• Gwinnett Braves

    Keuchel Debut Leaves Strong First Impression

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ROME, Ga. – About 25 minutes before 7 p.m. Monday, Logan Brown walked out of the Rome Braves clubhouse, took the field near the left-field corner at State Mutual Stadium, and spent a few moments crouched along the foul line some 30 feet shy of the warning track. The 22-year-old Single-A catcher certainly goes through this routine on a regular basis, wearing uniform No. 99, collecting his thoughts in the moments before that night’s starting pitcher emerges from the locker room.

    But this was no ordinary night for the 35th-round pick in the 2018 draft. He would be on the receiving end of a former Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion, upon whom the eyes of a championship-starved fanbase would hang upon every pitch, every moment. This was not your typical Monday night in the South Atlantic League.

    Then again, it’s not every day somebody like Dallas Keuchel rolls through this Northwest Georgia town.

    Keuchel, four days removed from inking a one-year, $13-million deal with the Atlanta Braves, emerged a few minutes later, wearing his customary No. 60. As a near-capacity crowd filed in for the series opener against the Charleston River Dogs, one of the free-agent market’s biggest fish made his Braves organization debut on a humid, yet pleasant night. The rains that washed away Keuchel’s scheduled debut Saturday at Triple-A Gwinnett had disappeared, and for the first time since last season’s American League championship series with Houston, the 31-year-old pitched in a competitive contest.

    The results: Predictable, yet impressive.

    Keuchel allowed just one hit across seven strong innings, walking one hitter, striking out nine, and leaving a 0-0 game after throwing 55 of his 77 pitches for strikes. Yes, a veteran of 183 major-league starts with 51 2/3 innings pitched in the postseason figures to fare well against a lineup comprised mostly of players drafted in 2017 and 2018. And the stuff did overwhelm at times.

    But what really stood out to me was just how crisp Keuchel was in his first game action in 237 days.

    Keuchel was efficient. He got 10 ground-ball outs. He went to a three-ball count on one hitter – a seven-pitch walk to Canaan Smith with one out in the seventh. He induced plenty of weak contact. He threw 10 pitches or fewer in each of the first six innings. His rhythm on this night was akin to sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, waving at folks creeping by on the dirt road out front. Nice and relaxed and smooth. Easy, breezy.

    There were plenty of swings and misses, sure. And that was to be expected. But Keuchel dotted both sides of the plate with an impressive frequency given the layoff. The breaking stuff was heavy, low in the zone, hard to square up. He spent plenty of time the past two months throwing simulated games, but nothing simulates taking the field for an actual contest. Would he struggle with command? How would he handle working in and out of situations?

    Keuchel showed it from the onset, getting Brandon Lockridge to roll over a breaking ball and hit a harmless three-hopper in front of the pitcher’s mound on the game’s third pitch. Lockridge stumbled coming out of the batter’s box. It would be clear on this night, there would be no stumbles from Atlanta’s newly minted rotation linchpin.

    In the second, Keuchel gave up a one-out single to Max Burt, which was a good thing in that it gave him a chance to work out of the stretch. He induced a force out on a grounder to second and a three-pitch strikeout. He struck out six over the next four innings, the only ball hit in the air in that span a deep flyout from Anthony Seigler, the Yankees’ top pick in last year’s draft who hails from Cartersville, Ga. – which I drove through en route to Rome.

    Keuchel needed 17 pitches to get through the seventh, rallying from a 2-0 count to strike out Seigler leading off the frame, and after walking Smith, getting a deep fly ball for the second out and a rolled-over grounder to short to end the inning and his night.

    The question now is what’s next? Keuchel’s next turn would come Saturday. There is no need for him to pitch again for Rome. Gwinnett is on the road at Syracuse this weekend; big-league teams want their big-league talent pitching at home when getting tuned up in the minors. Double-A Mississippi is home with Mobile, however. Certainly, a big part of determining the next step is how does Keuchel feel when he wakes up Tuesday, when he wakes up Wednesday.

