• Garrett Cooper

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    And never looked back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Culberson’s Perfect Throw Provides Perfect Exclamation Point to Stellar First Half

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – I’m not sure what moved me to move, but move I did.

    Let me explain.

    Typically, when I am on deadline with a preview of the next day’s Braves game and I’m at SunTrust Park, I will leave my partial-season seats in Section 431, navigate down a stairwell, and take my place standing on the concourse at the top of section 131, just a quick sprint up a small set of stairs to the third-base gate. That gets me out of the stadium as soon as the game ends ahead of the crowd, and sets me on the way to Lot 29, where I finish my preview and file before pulling out of the parking lot.

    But I faced no such deadline pressure Sunday afternoon, not with it being the final day before the All-Star break and no game Monday to preview. But still, something was bugging me in the eighth inning, after Chad Sobotka got a bit too much of the plate with a fastball to Miami’s Garrett Cooper, who launched the pitch for a three-run homer to trim the Braves lead to 4-3.

    Up to that point, the day had been quite comfortable, although it felt like watching baseball in a sauna thanks to a few scattered North Georgia rain showers that raised the heat index to somewhere near the surface of the sun. Dallas Keuchel looked every bit like the veteran ace in his fourth Atlanta start, effectively mixing his cutter, sinker and changeup to keep the pesky Marlins off stride during a stellar outing that carried him into the eighth inning. Josh Donaldson brought his own type of rain, belting another soaring laser over the fence in right-center field, his 200th career blast capping a three-run third inning.

    Perhaps it was restlessness, or just a desire to beat the traffic, but whatever the reason, I took to my typical last-inning outpost for the top of the ninth. And it was the absolutely perfect move, because I got to watch the absolutely perfect play – maybe THE play of a first half chock full of “my goodness, did you see THAT” moments for the NL East leaders.

    Luke Jackson navigated his way into deep trouble in the top of the ninth, although very little of it was of his doing. Jorge Alfaro nubbed one slowly to third base and Donaldson initially appeared to throw him out by a step; replay correctly overturned the call on the field. Harold Ramirez’s single up the middle just eluded the glove of a diving Dansby Swanson, who undoubtedly took the field with an extra spring in his step on this day after his girlfriend, Mallory Pugh, and her U.S. Women’s National teammates captured the World Cup in France a few hours prior.

    Yadiel Rivera then bunted so poorly it turned out great for the Fish, the ball flying above the heads of a charging Donaldson, Jackson and Freddie Freeman, nestling on the grass behind the pitcher’s mound. The perfect lob wedge loaded the bases for the Marlins with no outs, and unbeknownst to us at the moment, set the stage for the latest chapter of Braves Magic, circa 2019.

    Ten-year veteran Neil Walker lofted a line drive to left field. Defensive replacement and team utility knife Charlie Culberson scooted to his left, caught the ball and unleashed his throw as he left his feet. The ball took one hop and settled in the glove of catcher Brian McCann just an eyelash before Alfaro slid for home, McCann making the tag for a 7-2 double play that sent the 30,514 inside SunTrust Park into sheer hysterics.

    (Well, make that 30,513. Check out this picture of McCann unleashing a primal scream after making the tag, and the young gal in a Braves bucket hat seated directly behind home plate. Her reaction is the direct opposite of McCann’s; maybe she was following the advice of Pugh’s soccer teammate, Alex Morgan, and merely sipping the tea.)

    The rest of us were losing our minds. When the ball left Walker’s bat, I immediately looked at Alfaro, glanced briefly at McCann, then turned my eyes toward Culberson. Alfaro tagged up with third base almost directly in front of my vantagepoint, and at that point I muttered aloud to nobody in particular: “well, that probably ties it.”

    Nope, not a chance. I should know better by now. I should know these Braves, as they’ve proven time after time after time through the first 90 games of this season, as they would prove Sunday in game No. 91, always seem to find a way. Sometimes, it’s by blunt-force trauma. Sometimes, it’s by a thousand cuts. Sometimes, it’s surgical.

    And sometimes, like Sunday, it’s magical.

    You know how this story ends. Jackson finishes off the Marlins, the Braves win another series and register their 54th victory of 2019, then scatter to various ports of call for four days of R&R with a six-game lead over Washington and a 6 ½ game advantage over Philadelphia in the East standings. They own the second-best record in the National League and the fifth-best mark in all the majors. Freeman and a pair of the superkids – Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mike Soroka – head to Cleveland for the All-Star hoopla. They’ll be joined there by their skipper, Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave a part of the NL coaching staff, a noble gesture by Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts.

    Roberts’ bunch bested Snitker’s squad in the NL Division Series last October. There’s a long way between now and the 10th month of this year, but you start to sense there is a collision course setting up here between those two teams. Especially after games like today, when you move physically for no rhyme or reason, and end up seeing a play unfold before your eyes that move you – and an entire fanbase – on a completely different level.

    —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.