• Hank Aaron

    It’s Tomahawk Town vs. Tinseltown: Of Course, Resilient Young Braves Face Dodgers in NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When you get right down to it, of course this was going to happen. It happened the last time the Atlanta Braves reached the playoffs in 2013, a last gasp at glory before a wretched four seasons in the wilderness. It happened in 1991 and 1983 and 1982 and heck, even back in 1959, when the Milwaukee Braves lost a postseason tiebreaker that ended their quest to reach a third-consecutive World Series.

    The histories of the Braves and Dodgers franchises are intertwined at multiple points, from Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer in 1974 to the last great pennant race in 1993 ending with the Dodgers boat-racing the Giants while the Braves won their 104th game to capture the division title by one scant game. And here we go again, starting Thursday night at Chavez Ravine as the Braves make their glorious and long-awaited return to the postseason stage against, of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

    You know it was going to happen, right?

    Perhaps the Colorado Rockies would have been a better matchup. Perhaps having home-field advantage would have proven advantageous. Those are bygones at this point, not worth the time to consider. Not with the first pitch of the postseason coming at some time Thursday (we’re waiting on you, MLB). Time to focus on the fact the Braves, losers of 90 games three seasons running, stunned the baseball world by winning the NL East and finishing with 90 victories. The have swash-buckled and grinded and rallied all season to slam shut the door on the rebuild far sooner than most of us dared to dream.

    Their reward: The six-time defending NL West champion, just 11 months removed from Game 7 of the World Series.

    Go get em, boys.

    Seriously, the task appears somewhat tall on first glance, and that’s understandable. The Dodgers have one goal and one goal only: to snap a 30-year world championship drought, which is massively mind-blowing when you consider the Braves, Reds, Angels, White Sox, Astros, Marlins (twice!) and Giants (three times!!) all have captured the brass ring since Kirk Gibson’s famous homer sparked L.A. to a stunning four-game sweep of Oakland.

    Clayton Kershaw, balky back and all, still anchors the rotation. Walker Buehler is one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Kenley Jansen, recovering from a heart scare two months ago, is one of the game’s top closers. The lineup is young, deep and powerful, with plenty of firepower from Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and the dude who came out of nowhere, Max Muncy. And did we mention Manny Machado, the July acquisition looking to show out under the national spotlight before embarking on free agency and a contract that will be worth more than some third-world nation’s GNP, roams shortstop and solidifies the batting order?

    This series will be fascinating to watch for a variety of reasons:

    Too Young To Know Better: Every time we felt these Braves might begin sliding as this special season unfolded, they kept the train on the tracks. Yes, the playoffs are different. No, I don’t think the Braves and their squadron of youngsters will be fazed by the bright lights and heightened stakes. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Foltynewicz and Johan Camargo have combined to play zero postseason games, but they and the rest of the young key components of this Braves New World have a tremendous chance far earlier than expected to gain some critical playoff experience. They haven’t blinked to this point. The feeling here is they won’t now.

    Give Dansby a Hand (No, Seriously, Somebody Give Him a Hand): One huge key for the Braves is their passionate hometown heart-and-soul shortstop, who provides outstanding defense at a critical position while proving to be one of the best clutch hitters in the NL. A partially torn ligament in his left hand ended his regular season five days early, and there is concern he won’t be available for the NLDS. If that’s the case, the former Dodger and current Braves Country cult hero Charlie Culberson will fill in admirably, but the Calhoun High graduate being in the starting eight significantly weakens the Atlanta bench.

    Buehler? Buehler?: Anybody who watched Monday’s tie-breaking win over Colorado saw what the fuss is all about with the Vanderbilt product. Buehler may be the best pitcher in the Dodgers’ rotation right now, but because L.A. had to deploy him in Game No. 163, he only can pitch once in this series. Kershaw has the ability to lock down any lineup on any given night, but we saw the Giants get to him Saturday (he owns an un-Kershaw like 3.89 ERA in his past six starts) and has far less tread on the tires than when he faced the Braves twice in the NLDS five years ago.