    Throwing to hitters in a simulated game is one thing. Pitching against an opposing lineup – even in Northwest Georgia on a Monday night in June – is something different. Conventional wisdom dictates Keuchel will get one more start in the minors before making his Atlanta debut. Braves manager Brian Snitker said as much before Monday’s 13-7 victory over Pittsburgh at SunTrust Park.

    But allow me to close with this thought, one that certainly is being mulled over by Braves fans near and far as Monday night approaches Tuesday morning. Kevin Gausman could not escape the third inning in Atlanta’s series opener against the Pirates, making it three awful outings in a row for the right-hander. The Braves will awaken Tuesday morning tied for first place in the NL East, having pulled even with Philadelphia following their 19th victory in the past 28 games and the Phillies’ 13-8 home loss Monday to Arizona.

    Guess who visits the capital city of the Peach State this weekend? The aforementioned Phillies, who dismantled the Braves in the first three games of the season in Eastern Pennsylvania the final weekend of March. Gausman’s next turn in the rotation? Saturday, a 7:20 p.m. first pitch against those Phillies at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75.

    Facing Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins is far different from facing a Sally-League lineup, yes. But you can’t help but think that Braves fans aren’t the only ones at least wondering about a Keuchel debut start for the Braves coming under the Saturday night lights with the NL East race squarely in focus.

    Whether it happens or not, Keuchel will be here soon.

    And after his performance Monday, we can’t wait.

    —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 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.

    The 2018 Run is Done, but for Inspiring Braves It’s Only the Beginning

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The cadence of a baseball season is unique in that it starts with the sleepy slumber of late winter, the nearly seven-month marathon that builds to a crescendo, then concludes with a frantic sprint to a championship by 10 teams. One squad lifts the big trophy, and the other nine see their dreams end with the subtleness of running head-first into a concrete wall.

    Regardless of final result, for all teams the season’s conclusion does signify an end. But there are teams that the end only hints of a grander beginning, an earmark of better things to come. The 2018 Atlanta Braves embarked on their season March 29 at SunTrust Park against the Philadelphia Phillies, looking to avoid a fifth consecutive losing season. Some 193 days later, their season closed with a 6-2 defeat Monday to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

    There will be plenty of time in the weeks to come to discuss what this franchise’s accelerated progression from rebuilding squad to NL East champion means in the grand scheme of building a World Series champion, what moves will be made, what vulnerabilities were exposed. Now is not that time, not when the bandage has been ripped from the wound, when the standing ovation the home crowd gave the Braves as they walked off the field one last time still echoes in our ears, while many of us still are smiling with pride while tears trickled down our cheeks.

    No, this is a time to sit back, to breathe, to go ahead and laugh about how far the Braves have come in just six months and nine days, and yes, to cry a little bit. Because whoever said there is no crying in baseball never has lived and died with a baseball team for years, then to experience a season sprinkled with so much pixie dust, you find yourself looking at your friends or spouse or children or parents and repeatedly asking, “how is this happening?”

    Like many of the great pure joys of life, you just let it ride. And boy, what a ride these Braves took their beleaguered fanbase on in 2018. A .500 record? Yeah, right. How about 90 victories, a division championship, and a respectable battle put up against a team that played for the World Series title last fall? All the walk-off victories. The emergence of so much young talent, names we heard mentioned during the dark days of the rebuild, names typed on prospect lists, names we saw at Rome or Mississippi or Gwinnett, and wondered how they might fare amid the grind of a big-league schedule.

