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched Marquis Grissom glove the final out of the World Series. But if you’ve watched this franchise grow across the past three seasons and don’t think they will be among the short list of World Series championship contenders for the next several years, I don’t know what to tell you.

    Adam Duvall’s injury in his first at-bat of the NLCS was a bummer for a great dude whose power surge during the season was a sight to behold. I don’t think I’ve met one person who doesn’t love Duvall. But one man’s misery is another man’s moment, and boy, Cristian Pache sure did impress against the Dodgers. The quality of his ABs was far better than I expected. Defensively, he’s so smooth. Andruw-esque. Center field is his in 2021.

    The Braves have answered the Pache question. But let’s pump the brakes on the Drew Waters talk just a bit. Waters is a tantalizing talent, indeed, but struck out at an alarming rate in spring training before baseball shut down. Without a Triple-A season, I’d be hesitant to hand him left field come April.

    Waters, William Contreras, Tucker Davidson, Kyle Mueller. Four names that likely will impact the big-league Braves in the very near future. But due to 2020 being what it was, that time’s not here. Not yet. Soon, but not yet.

    The Braves have answered the Ian Anderson question, though. No more Triple-A for the 22-year-old unless he falls on his face. Barring injury or a bad spring, that kid should get the ball every fifth day for the big-league club. His playoff performance was beyond impressive, even grinding through his Game 7 start with subpar command. Anderson’s changeup is ridiculous, and he’s got a shot to be a fixture in Atlanta for a long, long time.

    It’s easy to talk about the kids for 2021. Free agents and trade targets, not so much. As baseball wraps up its final act of a season like no other, we now enter an offseason that holds the same description. What will teams do with payroll? What will the free-agent market look like?

    Nobody knows. Baseball’s never had a season where fans weren’t filling up the seats, buying nachos and beer and parking passes and T-shirts. Sure, operating expenses plunged along with revenue, but with no guarantees the stands will be packed come April, I’d expect front offices to enter the winter with at least some trepidation. (Cue the “Liberty Media is cheap” tweets.)

    And of course, it’s Major League Baseball. We have no idea when we’ll learn if the DH stays in the NL in 2021. That little trivial note will have a major impact on a particular right-handed slugger who sure did make the Braves of 2020 really good, and really fun.

    Yes, Freddie Freeman is a free agent after next season. No, it’ll never get to that point. Expect a lengthy extension to be announced before spring training.

    Mark Wohlers’ slider, Devonta Freeman’s missed block, Cliff Levington (and not Dominique Wilkins) having the ball in his hands, the Flames and Thrashers bolting north, the Falcons secondary making Danny White look like a Hall of Famer, second-and-26, Chris Burke, Sam Holbrook, a locked bullpen door in L.A., and any of a trillion other “oh God, Atlanta” moments have absolutely zero to do with missteps on the bases or Mookie Betts jumping out of the building.

    RIP the #RallyPotato. It was fun while it lasted. At least it vaulted Braves Twitter back into the national spotlight, albeit it with far less staying power than a certain golfer.

    Hat tip to the boys at Atlanta Baseball Talk, who are wrapping up their weekly Braves podcast after 14 years with episode No. 500 this weekend. To do a podcast for a year is a tremendous investment in time. Do it for 14 years? They deserve a spot in Monument Grove. Want to know how long they’ve been at it? Here’s the first episode, complete with reaction to the departure of Braves legend Bob Wickman.

    Thanks for setting the pace for the many great podcasts out there, fellas.

    Finally, I turned on Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday and watched until the Dodgers took control. I know plenty of people who didn’t, the pain of coming so close still too raw and festering to put the proceedings in Arlington on their TV. I understand. I did the same thing in 1993. After the Braves ran down the Giants in the last great pennant race, Atlanta ran out of gas against the less-talented Phillies in the NLCS.

    For the first time in my life, I refused to watch the World Series. Not until Game 6, when I was at a buddy’s house, and the game was on (they were a little more mature than my 20-year-old arrogant and stubborn self). I watched the bottom of the ninth and saw Joe Carter’s famous walkoff homer, realized how cool that moment was, and learned in that moment that no matter what, this beautiful game goes on.

    Much as our world does. No matter the heartbreak or challenge or failure we encounter, the world keeps spinning. We’ve been reminded of that many times over during the past few months. No matter what, the sun indeed rises in the east the next morning.

    And before you know it, that sun will ascend over baseball fields in Florida and Arizona, where pitchers and catchers will check in and kick off this journey once again.

    —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.