    Pressure! Under Pressure: Just as almost nobody expected Atlanta to be here, most everybody used indelible ink to put the Dodgers deep into October. The pressure of expectations sits heavy on L.A., which trailed the West by nine games on May 8, sat 10 games under .500 on May 16, and ended the season 9 ½ games in arrears of its Pythagorean win-loss record (92-71 vs. 101-61). Add in the sometimes-shaky manner in which the Dodgers bullpen has gotten the ball to Jansen, and the fact that manager Dave Roberts does not have a contract for next season, and we will see how the Dodgers handle the pressure-cooker of October.

    House Money: The Braves and their fans will hate seeing that phrase, but it’s true. This feels like an awakening of a franchise where everything was stripped down and built back up carefully, in pain-staking, patience-testing fashion. The view from 30,000 feet is the Braves already are winners, getting to the playoffs so soon, the breakout seasons of Acuna, Albies, Foltynewicz, et al, and accomplishing anything beyond this point is gravy. Yes, that’s true. But honestly, the Braves should play with absolutely no pressure. The vast majority is going to pick the Dodgers in this series, and that’s not surprising, given the Dodgers beat Atlanta five times in seven games during the regular season while outscoring the Braves 35-18.

    If they played the games on paper, then this would be irrelevant because not only would Atlanta not win this series, the Braves already would be on the golf course after a season many thought would finish with 75 wins and even the most optimistic prognosticators said .500 would be a fantastic next step. Instead, they leaped forward and never looked back.

    The Braves are in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. As they prepare for their first postseason content in 1,823 days on Thursday, it’s no surprise who stands in their way.

    —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.

    Freeman’s Patience Paying Off as October Nears

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Imagine for a moment the mindset of Frederick Charles Freeman on this Wednesday evening, hours after wrapping up Game No. 1,178 of his stellar major-league career. Consider what the Atlanta Braves first baseman, team captain and face of the franchise – one who has grown from baby-faced slugging rookie to becoming the latest Braves “first-namer,” joining the likes of Hank, Murph, Chipper – must feel on this third Wednesday in September.

    You can add another title to Freddie Freeman, one he shares with Julio Teheran: Rebuild Survivor.

    The Braves welcome the Philadelphia Phillies to town starting Thursday, a four-game series that has Braves Country dreaming of champagne wishes and championship dreams. Atlanta begins its final homestand of this spell-binding 2018 season needing three wins this weekend to clinch its first National League East title since 2013, a team that found Teheran in the rotation and Freeman manning first base.

    The two lone holders from the last Atlanta team to play October baseball, a 96-win squad that fell in four games to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. Teheran was bombed in a Game 3 start at Los Angeles while Freeman hit .313 in the series with four runs scored. My how long ago that seems, considering everything that has happened since.

    Through it all – a four-season stretch featuring 361 losses, a change in manager, a change in general manager, a change in home ballpark – Freeman hit .294 with a .911 OPS, 98 homers and 258 extra-base hits, despite having precious little protection around him in the lineup, two seasons short-circuited by injury, and the general pall of seeing almost every other teammate of value shipped elsewhere for kids barely old enough to shave … or drive.

    Think of how jarring that must have been for a player who grabbed 20 at-bats down the stretch in 2010, Bobby Cox’s final season as manager, one that found the Braves reaching the postseason. His 21 homers in 2011 dampened immeasurably by Atlanta’s September collapse, ending with Freeman grounding into a double play to end Game No. 162 – and the season.

    Sure, there was the 2012 wild-card berth clinched by a Freeman walk-off homer, Hall of Famer Chipper Jones standing at third base with one arm raised in an iconic image, only we all know how that playoff appearance ended. Then 2013, a first All-Star appearance in July followed by another visit to October. It was the end of an era, the dawn of what could be best described as a baseball nuclear winter.

    Now look at Freddie Freeman as 2018 began, a husband, a father, recovering from a wrist injury that cost him 45 games the season before, the veteran linchpin amid the emerging wave of young, yet unpredictable talent. He had hit above .300 each of the past two seasons, honing his craft as his prime years arrived amongst the darkness of a difficult rebuild that saw 2017 conclude with 90 losses, and an offseason that began with a front-office scandal.