    You know the names by now, from the generational star-in-the-making Ronald Acuna to the All-Star Ozzie Albies, from the emerging Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb to the next wave of great arms fronted by Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Kolby Allard. Guys like Johan Camargo, who finally did enough to get the third-base job for keeps and never looked back. Guys like Chad Sobotka, who started the season at High-A Florida and ended it pitching in the NLDS. Don’t forget Dansby Swanson, lost for the playoffs with a hand injury but one of the NL’s best clutch hitters and defensive shortstops in just his second full major-league campaign. Or Ender Inciarte, acquired with Swanson in the now-famous heist of a trade with Arizona, anchoring Atlanta’s defense in center field while delivering his typical strong offensive second half. Or Charlie Culberson, who authored several of the season’s most signature moments.

    These Braves took all that youth and blended it with the veteran leadership provided by Nick Markakis, who made the All-Star team for the first time at age 34, the tandem of Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers behind the plate, the resurgent Anibal Sanchez – plucked from the free-agent scrap heap in March, but who pitched so effectively he earned a NLDS start while mentoring the young arms along the way – and a nod to one of this team’s lightning rods of criticism in recent years, the veteran Julio Teheran, who didn’t get a start in the NLDS but proudly came out of the bullpen in Game 4 and held the Dodgers at bay.

    And then, there is the constant.

    In Sunday’s Game 3, the first postseason game in the two-season existence of SunTrust Park, Acuna nearly brought down the house with a grand slam that staked the Braves to a 5-0 lead. The Kid gave Atlanta a cushion that the dogged Dodgers chipped away at until drawing even, and that fear of the run ending with a postseason sweep certainly creeped into the minds of even the most optimistic Braves fan.

    But that’s where The Captain came in. Freddie Freeman watched the Braves tear down the organization to the nubs in the years following Atlanta’s last postseason appearance in 2013. He never wavered, never complained, set the tone, led by example, excelled even as his prime years began with the Braves seemingly no closer to contending. All he did this season was lead the NL in hits and played Gold Glove-level defense while serving as the steady face of a team on the rise.

    Freeman slammed a long leadoff homer into The Chop House leading off the sixth inning of Game 3, turning SunTrust Park upside down in a moment that had you closed your eyes, you would swear you were standing inside long-gone Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the early 1990s. That homer proved to be the difference in the Braves lone victory in this series, but served symbolic in that the franchise foundational cornerstone had delivered the knockout blow on the national stage.

    So, of course it was Freeman striding to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4, Atlanta’s remarkable season hanging by the slimmest of threads. Freeman struck out to end the game, the series and the season, but not before the packed house serenaded him with chants of “Fred-die! Fred-die! Fred-die!”

    When the season ended – when the journey collided with that concrete wall of finality – at 8:16 p.m., the disappointment quickly faded into the aforementioned ovation. A few minutes later, Freeman told the media that for how proud he is of how far the Braves have come, the ultimate goal is to win the World Series. He emphasized and repeated the point.

    At the end of previous seasons, that type of comment would’ve be met with laughter. Nobody’s laughing now. Yes, the hearts ache and the tears fall, if for nothing else this team and its players have left an indelible impression on us all. The hashtag #ForEachOther rang true all season long, as players and fans truly felt they were in this together.

    Yes, 2018 has reached its end. But in every way imaginable, this also feels like only the beginning.

    —30—

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

    Braves at the Trade Deadline … Do They Have a Dance Partner?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — In the spring of 1986, the Atlanta Hawks were on their way to another playoff exit, the Atlanta Braves were on their way to another losing season, and I was on my way to the bustling metropolis of Macon, Ga., for the state junior beta convention.

    The final night of the convention ended with a dance. I spent the majority of the evening tugging uncomfortably at my tie, filling up on snack food and talking sports with a group of fellow awkward teenagers, including a girl from my school with whom I was friends.

    When the night’s final song cued up, she grabbed my hand, led me on the dance floor and we slow danced. I never asked her why, I don’t remember the song, I certainly didn’t kiss her (I think I was paralyzed with shock) and I don’t think either one of us spoke of the incident again. The only thing I could figure in the days and weeks that followed is she really wanted to dance with somebody, she seized the moment, and I was present at the right place at the right time.