    Just 5 ½ innings into the new season, the Braves trailed Philadelphia 5-0, the second season opening at new SunTrust Park looking so much like so many moments he endured through the past four years. But he slammed a 3-2 pitch into the right-field seats, a two-run shot accounting for the first two runs of the season and jump-starting an epic 8-5 come-from-behind victory. Philadelphia intentionally walked him in the ninth inning to get to Nick Markakis, who belted a three-run walkoff bomb just minutes before a thunderstorm unleashed a torrent of rain upon the delirious Braves fans leaving the ballpark.

    The Braves – and their captain – haven’t looked back.

    There is a myriad of reasons why a team reaches the playoffs, claims a division title, gives its fanbase the chance to dream of a pennant or a world title, a ticker-tape parade and memories to pass down for generations to come. These Braves have plenty of authors in this storybook surge to the brink of the postseason, all of whom we’ve waxed poetic about in the weeks and months leading up to this moment, all of whom we’ll tell our children and grandchildren about as we recall 2018 – perhaps in the way the previous generation revers 1991.

    But as it arrives, as Atlanta takes the field for its final 10 games of the regular season – a campaign that seems destined to continue behind Sept. 30 – take a minute to think about the first baseman who rode the descent, slogged through the valley, then helped his franchise rise anew with steady leadership on and off the field.

    For all who deserve credit for how the East will be won, when the moment comes, take a minute to think about Freddie Freeman. There he was Wednesday, with his team riding a four-game losing streak and a fanbase paralyzed by multiple faux pas in multiple sports in this city reaching for the panic button, preaching calm before delivering three hits and three RBIs in a much-needed victory over St. Louis that pushed the Braves ever closer to October.

    And when they get there, nobody will have earned the moment more than him.

    —30—

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

    With series win, Braves head home to honor Hank

    As Bobby Cox likes to say, it’s the series wins that matter. That was the case over the weekend in the nation’s capital when the Braves took 2 of 3 against the rival Nationals.

    Wood was dominant in his 2nd start, dropping the game despite 7 innings of 2-run ball.

    Wood was dominant in his 2nd start, dropping the game despite 7 innings of 2-run ball.

    Lead by dominant pitching, the Braves once again proved that injuries to Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and now Cory Gearrin will not be the end of their season. Despite the loss handed to Alex Wood in the series finale, a tough one given his strong 7 innings pitched with only 4 hits and 2 earned runs allowed, Wood, Teheran and Hale were on top of their game. They continued a trend of not allowing more than 2 runs–a trend that started for the Braves on Opening Day in Milwaukee.

    Braves’ pitching as an entire staff is 4-2 with a 1.56 ERA in 52 innings pitched. Atlanta’s starters are 1st in the National League with a 3-2 record and 1.63 ERA over 38 2/3 innings. The bullpen holds a 1.35 ERA with 19 strikeouts, 7 holds and 3 saves over 13 1/3 innings pitched. David Hale and Aaron Harang share the lead among the rotation both with a 0.00 ERA. Hale pitched 5 innings of 5-hit ball in the Nats’ home opener. Alex Wood leads the club in strikeouts (9), on his heels is Julio Teheran (8) and closer Craig Kimbrel has made the most of his 3 innings pitched catching up to Atlanta’s starters in strikeouts (6).

    Atlanta’s bullpen may have lost Eric O’Flaherty to free agency and Cory Gearrin to Tommy John surgery as well as continues to wait for Jonny Venters to return from last year’s Tommy John surgery, but that hasn’t stopped them from supporting the efforts of the rotation. Luis Avilan, Craig Kimbrel, Ian Thomas and Jordan Walden have yet to give up a run and have 12 strikeouts between them in 7 innings pitched. In the 1st game of the Washington series, David Carpenter put together one of the best innings of relief we’ve seen so far, striking out 3 after allowing a hit and walk in an inning of work. Carpenter is settling into his role in the ‘pen with the returning relief core (Avilan, Kimbrel and Walden) and the rookies (Schlosser and Thomas). In addition to whatever moves take place with Santana, Minor and Floyd joining the club soon, the Braves went out and snagged Pedro Beato off the waiver wire from the Cincinnati Reds. Beato has a career 4.26 ERA. The 2014 season is his 4th in the big leagues, spending a year with the Orioles, 2 years with the Mets and 1 with the Red Sox, though he has only 25 1/3 innings under his belt. What his role will be is still unclear.

    The biggest concern coming into the season may have been pitching, but that concern has mostly been answered. With strong outing from each of the 4-man rotation and with Santana and Minor joining the rotation soon, the only question is who will be dropped from the rotation or if the Braves will go with a 6-man rotation for any length of time. With pitching mostly settled, the focus turns to offense. With far too many low-scoring games to start the season for a team with the bats of Chris Johnson, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton, the Braves have to wonder when this team will click. In the 2nd game of the series in D.C., the Braves looked most like the team they are on paper. Freeman, both Uptons, Johnson and Teheran each put 2 hits on the board in that game with Doumit (1), Uggla (2), Simmons (1) and Teheran (1) contributing RBIs.

    Not surprisingly, Freddie Freeman leads Atlanta’s offense with a .400 batting average with 8 hits, 2 homers and 2 RBIs. Freeman also has walked 6 times, his on-base percentage now .560. Behind Freeman is Chris Johnson at .304 with 3 doubles. a homer and 2 RBIs. Andrelton Simmons is hitting .300 with 6 hits, 1 double and 2 RBIs.

    The parts of the offense that everyone seems to be watching closely are the very parts that failed last season. The Braves’ strikeout rate is already of concern. B.J. Upton has 11 strikeouts in 25 at-bats, Justin Upton has 10 in 22 at-bats and Jason Heyward has 8 in 23 at-bats. B.J. is 3-for-25 with 1 double and 1 stolen base, hitting .120. At this point of the season, we can hope that Upton is simply off to a slow start. Dan Uggla is 5-for-23  with a .217 average thus far with 2 doubles and 3 RBIs. Uggla has only 5 strikeouts, but has yet to have a walk. Of course after last season there will be extra scrutiny on B.J. and Uggla. However, the early take on the two hitters is that Uggla is hitting the ball hard, but suffering from bad luck with the placement of the fielders. B.J., on the other hand, seems lost at the plate. Evan Gattis also appears to be off to a slow start with a .167 average. Gattis is 2-for-12 with 1 homer, 1 RBI and 6 strikeouts.

    BRAVES RETURN FOR HOME OPENER & TRIBUTE TO HAMMERIN’ HANK…

    New acquisition Aaron Harang will make his home debut in the Braves’ home opener at Turner Field, but the man of the hour will not be any current Atlanta Brave. It will, of course, be Henry Louis Aaron, the Braves home run leader and the man for whom the Braves are wearing a 715 patch on their uniforms this season. Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th home run, surpassing then home run leader Babe Ruth. The Braves are pleased to put the spotlight on Aaron in their first game at home of the 2014 season.

    The Mets are off to a 2-4 start. Their pitching is 13th in the National League with a 4.75 ERA. The Mets’ bullpen is dead last in the league with a 6.75 ERA. New York’s offense is also dead last in the NL in batting average at .178. However, they have scored 6 runs more (21) than the Braves (15).

    Some offensive stats to keep in mind as the Braves host the Mets: Dan Uggla is 2-for-5 against Zack Wheeler with a .400 batting average, a double, a homer and 2 RBIs. Freddie Freeman is 4-for-6 with a .667 with a homer and RBI. B.J. Upton is 1-for-3 (.333) against Wheeler and is one of the few Braves with any experience with Bartolo Colon. Upton is 7-for-23 against Colon with a double, a triple, a homer and 5 RBIs.

    The Mets will send Bartolo Colon (0-1, 4.50) to the mound against Aaron Harang (1-0, 0.00) Tuesday. Zach Wheeler (0-1, 4.50) will toe the rubber against Ervin Santana (0-0, -.–) in his 2014 debut Wednesday. Jennry Mejia (1-0. 1.50) will face off against David Hale (0-0, 0.00) in the series finale Thursday.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.