    Welcome to baseball’s Trade Deadline, the time of year where the pressure of finding that right piece of a pennant-winning puzzle – or the opportunity to shed veteran payroll and snag future talent to accelerate a rebuild – brings together general managers and scouting directors, while 30 fanbases simultaneously salivate and shiver.

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    Braves General Manager John Coppolella

    And tweet. Lord have mercy, do they ever.

    The deadline arrives at 4 p.m. Monday and, with all apologizes to science fans anxiously counting down to the solar eclipse three weeks from now, this is the world-altering, awe-inspiring Monday on the calendar. It is circled on the calendar of every GM – real, wannabe or armchair – from coast to coast.

    My Twitter feed in recent days has been fueled by almost every form of speculation possible, from the Braves acquiring a controllable ace that would vault Atlanta from the outside of the wild-card race squarely into the hunt for the World Series (or at least that’s the logic applied) to the queries of whether Player X could be dealt, even though Player X probably wouldn’t net more than a six-pack of Natty Light, a stale pretzel and a leftover ham sandwich.

    (My apologizes to ham sandwich lovers everywhere. Cheese and mayo on toasted bread, please).

    Look, here’s the truth of the matter: The Braves have lost seven of their past eight games. The latest in a series of hellish road trips that has dotted the schedule finally appears to have torpedoed any fleeting glimpse of contending in the season’s final two months. Even a .500 finish seems tentative at this point, but remember January and February and ask yourself if you’d be happy sitting at break-even on the evening of Oct. 1 (don’t lie; you’d be thrilled).

    It is a time of contrasting emotions. I get it. You love Brandon Phillips, the ATLien whose infectious smile and resurgent season has caused many of us to fall in love with the pride of Redan High. You are thrilled the Braves rescued Matt Adams from the end of the Cardinals’ bench when Freddie Freeman got hurt, and Adams responded by turning the right-field seats at SunTrust Park into his own driving range.

    But now that Freeman’s back and Johan Camargo has emerged with a breakout season – so much so, Dansby Swanson is clean shaven and manning shortstop for Gwinnett – you want to see Phillips and Adams moved. You want Freeman, who honesty compels me to say has looked better than expected at third base, back at his natural position. You want Swanson promoted and back at shortstop as soon as he can string a couple of hits together for the G-Braves (who will be the Buttons or Sweet Teas or heaven knows what next season).

    You want Ozzie Albies, who cannot legally buy alcohol but has raked Triple-A pitching, manning second base in the Northwest Atlanta suburbs and not the Northeast burbs. And with every at-bat he gets at Triple-A, 19-year-old phenom Ronald Acuna draws louder comparisons to Andruw Jones, whose 1996 season started in the low minors and ended with a World Series debut for the ages.

    Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the deadline

    Knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey appears to be staying put at the non-waiver trade deadline

    I get it. I feel ya. There’s just one problem.

    There is precious little demand for Adams, who only can play first base and who has cooled off somewhat since his white-hot start. There is not a market for Phillips, a veteran who has played only nine postseason games in his 16-year career and is a free agent come October. Whatever market for closer Jim Johnson, he of the back-to-back 50-save seasons in 2012-13 but he with the eight blown saves in 2017 and the $5 million price tag for 2018, has evaporated quicker than the hottest of hot takes burning up social media.

    R.A. Dickey? He’s a 42-year-old knuckleballer with an $8 million team option for next season and, to be frank, likely should be given a chance to make the Braves’ roster in 2018 given the way he’s pitched the past two months. Nick Markakis, who mans the position we all expect Acuna to take come April (or September, or yesterday)? That’s $11 million for next season for a singles/doubles hitter with limited power.

    Much like that cute gal who led me onto the dance floor so many years ago, you need a partner who wants to dance. You can offer the grandest of all packages, but if the other side says no, there is no deal.

    So for all the folks with the patience of a gnat and the buildup of angst from a bad week of baseball, I say this: relax.

    Yes, 4 p.m. Monday will come and go, and the world will keep spinning. The Braves will be wrapping up their road trip when the deadline passes. No matter what does or does not happen, they will fly back to Atlanta Monday evening and hit the field for Tuesday’s game with the Dodgers.

    Maybe John Coppolella walks across the floor and takes somebody’s unsuspecting hand in the hours leading up to the deadline. You know, I know, we all know he’s trying, looking to uncover every possibility and explore every scenario. The feeling here says nothing major happens, that for Braves County the deadline will pass uneventfully.

    But at the same time, I had no idea I’d be on that dance floor so many years ago.

    —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.

    In Triple-A debut, Delgado shows hype is justified

    Gwinnett Braves starter, Randall Delgado

    By Bud L. Ellis

    LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday, Randall Delgado climbed onto the pitcher’s mound at Coolray Field.

    Awaiting him were two Little League baseball players from nearby Forsyth County. Delgado chatted briefly with the youngsters, and then set about the business of showing why the Atlanta Braves feature the most talented pitching in all of baseball.

    Making his Triple-A debut, Delgado dazzled through six sparkling shutout innings, striking out nine to pace the Gwinnett Braves past Charlotte, 4-0. On a night where shortstop Tyler Pastornicky extended his hitting streak to 11 games and Matt Young wowed the crowd with a steal of home, Delgado’s performance emerged as the story of the evening.

    A crowd of 6,603 gathered amid the humidity and the threatening clouds to see the latest top Braves’ pitching prospect toe the slab for the G-Braves, who began the day 1½ games behind first-place Durham in the International League South Division. The organization’s top prospect, Julio Teheran, has frustrated IL batters; more recently, Arodys Vizcaino has brought his 100-mph fastball out of the G-Braves’ bullpen.

    Delgado skipped past Gwinnett for a spot start with the major-league Braves in June, a loss to Texas in which the 21-year-old allowed seven hits and four runs (three earned) in four-plus innings. Sent back to Double-A Mississippi, Delgado earned the promotion to Triple-A on Tuesday after going 5-5 with a 3.84 ERA in 21 starts for Mississippi, fanning 110 hitters in 117 1/3 innings.

    If nerves played a role in his first Gwinnett start, Delgado didn’t tip his hand. He froze Dayan Viciedo on a called third strike to end a perfect first inning, and then whiffed four of the next six hitters. A somewhat-shaky fourth inning – featuring two walks, a balk and several borderline calls that didn’t go Delgado’s way – resulted in Charlotte loading the bases with two outs.

    But Delgado induced a flyout to center by Josh Phegley to end the threat. He struck out the first two hitters in a perfect fifth, and after allowing a single and a walk in the sixth, Delgado got former Mets and Nationals outfielder Lastings Milledge to strike out to end the inning.

    Delgado’s fastball touched 97 and 95 mph in the second inning, and consistently landed in the 92-94 mph range. His curveball and change-up were pretty solid. Were it not for a few close calls in the fourth inning, Delgado likely would have finished with just one walk. But even when things briefly got rocky in that inning, Delgado looked calm and composed on the mound.

    While Teheran and Vizcaino look poised to join the Braves at some point in the next few weeks – Vizcaino is likely to be on the 25-man major-league roster before Aug. 31, so he and his fireballing right arm will be eligible for postseason play – Delgado may need just a bit more seasoning before ascending into the majors for good.

    But make no mistake: the kid is a keeper, and on a muggy Saturday night just up Interstate 85 from Turner Field, Delgado showed the buzz indeed is justified. The Braves have unbelievable depth in pitching, including a slender right-hander who on Saturday took the next step toward a permanent spot in Atlanta’s rotation.

    —30—

    Follow Bud L. Ellis on Twitter: @bud006

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